Focusing on Local: Librarianship and Public History

Part of what initially attracted me to pursuing a Masters in Library & Information Science was the public, or community focused, aspect of the work. As an undergraduate student in History, much of my time was spent working on what would be considered “Public History” projects, or projects that “put history to work in the world” (for more on public history, see the National Council on Public History). Librarians can, and often do, the work of public history in archives based positions. But does public history have a place in public libraries? My answer is a resounding: YES.

Most public libraries actually have great resources at hand for creating public history projects for their own communities. As a place for information and a space for community gathering, they are uniquely positioned to be both the site for research and venue for these projects. These projects can range in scale and resources required, but can be important contributions to the libraries we work at and the communities we serve.

I was reminded of this recently as I got to be a part of a “public history” project at the library where I work, as a part of our upcoming centennial celebration. Working with another librarian, we found pictures to add to displays on the library “through the ages” to show the community and library from different points in history. Although not cataloged or organized in a particular way, we were able to find hundreds of images in various folders and files that had been passed along throughout the library’s history, and were able to put those on display to share with the community. Many of our patrons have grown up in this community, and the displays have served as great reflections for them on not only the library’s history, but the history of the community. It has been exciting to see people engage with the photos and learn about the history of the library (which has taken many forms throughout the community’s history) and point out people they knew and remembered.

So while it may seem small, these types of project do have a great place within libraries, and can be important contributions to our broader communities. I think our project also shows that just because a library might lacks a more formal archive, does not mean that it does not have materials of historical significance or of value to the community’s history. A project as small as ours requires very minimal resources, where some others would create much more time and investment from the library, but all can still have a large impact on our local communities.

Some other types of public history projects public libraries can pursue would be to create a local history archive in your library collections, to create oral histories from within the local community to highlight different community voices, or to digitize existing local history collections for patrons to access outside of the library. Often I think we leave history to the archivists among us, but I think it’s important to remember the great value of local history, and that those projects and stories can have a lot of significance to our public libraries and communities.

Have you ever thought about using public history projects in your own role as a librarian?

For resources on public history and public libraries:

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