Academic journal article Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services

A Virtual Sense of Place: Public Libraries as Creators of Local Studies Indexes and Online Resources

Academic journal article Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services

A Virtual Sense of Place: Public Libraries as Creators of Local Studies Indexes and Online Resources

Article excerpt

There is a pressing need for public libraries to create indexes and resources relating to their local area. They can no longer rely on historical societies or genealogy groups to produce pamphlets or local histories to be catalogued and put into their collections. They need to be proactive and instigate these projects, whether they do the work themselves or use volunteers. The resources produced then need to be accessible online via library websites, thus creating a virtual sense of place. Edited version of a paper presented at A sense of place: local studies in Australia and New Zealand conference Sydney 5-6 May 2011.


The technical revolution and the subsequent ease of access to internet, email and social media has changed the way libraries do business. These electronic tools should make our jobs easier, but only if we allow it. People no longer have to attend a library in person to make use of its resources. Most public libraries have access to their library catalogues via the internet. Many also provide access to databases and now ebooks. We have homework help and ask a librarian via library websites. Books are able to be renewed online, reservations placed on titles not available, and many enquiries are taken by phone and email. It is simply an expectation of modem living that so much can be done at a distance, without leaving home or work and at any time of the day or night. So why should local studies be any different?

A quick survey of the websites of various public libraries will verify electronic access to library collections, but what happens when the enquiry involves local studies or genealogy? Are all local studies resources catalogued and able to be located on the online catalogue, including images, articles, newspaper clippings and ephemera held in those collections? If not, why not? Can all members of your staff use the resources in your local studies collection? Mostly you will find a webpage for local studies that says the library has a local studies collection, a list of the types of resources it contains and that the collection is available at such and such a time, with a phone number and--if you are lucky--an email address as a contact. But very few allow you to search for that local historical information while online. It is time that changed, but the only way that is going to happen is if public librarians take ownership of the problem and work to correct it. What can we do?

First, look at some good examples of what can be done, such as the State Library of New South Wales or your own state library, and the Powerhouse Museum http://www.power housemuseum.corrfonline/. The NSW State Library provides a range of eservices including Discover collections and Research guides. The Powerhouse online gives access to blogs, interactive kids games, podcasts, educational programs, specialist online collections as well as a search the collection function, before we even get to Facebook and flickr. Most public libraries, with their limited budgets and staffing, could not hope to recreate these online resources, yet unless you have something to strive towards, you will never achieve anything. The examples above are iconic institutions, which must be leaders in their field and always strive to improve and to attract and maintain the public interest. This in turn helps justify their funding. For the local public library, they are a good starting point to see what is possible and what can be adapted to serve your local area.

A review of other public library websites is an excellent way to see what others do, and to then plan what you can do. Most libraries will be happy to discuss what they do and how, if you contact them. You may be surprised by what you already do in comparison, or what you may be able to do better. Most commonly, you will find historic image collections, facts sheets of local information covering a range of topics, local cemetery records, and links to other sites and subsequent resources. …

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