Academic journal article Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services

From Manuscripts to Metadata: The Changing Face of Local Studies Librarianship

Academic journal article Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services

From Manuscripts to Metadata: The Changing Face of Local Studies Librarianship

Article excerpt

In a period of rapid change local studies librarians worldwide are facing new challenges of increased demand and limited financial resources. An overview of the development of British local studies libraries, with reference to local studies in other countries, and the role of the local studies librarian precedes a discussion of the impact of digitisation of materials and the use of social media. Paper given at A sense of place: local studies in Australia and New Zealand conference Sydney 5-6 May 2011.


We live in a time of change and nowhere is this more apparent than in local studies provision. The UK Library Association's guidelines for Local studies provision in public libraries (2001) began with the statement

   Local studies librarianship has changed
   dramatically in the last 20 years, and the pace of
   change shows little sign of slackening. (1)

In the past ten years this pace has accelerated, driven by technological advances in digitisation, the internet, social networking tools and increasingly sophisticated demands from family and local historians. Users come from much wider social backgrounds than previously, encouraged by initiatives such as black history months and a relentless flow of genealogy and local history programs on television. Use of local studies collections has increased dramatically. For instance the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre now receives 21,000 visitors and over 5,000 email enquiries a year predominantly for archives and local studies. Even our own small museum has seen a sharp rise in email enquiries. All this demonstrates the value of local studies to the general public and raises their expectations. To meet this changing emphasis local studies librarians have had to 'transform their collections strategies, the range of materials they provide, the ways in which they cater for and give access to the public'. (2)

This does not mean that earlier local studies librarians were not providing a good service. A report on British libraries in 1941 concluded

   ... the great majority of urban libraries have
   excellent local collections dealing with their
   local history and topography including
   photographs, prints, maps and manuscripts, in
   addition to books and printed materials. (3)

The same still applies today although responsibility for the libraries has now been transferred to county or regional authorities. Nomenclature has also changed. Until the 1970s it was still normal to refer to local history collections but nowadays they are local studies collections or heritage collections.

Local studies collections are almost as old as libraries themselves. Medieval monasteries created materials and kept accounts of their estates and private libraries and European universities amassed substantial collections, which included maps and plans. In revolutionary France confiscations of privately owned aristocratic collections meant that substantial collections of local studies material came into public ownership. Elsewhere in Europe national libraries also acquired material previously in private ownership and regional libraries in Europe, such as the Rhone Alpes region in France, now have responsibility for collecting local material. Elsewhere many other countries have developed fine local collections.

The situation is rather different in the United States where local historical societies assumed responsibility for collecting material relevant to their locality. Many of these collections are extremely rich and form the basis for scholarly publications. Public libraries also boast extensive and impressive collections of local studies material. In the UK, too, we still have some 19th century learned societies holding valuable collections of local material. Good examples are the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society and the Thoroton Society in Nottingham. On a much smaller scale, the Southwold Museum and Historical Society has collection of approximately 10,000 local books, archives, and photographs and this is heavily used. …

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