Libraries Preserve Community Memory

Two years ago, a cohort of ten rural and tribal libraries around the country were awarded grants for community history and "community memory" projects, creating a Community Memory Cohort. Here's what they have been up to since then.

This article was adapted by EveryLibrary staff from two articles, The First Meeting of the IMLS APP Community Memory Cohort and IMLS APP Cohort: Celebrating two years of community memory work, written by WiLS staff members Emily Pfotenhauer and Vicki Tobias.

WiLS (formally Wisconsin Library Services) is a non-profit membership organization serving libraries and cultural institutions. In late 2019, WiLS and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) began a collaborative mentorship effort with a cohort of ten small rural and tribal libraries around the country. As part of a special initiative called Accelerating Promising Practices for Small Libraries, IMLS awarded grants for community history and “community memory” projects, creating the Community Memory Cohort.

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The Project Begins

The Community Memory Cohort gathered for an initial meeting in the fall of 2019. One of the goals of WiLS as mentors is to help cohort participants explore and understand the needs of their communities. They challenged them to think through what “authentic and ethical practices and relationships” might look like for themselves, their home institutions, and their local communities.

Sharing Resources and Expertise

At the initial meeting, retired Wisconsin Historical Society Director of Programs and Outreach Michael Edmonds shared his experience and insight into the value of user-centered design in building community-centered collections and services. Madison Public Library Community Engagement Librarian Laura Damon-Moore introduced the Madison Living History Project, a collaborative, community-driven story-collecting project. UW-Madison Assistant Director of Residence Life Scott Seyforth acquainted participants with the Madison LGBTQ Archive project as a case study in focused community collection development and uncovering hidden history. WiLS Community Liaison and Service Specialist Bruce Smith led participants through a hands-on process planning workshop, “Getting from Here to There,” to help cohort members further hone their project plans and think creatively about efficient and effective project implementation strategies.

Local subject specialists shared their expertise and answered questions during a “World Café” activity. Topics included:

  • Copyright and access
  • Metadata
  • Oral histories and community engagement
  • Scanning and post-processing
  • Storage and digital preservation

The group enjoyed an illuminating tour of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society with Society founder Clayborn Benson. He shared his deep knowledge of Milwaukee and Wisconsin’s African American communities. Cohort participants were invited to join UW-Milwaukee Associate Professor and Director of Public History Nan Kim’s presentation “Interviewing Oral History Subjects.” Professor Kim offered her experiences preparing for different types of oral history interviews and a wealth of valuable information for successful interviewing.

Two IMLS staff, STEM and Community Engagement advisor Dr. Marvin Carr and Deputy Director for Library Services Cynthia Landrum, were on hand to answer a range of questions about grant-management logistics and strategies, advice appreciated by cohort members, many of whom are first-time IMLS grant-recipients.

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Cohorts Begin Community Work

After three days of presentations, activities, and discussions held at the Digital Humanities Lab at UW Milwaukee, leaders from these small libraries began working toward their goals. As mentors, a key objective was to help small libraries preserve their unique communities by showcasing oral histories, artifacts, and significant historical records. These collections hold the histories of rural and tribal residents who once called or still call these areas home.

Celebrating Successes Two Years Later

WiLS asked cohort members to share short presentations two years into the project, highlighting success they’re particularly proud of, a challenge and how they addressed it, or how they pivoted their project to accommodate the impact of COVID-19 on their library and community. Here is a summary of their “showcase” presentations.

  • Astoria Public Library. Jimmy Pearson, Astoria Public Library (Astoria, Oregon) Library director Jimmy Pearson conducted a live tour of the Astoria Public Library’s local history archives. Highlights included an introduction to the 1892 collection (their first library collection), a German-language bible from 1728 (the oldest book in their collection), a complete set of Harper’s Monthly Magazine from the Civil War period, and the Astoriana Collection. Pearson proudly revealed significant progress made to organize, rehouse and label materials stored in “the vortex,” the basement area housing the archives. He also shared two of the outreach materials created for the project — a poster and bookmark highlighting project staff and work. The library’s online archive launched in 2021.
  • Huna Heritage Foundation. Amelia Wilson, Executive Director for the Huna Heritage Foundation, presented an overview of the Documenting Our Lineage project and introduced Project Coordinator Mary Erickson, who conducted outreach to community members. Wilson explained how their project builds on information collected in the 1990s documenting Tlingit names. Wilson described how individuals and families receive and pass down moiety, clans, and houses; how they updated and organized this lineage information; and why it is critical to document these names for tribal community members. She discussed how they incorporated feedback from elders to create a helpful resource and introduced work from a Huna graphic artist who created the layout and cover art for the print version of the clan lineage book. Finally, Wilson discussed privacy concerns about sharing this resource within and outside the tribal community.
  • Scott County Library System. Christine Barth, Reference and Technical Services Librarian for the Scott County Library System in Iowa’s Quad Cities region, shared a prerecorded video showcasing the work of her project team. Project manager Nancy Youngbauer described facilitating events where community members were invited to use the library equipment to digitize their historical materials, including scrapbooks and photo albums. The library also conducted oral history interviews with residents, including the first pharmacist in Eldridge, Iowa, who passed away shortly after participating. Barth shared project outputs, including the “Grandparent Book,” an activity book designed for grandparents and grandchildren to complete to document their family history, and “Generation to Generation: A Genealogy Guide for Kids.” Barth also talked about shifting to one-on-one appointments with patrons to use the library’s digitization equipment and proactively collecting materials from the sixteen small towns and unincorporated communities in the county. Project director Sarah Carlin demonstrated their online collection in the Internet Archive.
  • Jaquith Public Library. Project director Tracey Hambleton offered an update on the Jaquith Public Library’s Marshfield Story Project. Initial project activities included a workshop with the Vermont Folklife Center, purchasing scanning equipment, and video interviews with community members documenting the history of Marshfield and their memories of Town Meeting Days. Hambleton shared how they shifted their project plans due to COVID-19 with help from the Vermont Folklife Center’s Assistant Director, Andy Kolovos. Hambleton and Kolovos discussed the challenges of digitizing and providing access to the Linda Goldberg tapes, a collection of over 500 interviews conducted by a former resident of Marshfield between 1973–2003, now housed at the Vermont Folklife Center. They described ongoing negotiations with the donor regarding public access to the digitized interviews and the importance of digitizing and preserving the tapes, even if they are not currently accessible online. Hambleton also shared the library’s contributions to Digital Vermont, the Vermont Historical Society’s online collection.
  • Hudson Area Library. The Hudson Area Library in New York’s Hudson Valley used its grant to expand an existing partnership with the Oral History Summer School (OHSS). The library and OHSS are working together to build a networked digital archive encompassing four collections: the OHSS’s archive of oral histories and other recorded sounds, the library’s local history content, the Kite’s Nest youth center, and the Black Legacy Association of Columbia County (BLACC). Library director Emily Chameides shared a preview of the first online component of the collaboration, the Community Library of Voice and Sound. The library also offers public programs using oral history to promote community dialog. In the fall of 2022, the library finalized and shared the websites for the BLACC Oral History Collection and the Hudson Area Library Oral History Project.
  • Forbes Library. Heather Diaz of the Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts, spoke frankly about the challenges of managing a major federal grant as an early-career librarian, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. She described how she navigated significant changes to the original project plan in response to building closures and reduced capacities of community partners. Instead of building a memory lab in the library where patrons could digitize their materials, she implemented a “concierge reformatting” process to do that work for them on a drop-off, on-demand basis. One of the most prominent outcomes for the library was a successful collaboration with Smith College and Simmons University students, who interviewed residents about Northampton’s Pride Parade, held annually since 1982. The library received guidance from Massachusetts’ Digital Commonwealth program to develop a metadata framework to describe the interviews. The online exhibit “Northampton Pride and Liberation: LGBT Voices from the Valley” is now available.
  • Benzonia Public Library. Amanda McLaren, director of the Benzonia Public Library in rural Michigan, discussed the Remembering Benzie project, which worked with two cycles of high school student interns to record, edit and share video oral history interviews with community members. The project’s first year, with four student interns, was a significant learning experience that made year two easier, despite pandemic-related complications with student recruitment and scheduling. Amanda shared the Remembering Benzie YouTube channel, which features student-created video interviews (full-length versions and short clips), training materials created with the University of Michigan, and information about each student. Amanda noted that when she realized how many people the videos were reaching outside the local community, mainly the veterans’ interviews, she revisited their descriptions on YouTube, updating the metadata to provide more detailed and consistent contextual information.
  • Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Library. Tribal Librarian Bonnie Roos, along with Archival Assistant and Videographer Brandon Taft, shared a prerecorded video to showcase the work of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Library in coastal Washington. Their community memory project incorporated archival images and sounds into digital stories. These short video segments cover historical topics selected by tribal advisors, including fishing, the Shaker church, and medicinal plants, as well as twelve videos about each month to complement the annual Klallam Language calendar. Although COVID resulted in staffing reductions and a shift to virtual events, they reported that moving programs online was an opportunity to get comfortable with Zoom — a first Zoom presentation from Tribal Historic Preservation Officer David Brownell had 12 attendees. In contrast, later virtual events drew up to 130 participants. The project team wrote: “When the pandemic turned life upside down, we adapted and were able to provide the support and content that our community needed most.”
  • Pella Public Library. Over their two-year grant period, the Pella Public Library created the Pella Community Memory Database, an online collection of digitized photos and documents from the library, the Pella Historical Society, and various local donors. Assistant Library Director Chris Brown offered a tour of the database. The site showcases a range of topics that document this Dutch immigrant community, including church histories and family history files. Chris also included street addresses and city block numbers as controlled vocabularies in photo metadata, enabling linkages across photos to show how buildings and locations have changed over time.

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Three Years Draw to a Close

The Community Memory Cohort has been a three-year project. As of the summer of 2022, some have wrapped up entirely. Some are extending their grants for several months to catch up on missed opportunities from pandemic restrictions. The Memory Cohorts have participated in many options over the three years life of the project in addition to the events described above, such as a trip to Washington DC in June 2022. For more information about WiLS projects, visit Services & Projects, Things You’ll Like! To connect with WiLS directly, check out their website. To learn more about the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), visit their website.

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