History Is Its Own Reward Back Home in Indiana: Attending to the Needs of Local-History Buffs Has Paid off in America's Heartland

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The community has been in a centuries-long love affair with the library," says Curt Witcher, genealogy department manager for the Allen County (Ind.) Public Library, of the relationship between Fort Wayne residents and ACPL. The commitment to local history demonstrated by the library's genealogy section helps explain the community's passion for its public library. Besides preserving the past, the genealogy department plays a significant role in sustaining the economic health of this northeastern Indiana community.

Named after the 1960-79 ACPL director, the Fred J. Reynolds Historical Genealogy Department of the Allen County Public Library enjoys a national reputation as a strong research center. According to Witcher, who has worked there for almost 25 years, the Reynolds section currently includes 319,149 volumes and 388,616 microtexts--holdings that comprise the largest collection of genealogical materials outside of Salt Lake City's Family History Library.

Amassing this collection is the product of multiple approaches, Witcher explains. First, ACPL commits financial resources to the Reynolds collection that are proportionate to other departments--an atypical situation for library genealogy sections, according to Witcher. Second, the collection-development approach begun by Fred J. Reynolds 50 years ago is still used by the department today. "He watched the antiquities market and looked for bargains," Witcher said, "and there still are bargains out there." Additionally, the library solicits the unpublished work of family researchers, whose individually produced volumes can save other researchers significant time and effort. The department borrows the family researcher's unpublished manuscript and creates two bound copies: one for its collection and the other as a thank-you gift to the donor. "It costs us hardly anything," Witcher said, but the transaction "builds the collection, and it builds goodwill," likening the effort "on a small scale" to UMI's preservation of dissertations.

ACPL's genealogy section actively seeks other contributions as well. "We're not proud. In a professional and upbeat way, we'll beg," Witcher confides. The result is "donations literally every day," which amounts to thousands of gifts each year. When a contribution is a duplication of a holding, the library considers it reserve or trade stock. "We meet a lot of librarians who don't have the blessings of resources that we do," he said. What these other librarians have, though, is duplicates of their own; ACPL gladly trades its extras for materials not already in its holdings.

Some recent donations have also been digital ones, a development that Witcher sees as a "harbinger of the future." For example, ACPL recently received a digitized copy of an 1826 family Bible that contained scanned inscriptions of birth and death dates, as well as photographs that had been tucked into the volume. The library plans to make this and other digital materials--including more than 12,400 photos of the Fort Wayne area--available on its website (www.acpl.lib.in.us/ database/index/acpl_digital_library.html).

"All of this keeps us very busy," Witcher says, laughing at the understatement.

Pennies from predecessors

In addition to keeping the department's team of seven librarians and 18 paraprofessional and support staff gainfully employed, researchers who flock to Fort Wayne's genealogical division bolster area hotels and restaurants, too. ACPL's genealogy department is considered the area's number-three tourist attraction, after the zoo and the mall, Witcher said.

Concurring that the library's genealogy collection is "a local treasure" culturally as well as literally, former Fort Wayne mayor and current state representative Win Moses Jr. agrees that researchers' interest in the Reynolds collection "has had a significant impact on tourism and renewing relationships across the state," as well as adding "a quality of study that enhances the national stature of Fort Wayne. …