Thursday, August 02, 2007

Teasing out local collections

Over the last six years, I've helped several clients conduct surveys of their local libraries in an effort to understand what topics/themes/materials exist in local collections. For example, here in Upstate New York, we know that the creation of the Erie Canal changed and helped to develop this area, but who has materials in their collections about the Erie Canal? Of course, there are the obvious suspects, like the Erie Canal Museum in Syracuse, but might a town library have some important materials that only they know about? And what if you knew about them? Could you then propose a digitization program that would digitize materials from various institutions related to the same topic (Erie Canal) and then create a virtual exhibit?

I am starting to work with a client on a survey that will be conducted this fall. Since we want the institutions to really think about their answers, we will give them the survey in hardcopy, rather than using a service on the Internet. With the survey in hardcopy, maybe people will go and look at their finding aids -- or even at the collection itself -- in order to give more accurate answers. However, I know that some people will not be that diligent and that they will complete the survey from memory and tell us only what they remember. At least that will give us some information.

For me, the most interesting part of constructing the survey is collecting "themes" (topic, etc.) that might exist in the region. The listed themes help to tease people's memories and we provide extra space for those things that they know and which are not listed. This is where I get to learn more truly local history. For example, do you know where Lucille Ball was born and buried? Do you know why the Pan American Exposition in 1901 was a big deal? And where was the gentleman who invited the Pullman car from? How many wars (with real weapons) have been fought between people residing in what is now the U.S. and people residing in what is now Canada? ( link for that one, but it is more times than you think since the British and French occupied North America.)

I am hoping that this latest survey will have a side benefit. People have offered up a number of topics and people's names to be included in the survey. I suspect, however, that even though person "X" did something phenomenal and is well known in the community, that the local library or historical society hasn't collected that person's stuff. So year's from now, there will not be a significant amount of materials on/from that person for researchers or the curious to review. Maybe seeing the list in the survey will prompt the institutions to collect more. Wouldn't that be a wonderful benefit?!

By the way, besides listing the themes, there are boxes to check what type of materials the institution has on that theme and a place to tell us how much. (We're trying to make the survey as easy as possible, so that people will complete it.) We're also provided a place for people to list information on other collections in the region that we may not know about. Perhaps a fantastic private collection -- known by only a few -- will be listed?! Okay..well...I can hope.

Finally, as more collaborative programs are developed, information on what exists in specific regions will become more important. It will be known upfront what exists and where, which may help with creating proposals, grant writing and contacting potential partners. anything that makes those tasks easier is appreciated.

Do you know what exists in your region? If no one knows what exists in your region, consider doing some information gathering -- even a survey. Don't want to do it yourself? Consider asking your local college (history department, perhaps) for help.

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