22 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2008
Promoting Your Library’s History
By Christie Koontz
Recently, I visited a public library in St. Augustine, Fla. A small bronze plaque outside the front door proudly announced, “Florida’s Oldest Library.” That visit inspired me to consider how historical library facts can facilitate promoting your library to actual and potential customers. To get you started, I created a list of “did you knows” from U.S. public library history.1 You can use these to develop a framework for your own history; I’ve included questions to jump-start your process. Once it’s done, you can share this history through in-library and around-town displays and via your website.
U.S. Libraries Grew After the Civil War
The growth of America’s public library system did not begin in earnest until after the Civil War. By the year 1899, America was one of the leading industrial nations, attracting millions of European immigrants looking for a better life. These immigrants found themselves in a strange culture learning a new language. Many public libraries were developed and built across the country to meet this new demand for adult education.
Q: When did your public library open, and who were the founders? Was there a unique customer group initially served? Try to get old photos and quotes and compile these into a visual commentary.
In 1900, there were still fewer than 10 true public library systems. As a point of comparison, currently there are more than 9,000 public library systems encompassing more than 16,000 public libraries in the United States.
Q: How many libraries comprise your system? Create a map that illustrates the growth of the system over time. Customers can then appreciate this growth, and the time and tenacity it took from earlier citizens.
Even Andrew Carnegie Was Once Only a Patron
The well-known library philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was initially someone who used the library for adult education. He furthered the expansion of library facilities and access by ultimately donating more than $40 million for the construction of 1,679 library buildings in 1,412 communities across the country. (Some have calculated that, for his time, Carnegie’s donation was greater than any other current-day benefactor.) Millions of Americans were ultimately affected by his generosity.
Q: Do you have a Carnegie building? Why not highlight his contribution to inspire new and local Carnegies?
Libraries Were Prestigious Focal Points
Early public library leaders felt that a prestigious single structure would serve the cultural and educational needs of the whole community. It was often placed in the new central business district or a well-known neighborhood. Many cities continue to herald their main libraries as the focal points of their communities today.
Q: Is your main library a focal point? Is the original building still standing? If not, perhaps identify the original site with a marker. Gather remnants of early architecture, photos, or other artifacts that signify its heritage and importance.
Branches as we know them today are said to have been established first in Boston in 1871. The single, prestigious location was not always convenient to the majority of citizens. So the dissatisfaction of citizens (rather than library leaders—oops!) really originated early extension services!
Q: What is the history of each branch? Who were the key people who pushed for development? Highlight and promote branch history and important citizens.
Other Outreach Services Were Created
Other new experimental services emerged, trying to better serve and satisfy library users. For example, stations were located and administered in retail stores to provide users with small collections of reference books on-site. Public libraries also served the needs of public schools, placing temporary book collections in the schools for educators’ use. The concept of more access to library services began to flourish.
Q: What is the history of outreach in your community? Document and share this to enhance funding opportunities for these services.
Bookmobiles were sometimes used to experiment with potential new locations. The first bookmobile was a horse-drawn buggy from the Hagerstown (Md.) Public Library (now part of the Washington County Free Library) in 1905. By the way, the bookmobile showed up in this year’s touted “Top Technology Trends”2 as the “technomobile,” equipped with internet access and other new technologies.
Q: Does your library operate a bookmobile? Document its evolution, including the first stop and how services changed over the years.
We may think that “green” is a new idea, but in 1894, Englishman Thomas Greenwood stated that library sites needed to be on high and dry land near one or more thoroughfares, while being quiet and free from dust. Greenwood recommended the need for distance between buildings to allow for maximum sunlight (solar!) and a design that minimized dust. In many ways, he was an early environmental advocate.
Q: Are you going green? Let the public know and participate!
Economics and War Shifted Funding Practices
By the 1930s, due to the Great Depression, the Carnegie money and tax revenues had withered and funding for facilities was once again on the backs of local communities. Yet the public library became (and remains) a valued resource not duplicated by any other agency in the community.
Q: How did the Great Depression affect your library’s services and funding? What events and people made a difference? How has local funding changed since that time?
After World War II, 60% of the central library buildings in America were more than 30 years old. Even at that time it was already estimated that only 50% of the nation’s library facilities were adequate. Parallel to this, America’s major cities experienced a mass movement of higher-income groups to the suburbs. Managers of traditional public library systems were forced to rethink service patterns as the automobile started altering the landscape. The passage of the Library Services Act in 1956 (and subsequently the Library Services and Construction Act in 1964) provided federal money for public library building programs for the next 2 decades. During and immediately after the World War II era, educators and other leaders advocated for tolerance of diversity in response to the hatred that some people evoked against individuals with ancestral ties to Germany or Japan. Also, Americans began to question the discrimination against black Americans after so many black soldiers had died for the U.S. during the war. Librarians reacted by providing reading materials that distinguished and heralded the characteristics of different ethnic groups, promoting tolerance of and among these groups.
Q: How did World War II affect your library facilities and services? Who were the library-related heroes and heroines in your community during this time?
Community-Based Service Becomes the Norm
The 1960s crushed elitism in many public service sectors including education and libraries. Traditional library services continued to diversify during the 1970s. Librarians tried experimental services such as homework or information hotlines and diverse outreach programs such as books-by-mail. Inner-city info pros started housing project libraries, put kiosks of books in shopping malls, and opened storefront libraries. The 1979 Public Library Mission Statement encouraged librarians to assess community needs, including such aspects as minority values, demographics, literacy levels, information needs, crime and safety, legal aid, and even immigration laws in order to provide the most appropriate library service possible.
Q: What activities uniquely illuminated this new era of self-mandated, equitable, and diversified library service in your community?
Libraries Lose Walls, Change With Times
Moving toward the end of the 1980s, the concept of libraries without walls, or electronic libraries, emerged. Networks and online catalogs and databases created new avenues of access beyond the traditional physical library. While some discussions of libraries for the 21st century predicted that all services would be through “electronic outreach,” old and new customers continued to walk through the library doors to use the electronic resources inside the library, with the librarians’ guidance.
Q: What were some of your first electronic resources? What new markets emerged and via which products?
At the turn of the new century, as the boomer generation aged and after the World Trade Center attack in New York City in late 2001, the American people appeared to want to stay home more, to enhance and secure their living and community spaces. In many areas of the country, public libraries felt the effects of this lifestyle change. Their status as gathering places was renewed, and they began offering more significant resources for new at-home activities.
Q: How did 9/11 affect library service in your community? How has your “library as place” developed in the early 21st century?
As the internet continues to permeate households and 99% of all libraries (thanks to Bill Gates), new interactive technologies are being developed. These are called Web 2.0, a perceived second generation of web-based communities and hosted services—such as social networking sites, wikis, and folksonomies—that facilitate collaboration and sharing between users. Some libraries offer and enhance use of these technologies by providing areas where access and online interaction is encouraged. When this type of connectivity and technology is used in a library, it is often dubbed Library 2.0, where the user is participant, co-creator, builder, and consultant, whether the product is virtual or physical.
Q: What Library 2.0 technologies are you using or experimenting with? What works? What do you wish would result? Who are you serving that was unserved before?
What This Means for You Today
When looking back at this interesting array of historical facts and events, many facts become clear about public libraries.
1. They are affected by the larger events of society, such as war, economics, and societal and cultural changes.
2. They are furthered by individual acts of generosity such as those of Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates.
3. They are offered foresight and wisdom by individual library leaders.
4. They are given support by institutions such as federal and local governments and library associations.
But within all of this, the ones who continue to make libraries fixtures on the American landscape are citizens. Libraries that wereborn yesterday out of citizens’ desires for equal education and opportunity continue to flourish today from the same motivation.
As the new year dawns, you can ask yourself: What part have the citizens and library professionals of my community played in creating its current role? Then begin finding the answers and start recording them into your own impressive history.