EXCERPT: Chapter 2. Community Archives

“In the Age of Information, archives have become increasingly important as repositories of memory. We are engaged in a dialogue about why culture and history matter, and public programming helps to facilitate that conversation.”
—Steven G. Fullwood, Assistant Curator, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture, New York Public Library

One of the most visible trends in the national movement to engage diverse audiences with special collections is the trend to reconsider the content and organization of community history. This trend can be seen in the development of community archives and new or revitalized local history centers. The phenomenon is related to the increase in community documentation and oral history projects examined in chapter nine of this volume, but it is distinguished by a focus on organizational change. Beyond changes in collecting priorities and communications strategies, this trend reflects professional recognition of the need to reimagine the structures for local and community history in the public library setting.

Seven examples are brought together to illustrate the trend. Their size, structure, purpose, and community perspective vary, but they all share an impetus to change institutional approaches to collecting, organizing, interpreting, and sharing historical materials. For the purposes of this publication they are grouped together under the umbrella of community archives.

To better understand this trend the examples can be grouped into two categories, one involving development or redevelopment of new centers for local history, the other involving formation of new archival collections. The first encompasses initiatives to rebrand existing history collections or history “rooms,” to integrate recently collected materials with existing collections, and to develop programs and services that stimulate new public participation.  The Center for Local History at the Arlington (VA) Public Library embodies these elements. Its creation, over several years, involved renaming the library’s Virginia Room, reorganizing the local history collections, institutionalizing individual community documentation projects, and using new technologies to engage people of all ages in researching, documenting, and sharing local history.

There are other similar institutional efforts in the planning stages. The Spartanburg County (SC) Public Libraries are planning a new local history center that will be a featured component of the public library. According to Todd Stephens, director of the Todd Spartanburg County Public Libraries:

“One of the primary things the public library has to offer its community is local identity. By creating a structure that will help people feel more connected to their local history, and more historically literate, we are fulfilling a fundamental institutional role.”

In addition to the formation of new local history centers there are structural changes taking place in some of the larger public libraries that indicate a new emphasis on local history and community participation. The Special Collections Department of the Seattle (WA) Public Library is shifting from a centralized approach to neighborhood history to a system-wide, participatory approach. Similarly, the Brooklyn (NY) Public Library has created community-based oral history projects that “aim to lay the foundation for community-produced local history archives at participating branch libraries . . . eventually the goal is to establish the branch libraries as destinations for people interested in Brooklyn history and outreach sites for the Brooklyn Collection.”

Coinciding with the organization of new local history centers there is a move to establish new archival collections within existing institutional collections. Many such efforts could be cited, such as the District of Columbia Public Library’s Chuck Brown Archive, newly created as part of the D.C. Community Archives, or the establishment of the Fort Worth Library’s Women’s Archive within the Local History and Archives Department. These examples and others described below affirm archival professionals’ efforts to ensure that special collections are vital and relevant. They also reflect the extent to which new archival initiatives are often community based, emerging from a conviction on the part of professionals and community members regarding the need to create a formal repository, applying the protocols of the archival profession to the records of a particular community. The creation of Newark (NJ) Public Library’s Puerto Rican Community Archive (PRCA) is an example of such a joint community–library effort.

Image credit:
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Author Langston Hughes [far left] with [left to right:] Charles S. Johnson; E. Franklin Frazier; Rudolph Fisher and Hubert T. Delaney, on the roof of 580 St. Nicholas Avenue, Harlem, on the occasion of a party in Hughes’ honor, 1924.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1880 – 1993. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-7941-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99