February 17, 2018

The Hippest History

The detritus of your library’s past can help with your present-day marketing, fundraising, and professional pride

It might sound odd, but I study the history of libraries. I got involved because of a bumpy career path and a passing interest in forensics. Over the past ten years, I’ve volunteered, moonlighted, and worked at 20 different libraries up and down the East Coast. Early on, I worked in a 1903 Carnegie building where most of the adult circulating books were shelved in a semicircular, two-tiered stack. To reach books on the top tier, you would climb up a narrow, winding staircase, and tiptoe (very gently!) across a glass floor.

Since then, I’ve been fascinated with tarnished wall plaques, obsolete organizational charts, and other microevidence of changing community interests and evolving library practices. I often feel like a cast member of Cold Case, because when I ask “why,” I contend with fuzzy memories, emotional baggage, and intricate politics.

Few libraries capitalize on their own organizational history, however, even though it can be, at minimum, a resource of images and factoids for everything from answering administrative questions to crafting fundraising and marketing pieces. It can also be a reservoir of professional pride and values, infusing current efforts and direction. Large corporations frequently use their “story” to build and reinforce loyalty to products (for instance, see Coca-Cola’s “World of Coca-Cola” museum at www2.coca-cola.com/heritage/worldcocacola.html).

What’s your history worth

We often think about our libraries’ history when an anniversary is approaching. I bet a number of you are racing around, just a few months before your library’s “Xth,” poring over dusty annual reports and taking home old issues of the staff newsletter for bedtime reading.

If not, you will be soon! Over the next 15 years, hundreds of American libraries will celebrate centennials. Similarly, many initiatives that were originally funded through the federal Library Services Act of 1956, or the Library Services and Construction Act of 1964, are marking anniversaries in upcoming months.

Beyond helping you to prepare for that once-per-decade celebration, your library’s history is an asset that should be continually managed, maintained, invested in, and promoted – just like your physical plant, employees, book collections, and other resources. In many communities, libraries have outlasted almost every business, social service organization, and entertainment hotspot that existed when the library was built. This longstanding record of community service is a substantial part of making your case.

Historic facts and images can feed press releases and fact sheets; logos, brands, style sheets, and marketing pieces; new employee orientation materials; building décor; local history reference collections; and web sites. Further, publicizing or celebrating your library’s history is an excellent way to reinform the public about your resources, bring the community into the building for a special event, focus development efforts on a capital or endowment campaign, remind local government of the service your organization provides, and much more.

In addition, scholars in other disciplines are showing increasing interest in a library’s past. It provides evidence of the history of the book and of reading, the growth of professionalism in the workplace, and women’s history. It also illustrates developments in public architecture, political/social values, grass-roots activism, technological innovation, and other subjects. We have a responsibility to organize and keep this information for the research community, as well as ourselves.


Regardless of whether your library is facing an imminent anniversary, or whether you want to draw on your historical “capital” in other ways, you can make an important contribution to future efforts by collecting, organizing, and preserving your library’s records. In large libraries, it’s not uncommon to find important documents in the executive director’s office, the printing and publications department, the local history collection, the offices of longtime employees, and other assorted places. In one extreme case, precious documents were kept in plastic tubs in the library’s basement, in cardboard boxes in the attic of a nearby historic home, and among puppets and construction paper in the children’s room supply closet. Even if you are unable to gather your library’s records into one physical space, you can gain intellectual control over them by keeping a finding aid that lists the broad content, date, and location of the files. It is virtually impossible to use your history unless you know its full extent.

It’s also important to collect current documentation in a systematic manner. Although we create and use records within the context of everyday business, we need to look beyond the typical administrative reasons for keeping evidence of the past. Library reports, calendars of events, brochures, and press releases are some of the many types of documents that shed light on our community’s reading and cultural tastes, the use of information in our society, and other questions. Whenever your library generates such records, put copies in your organizational archive. You may also want to capture important events in photographs, preserve copies of staff meeting minutes, conduct interviews with retired employees, and find other creative ways to document your library’s story.

Widening the net

If you’ve read up to this point, you may have already done a quickie search in your library catalog, vertical files, or library literature (to see if anyone’s written an article about your library). But did you try America: History and Life (a database that indexes the publications of historical societies)? Or the index of your local newspaper? If not, try harder to think outside the library box!

The obvious place to start your research is by reading in-house, publications, such as annual reports and staff newsletters. They can help establish a time line of key events that will be a helpful resource for any future publications. Depending on the scope of the project, you may want to expand your research by consulting Board of Trustees’ meeting minutes, professional writings of directors and key staff, pertinent city ordinances and state legislation for libraries, and more.

In some cases, though, you may not find the “answer” in your own organization’s records, or in the traditional professional media. For example, the location chosen for a central library building did not make sense to me until I consulted old Sanborn fire insurance maps and read an architectural history of the city. I learned that the site had been within a once choice residential area, near several churches and the donor’s home (the neighborhood had been changed considerably by urban renewal). It was also very important to learn when nearby villages were annexed to the city and when streetcars reached various neighborhoods, in order to understand why municipal library branches appeared in those areas at certain times.

If you are trying to find biographical facts about a particular library director, trustee, or staff member, you may strike gold by contacting the archives of his/her alma mater. Before the GI Bill, some college alumni offices kept information files (including news clippings, obituaries, and photographs) on individual students. When researching the history of one library, I often wondered why a particular man had volunteered to become its first director. He was a physician, a state senator, and a pillar of the local German American community, but he did not have any professional training in librarianship. Only by contacting his college’s archives, did I learn that, as a young man, he had been the “librarian” for his campus literary society and had a lifelong love of reading.

Keep it going

Regardless of whether your library identity is grounded in terms of the past, the present, or the future, it will look just plain foolish if you have a highly visible web page that isn’t updated. The person at the keyboard updating your history is far more important than the specific publishing mechanism you use. Consider designating someone to collect important documentation and to be history’s voice in your publications and decision-making. Tying history to someone’s position can help ensure that the work continues, regardless of who comes and goes. Formalizing the library’s commitment can also help create an organizational culture that values its story.

Your organization’s history shouldn’t be a “project” that you work on once per decade. Whether your library is old or new, you can draw a great deal of insight by looking at your organization’s past. As Michael Crichton is supposed to have said, “If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You’re a leaf that doesn’t know it’s a part of a tree.”

Bernadette A. Lear is Behavioral Sciences and Education Librarian, Penn State Harrisburg, Middletown, PA

The publishing game

A number of colleagues have asked me whether it’s worthwhile to publish a book or journal article. The (substantial) benefits of formal publishing include broader dissemination of your story and the prestige of publishing in an established venue. However, Microsoft Word and Publisher files, web pages, and other electronic documents can be much easier to update and distribute. Furthermore, digitization enables the library’s history to come alive – simply by cutting and pasting, you can incorporate historical images and facts into your website and into every new promotional piece your organization produces.

Fellow staff members, students and teachers, the press, donors, local residents, and government officials are some of many potential audiences for your work. For example, if public services staff frequently field questions about the library, they will appreciate a web-based, fact-filled, printable chronology with bullet points (and minimal narrative) to help find answers quickly. In a similar way, a chronology may be helpful for students with an assignment to find particular information about a local building or organization. On the other hand, development brochures are meant to emphasize (positive) themes. Your objective there would be to convince donors that your library enjoys broad support, is vital to the well being of your community, and is worthy of a substantial gift. In this case, the “who” and “when” of individual events takes a backseat to the meaning you are trying to convey. For instance, a historical piece that is meant to complement a fundraising brochure might give the names of founders and current board members, and include more information on recent awards and achievements, major gifts to the library, and other contemporary high notes.

Another serious question is how “honest” the final publication should be. As much as libraries embrace the freedom to read (or, in university library circles, “academic freedom”), make no mistake that researching and publicizing an organizational history can be a profoundly political act. In writing its history, you are defining your library’s corporate identity. By extension, you are saying something about everyone who works for, has worked for, or is affiliated with, the institution. Surprisingly, administrators and colleagues may yank support for the project if you uncover dirty laundry (or, they might ask you to break out the detergent). In some cases, media-sensitive board members and administrators have decided to delete all information about branch closings and other “negatives” from online chronologies and other publications. Writing usable history can feel like censorship, especially for those of us who regard research as a quest for truth. It’s important that you, your supervisors, and the project’s sponsors agree on what you’ll do with unflattering facts.

Who should research and write “our” history?

Give careful thought to who will be doing the research and writing. In many cases, library history has been written from the “inside” – by practicing or retired library staff, or local LIS students and faculty. However, the works of social and architectural historians such as Dee Garrison, William Gilmore, and Abigail Van Slyck show that non-MLS scholars provide fresh and interesting perspectives on libraries, librarianship, and the culture of reading.

I’ve found that either library staff or lay volunteers can conduct sound research. However, avoid assigning the project to someone simply because he or she “loves history.” Particularly if the project is tied to an anniversary celebration or some other kind of deadline, you need a person who:

  • Can come up with a research plan. This includes a bibliography of sources he/she will use, a list of “deliverable” results or products of the research, and a timetable for completing key steps;
  • Understands the strengths and limitations endemic to various types of records, and does not make unsupported assumptions;
  • Is knowledgeable about other information resources in the community;
  • Understands the importance of correct citation, copyright, and other intellectual property concerns;
  • Uses technology appropriately to enhance and speed up the process;
  • Expects to reside in or near your community for the duration of the project and has a record of “getting the job done” – on time.

Sometimes, this person may not be your local history librarian or an enthusiastic genealogist. One of the best researchers I’ve ever worked with was a retired police chief. Although he did not have a formal degree in American history, he had a wealth of knowledge about the city’s neighborhoods and how they have changed over time. As a police officer, he also had a highly developed sense of the difference between theory and evidence!

If you are undertaking your first history project, it might be helpful to network with scholars who focus on the history of libraries, and to learn about the art and science of historiography in general. One place to start is the “Guidelines for Writing Local Library Histories“, developed by the American Library Association’s Library History Roundtable. Regional archivists’ associations such as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) and the Midwest Archives Conference (MAC) provide semiannual, relatively low-cost workshops on archival recordkeeping, photograph identification, and similar topics. In addition, the American Association for State and Local History has published more than 200 “Technical Leaflets” on caring for historical records and artifacts, digitization, conducting oral history interviews, and other related topics. If your state has a humanities council or historical commission (such as the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission), you might find grant opportunities, publishing venues, and other resources on its web site.

Foundation and corporate funders, government agencies with oversight over library activities, and anyone else with a vested interest in your organization may have kept documentation about the library. Your state library commission, state library association, and state legislature are some of many agencies that may have generated statistical data, reports, hearings, and more. If your library received a Carnegie grant, you might find copies of correspondence relating to the donation in the archives of the Carnegie Corporation of New York (now housed at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University).

Showcasing your history

Before you decide to produce a brochure, web page, exhibit, or some other piece that showcases your history, there are more questions to ask. How should the new publication fit in with, or add to, other items you give to the public? What is the overall goal of this project? Is there a particular population that you would like to reach? Is there a certain message you would like them to hear? What information needs should it address? How are you planning to distribute it? Your answers will guide the format, style, and perhaps even the content your work.

The researcher(s)/author(s) and the project’s sponsors (executive director, key administrative staff, and perhaps the library board) must be on the same page about the scope and purpose of the project. Research and writing are labor-intensive, and a firm commitment (backed by appropriate technology, time allowances, and supplies) is essential for a complete and successful effort. Without consensus, diligent, time-consuming work might can end up getting “scrapped.”

If you anticipate printing and/or mailing a large number of publications, be sure you understand and consider a variety of design and packaging options, since the type of printing process, quality of printing, color process, paper stock, number of pages, weight, and dimensions can greatly impact the cost. If you want to be fluent in graphic-designese, a standard source is International Paper’s Pocket-Pal: The Handy Little Book of Graphic Arts Production, 19th edition. International Paper also provides some free, introductory information about publication design on its “Learn about Printing” web site. Regarding mailing, if you are sending more than 200 pieces, design your package so that it is compatible with the United States Postal Service’s automation systems (see the USPS’ web site, “Mailing for Nonprofit Organizations“).

When I helped design an exhibit catalog several years ago, I was amazed to learn that seemingly small choices (such using a two-color process instead of full-color, choosing a different gloss sizing, and cutting my publication from 46 to 44 pages) trimmed hundreds of dollars from my budget.

Copyright and ownership issues

Any publication project faces at least two copyright issues that should be resolved before writing begins. For one, the library must be sure it has clearance to quote text, reproduce photographs and illustrations, and otherwise use the intellectual work of others – do not assume, for instance, that because the library possesses a copy of a photograph that it also owns the right to reprint it. Libraries’ archival collections often include donations from local newspapers, photographers, and authors, and the creators of these manuscripts and photographs may not have transferred copyright to the library.

Library staff overseeing a historical project should also take steps to protect the organization’s intellectual assets in the event that the researcher tries to profit personally from the project at the expense of the library. This is often a problem when the researcher severs ties with the library, takes his/her research with him, and publishes elsewhere. Libraries that use volunteers for writing projects are particularly vulnerable to losing control of the results of the project. The staff at one library I worked with remain bitter over a former colleague who worked on an index of local newspapers while he was “on the clock” at the reference desk. After he left his position, he published “his” index with a vanity press, and sold copies for a substantial profit. The director of the library didn’t pursue the issue, which may have saved him a legal headache but resulted in frustration for other staff. Because historical studies are such a labor of love, researchers can lose a proper sense of ownership for the work.

The Library of Congress provides some useful guidance on these and other intellectual property issues. Its Copyright Office has published Circular 9, “Works Made for Hire Under the 1976 Copyright Act“, which is particularly applicable for the case above. In a nutshell, a publication is considered a work for hire if it is done “by an employee within the scope of his or her employment.” When research and writing is done as “work for hire,” copyright belongs to the employer, not the employee. However, if the researcher or writer is not an employee, and the library wishes to retain copyright, the law requires a written contract signed by both the creator and the library.

If you need to brush up your knowledge of copyright, there are other sources to consult. Although written for the college environment, Marc Lindsey’s 56-page Copyright on Campus (2003, available through Washington State University Pr.) is the most readable and straightforward resource I have yet encountered.

A note about the care of documents

Each record format requires special care, and our colleagues in university and corporate archives, historical societies, and museums can provide helpful advice. Whenever possible, store documents, photographs, and other artifacts in an environment with consistent (preferably low) temperature and humidity. Most paper items should be stored in acid-free folders and containers, in order to mitigate the damage that acidity does to paper over time. In addition to traditional library suppliers with archival or “keepsake” lines of merchandise (such as Brodart or Gaylord), you can purchase supplies from specialty companies such as Light Impressions or University Products. If you’d like to learn more about caring for your organizational records, take a look at the Society of American Archivists’ Archival Fundamentals series, especially F. Gerald Ham’s Selecting and Appraising Archives and Manuscripts and Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler’s Preserving Archives and Manuscripts.

The Latest Trends in Library Design
Hosted in partnership with Salt Lake County Library and The City Library—at SLCo’s Viridian Center—the newest installment of our library building and design event will let you dig deep with architects, librarians, and vendors to explore building, renovating, and retrofitting spaces to better engage your community.