PLA 2010: The Importance of Local History Collections

Yesterday afternoon, a small sea of mostly library administrators turned up for an intriguing (if somewhat unfocused) panel on building and sustaining local library history collections, what opening presenter Kris Rzepczynski of the Library of Michigan called "a powerful promotional tool." I’m no history or genealogical buff, but I was taken with the nonbook-centered projects to showcase treasure troves of holdings that can so easily go unnoticed.

At Rzepczynski’s fine state institution, for instance, amateur and professional researchers alike can dig into the free and fully searchable Seeking Michigan database, including nearly one million death records from 1897 to 1920, plus Civil War service records. Tim Gleisner of the Grand Rapids (MI) Public Library, meanwhile, introduced me to the ingenious concept of "genealogy lock-ins," uninterrupted blocks of access to valuable online resources, aka a nerd’s night out in research heaven.

Closing presenter Sara Wedell, head of adult services at the Chelsea District Library (MI), winner of LJ‘s Best Small Library of the Year Award in 2008, shared what I found the most inventive nondigital methods, which are often prohibitively expensive for even the most well-endowed libraries. Chelsea’s granted-funded Community History Project will conduct video interviews with local World War II veterans before their stories get lost. And then there’s the Historic Chelsea Interest Group, gatherings of local historians and other community members to share ideas and physical treasures.

More later!

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Heather McCormack About Heather McCormack

Heather McCormack (, HuisceBeatha on Twitter) is Editor, Book Review for Library Journal.


  1. rjfmgy says:

    Perhaps it’s just me, but this post implies a couple of things that I find dismaying. First, the author says she’s not a history buff, and therefore seems to consider it important only as a loss leader for libraries. I don’t crochet rugs, but I’m not dismissive of it. Second, I suppose some genealogists would fall into the category of nerds (just like librarians!), but many of the genealogists and local historians I’ve encountered are remarkably expert and excellent sources for exactly the kind of arcane information that we’re expected to know. Moreover, I know more than one academic who has beginning graduate students exercise their research skills by looking into people whose names are randomly chosen from directories. This exercise would be extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, without genealogical resources.
    And finally, while I am all for oral history projects and local history seminars, the best nondigital method libraries offer for serving the public will always be just plain old books.