EXCERPT: Introduction

“As an archivist it is a fabulous time to be working in Special Collections in a public library. Archives are the core of a library…they make that library different from every other facility. They also help people recognize what is special about their own lives and neighborhoods.”

—Elizabeth Sargent, Assistant Director for Special Collections and Director, Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library

All across the United States public library archivists and special collections librarians are experimenting with programs that raise public awareness of and promote engagement with special collections. Through interpretive programs, community archives, crowdsourcing, digital access projects, educational outreach, commemorative events, exhibitions, collection development initiatives, and broadcast programs archivists and librarians are developing new approaches to connecting patrons with rare, fragile, and historically or culturally significant collections. The programs take multiple formats, engage diverse audiences, sometimes involve partners, and, more and more often, use digital technologies and social media to extend their visibility and enable remote participation. Programs range from Denver Public Library’s Creating Your Community Project, an online social media archive, and Houston Public Library’s Student History Internship Project, to Hartford Public Library’s Arts and Archives Classes, Newark Public Library’s Puerto Rican Community Archive, and San Francisco Public Library’s OldSF project that involved experts and enthusiasts in geocoding the library’s historical photographs.

The new programs are significant for their potential to reframe public and professional consciousness about public library special collections. They are significant as vehicles for access and as catalysts for collections management and digitization. And, they are especially significant in the context of current professional discussions regarding the meaning of “access,” the value of archives and special collections, and the evolving roles of special collections professionals. Despite their significance, there has been relatively little attention to public library archival and special collections programming at professional meetings or in library literature. It was not until 2011 that the Society of American Archivists approved formation of a roundtable on Public Library Archives.

Image credit:
Donald Lokuta, Untitled [Group portrait of neighborhood children and teenagers; Napoleon Street and New York Avenue], 1976. From the series, “Ironbound: Newark, New Jersey.” Special Collections Division, Newark Public Library. Library purchase, 1980. http://www.npl.org/Pages/ProgramsExhibits/Exhibits/NewarkArtII.html