Local History in E-Books and on the Web: One Library's Experience as Example and Model

By Litzer, Don; Barnett, Andy | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Local History in E-Books and on the Web: One Library's Experience as Example and Model


Litzer, Don, Barnett, Andy, Reference & User Services Quarterly


A medium-sized (forty thousand service population) public library digitized a substantial number of local history documents and posted them to its Web site. The materials selection process, digitization process, and resultant products are reviewed. Relevant Web-use statistics are analyzed to assess use frequency, one measure of the digital products" value, and to further determine which products and methods were most frequently used. This case study illustrates that digitization and Web publication of local history materials is within the technical and financial capabilities of even small libraries, and that such projects are valuable at several levels: by adding to the historical record, by providing exemplary service to a library's patrons, and by affording opportunities for library collaboration with organizations and individuals within a community.

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Digitizing local history has become a growth industry as national and grassroots efforts have moved rare items from archives and basements to the Web. (1) While national initiatives such as the Making of America (MOA) Project and the Library of Congress American Memory project have been well documented, many local projects fly below the radar of appreciation and critical analysis. (2) While MOA, American Memory, and similar projects digitize with the goal of true preservation--to produce extremely high-quality digital files intended to be suitable and available for later use as master copies--grassroots efforts have aimed for what Lee calls "rescue digitization"--the creation of high-quality digital surrogates that will satisfy most users' demands and therefore reduce the need to look at and handle source items themselves. (3) The increase in access to local history information provided by digitization, regardless of the degree to which preservation is achieved, is a great public service and public relations opportunity for libraries that themselves have or can obtain from others material worth digitizing.

How important is local history to libraries? One rough measure is the degree to which libraries self-identify themselves through their interest in local history, genealogy, and other collections. Take as an example the state of Wisconsin, which ranks close to the United States median in size, population, and affluence: among all Wisconsin public libraries with listings in the American Library Directory 2002-2003, eighty specifically reference local history, local genealogy, or the local history of part or all of their service area as a subject interest or special collection. An additional twenty-seven libraries make reference to Wisconsin history, a Wisconsin collection, or history as an interest or collection. Fifteen more Wisconsin public libraries, while not making specific references to history, note long back-files of local newspapers in print and microfilm formats or collections related to a famous native, or make general reference to local authors and materials. (4) If at least 122 public libraries in a single mid-sized state have sufficient interest in local history, genealogy, and collections to publicize that interest to the rest of the library community, nationwide interest in this subject by libraries large and small can be comfortably characterized as broad and deep.

By reviewing the case of one local digitization effort and measuring its impact, this study intends to share lessons learned and seeks to benefit other libraries anticipating, planning, or implementing similar projects.

Methodology

Library and information science research methods instructors and other academics have long frowned upon the case study in a field where "how I run my library good" articles too often stand in for research. Yet case studies arguably have a place in the library literature. Yin notes that the case study allows an investigation to retain the holistic and meaningful characteristics of real-life events. (5) Stake identifies case studies as a choice of what is to be studied, as compared to a research method per se; in this context, the case study is one of several approaches to qualitative analysis, one that allows researchers to draw attention to what can be learned from the single case. …

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