Public libraries have always been a safe place to facilitate challenging thought and promote community and personal growth. Many patrons have formed their identity through the literature they have read, the self-help books that taught them how to heal, and even the cookbooks that formed their daily diet. What many don’t know is that another essential part of their identity can be found in their library’s local history collection.
These valuable collections help us to delve even deeper into ourselves, informing us of who we are, where we come from, our genetic make-up, and they can even be used to trace generational trauma. They allow us an opportunity to transform the study of the Humanities into the fabric of human life, making it integral to community planning and well-being. These collections of books, media, digitized records, and archives can help answer questions that drive public discourse, crossing boundaries of study, and bringing a more holistic view to both our personal and community vision. Visions which are now more important than ever.
At no time in history have we been forced to live with ourselves in such a manner that our identity cries out to be acknowledged. Isolated in our homes, we have been forced to look in the mirror more than we may want to, asking, “Who am I?” Protestors in the streets call for fair treatment, causing us to ask, “What have I done to contribute to this pain that was created generations ago?” We question human survival at a time when the health of our climate, racial interactions, and rule of law are at risk. We have lived in fear that loved ones and neighbors will unwittingly give us a deadly virus. How can we begin to mitigate these risks and heal the trauma caused by such fear?
One such tool that can help to heal us during this time of world crisis is your local history collection. When the pandemic started, scholars immediately pointed to the historic 1918 flu pandemic to draw analogies and differences to help us cope and learn from past experiences. As our sea levels rise, scientists look to local history collections for historic maps, ship logs, and diaries to provide comparative analyses to document the changes. With racial tensions more visible than they’ve been in decades, families pour over manumission records, voter registrations, and court records to form a narrative as to why current inequities and trauma are engineered into our systems of justice. Because they are being used this way, public library local history resources have the potential to be more than just rooms filled with old books and grey boxes of old documents. By understanding our past, we can plan for a better future.
In 2021, the Eastern Shore of Virginia (ESVA) region is building a new library. Included in the new construction will be a Heritage Center, focused solely on the rich local history of the Shore. The Shore, comprised of Accomack and Northampton counties, holds a unique history due to its geographic isolation. It is nearly surrounded by navigable waters and it is the closest Virginia landmass to the European continent, the origin of many of the Commonwealth’s current inhabitants. Native American interactions with colonists were unlike that of the Powhatan. By bordering Maryland and being located at the center of Atlantic trade routes, the Shore’s slave economy, position during wars, and its agricultural industry all deserve their own chapters in our nation’s history books. American Presbyterianism and Methodism have roots on this peninsula carving a unique story in Virginia’s religious history. Many individuals across the nation can trace their family origins back to the Shore.
The new Heritage Center has its own history as well. Over 40 years ago, Brooks Miles Barnes, now a retired librarian, created the Eastern Shore Room with the goal of holding a complete history of the Eastern Shore. So passionate about this subject, Barnes earned his PhD in history from the University of Virginia. The Eastern Shore Room became renowned for not only this collection of books and archival material, but also the expertise Barnes shared in assisting genealogists, authors, humanities scholars, and historians. The Room quickly outgrew its space and the library’s 1960s building did not meet the preservation needs for this essential collection.
During the planning time for the new library building, two key events took place that changed the overall goal for the space. The first of which was that Frances Bibbins Latimer, a renowned local African American historian and author, passed away and her collection was donated to the library. Virginia Humanities recognized its value by granting a digitization project to make the items widely accessible and to help preserve them for future use. Secondly, Kirk Mariner, another prolific local ESVA history author, also passed away. He bequeathed his even larger book collection, subject file, and photograph collection–all ESVA focused–to the Eastern Shore Public Library as well. The original new library concept did not include the square footage for these collections, and the lack of projected space for local history in the new library building was causing other donors to be turned away. Valuable archives were leaving the Shore for Richmond or out-of-state to Maryland.
Barnes and other local historians and genealogists decried the removal of the Shore’s history to other locations. They knew that this could make access to research documents more difficult to obtain and could dilute the ability to collect the stories many are keen to tell. As public interest increased, a call to action arose to change the footprint of the new library to include a Heritage Center with a large archives room complete with climate control and security for the collection. The vision for the library facility changed and a new library concept was born.
Drawing on that public interest, the Eastern Shore Public Library Foundation garnered monetary support for funding the library project. A team of volunteers, historians, and staff worked together to develop a narrative of the importance of the archives. The collections were needed not only for those who access them, but to support local history tourism and its related economic growth. Many who had only had a nominal interest in the library before, feeling libraries are unnecessary with the advent of the Internet, began to support the building project. The grant writing team successfully secured a $500,000 Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, bringing the history of the Shore and the need for its preservation into the national limelight and its narrative. The building, however, is just the beginning for the vision the community has for the public library.
The library’s Heritage Center will provide the infrastructure to teach citizens about the technology and science of preserving and accessing records using chemistry and coding. Oral and video histories require the learning of audiovisual technology which easily transfers to the software tools needed in marketing and engineering. The U.S. Census developed a classroom curriculum that includes using Census data in mathematical studies. Students can see themselves participating in local government and civic groups as they learn from local court and voting records. Families will connect as they learn to organize and protect their own family documents by digitizing them to share with relatives and future generations. Current inequities will be identified by studying the history of housing and employment historically.
By including essential local history collections in public libraries, they can be incorporated in the overall mission of those libraries to support lifelong learning. Librarians know how to engage the community with programs and resources used to form identity and address community issues. Library programs have demonstrated their ability to help with community and personal healing on multiple levels. Local history resources can help to create a more holistic view of ourselves that not only helps public libraries point the community to the future, but also to its past, ensuring that time is not seen as one-directional, but as a continuum.
—Cara Burton, Director, Eastern Shore Public Library