Genealogy & Local History in Buffalo, NY

Shameless Begging: Ten Low Budget Collection Development Techniques for Local History Collection Development

By Cynthia Van Ness, © 2000

Originally published in FGS Forum, v. 12 No. 2, Summer 2000, pp. 23-24.

The librarian who serves a genealogical clientele usually has collection development responsibilities in the area of local history, too, as the two subjects are dependent upon and reinforce each other. Unless you work at a major facility, your budget for such acquisitions is probably small. You may live in a community without a regional publisher producing local history books for purchase. In most places, local history collection development requires active solicitation (of people in your community) rather than passive selection (from publishers' catalogs).

If your budget is miniscule and/or there are few commercial sources for local history materials, here are some strategies for building a collection. They are based on my experience as a local history & genealogy librarian in a public library in a mid-sized, economically challenged Northeastern city. Don't think for a moment that I've been able to carry out each idea; plenty are still on my wish list. Remember to consult your organization's policies and procedures before you act.

Three attitudes will help immensely in your work: respect, fascination, enthusiasm.

  • Respect for your patrons. Local history buffs, especially those younger than "codger," often get the message that their projects are vaguely wierd. They will respond warmly to your respect.
  • Fascination for your community: if you don't think that your city's history is fascinating, then no one else will, either.
  • Enthusiasm for anything published in or about your area, no matter how ephemeral or minor: a Buffalo imprint is all I need to see to want to acquire an item for my collection.

Items that you might consider collecting and retaining, if you aren't already:

  • City or county directories, telephone books, "criss-cross" directories
  • Church histories
  • Family histories and genealogies
  • School yearbooks & histories
  • Company histories, annual reports, newsletters, product catalogs
  • Restaurant & nightclub menus (especially if there are legendary establishments in your area)
  • City planning reports, proposals, studies, environmental impact statements
  • Organizational publications (newsletters, proposals, programs from awards dinners, etc.)
  • Community newspapers (publications intended for segments of your population: seniors, youth, religious denominations, neighborhoods, the gay & lesbian community, ethnic groups, suburbs, entertainment guides, etc.)
  • Photographs & postcards
  • Tourism brochures
  • Dissertations & theses (especially if there is a university nearby)
  • Television & video footage
  • Maps & atlases

After you’ve decided which materials to collect, begin to get the word out to your community that your library wants to build up its Local History Collection.

  1. Tactic: write up a Call For Materials, in which you list those items you most wish to acquire and how patrons can make donations. Add it to your library's Web site. Make one into a bookmark to be given out at the circulation desk. Hang it up on your bulletin board. Send it out as a press release or a Public Service Announcement radio script.
  2. Tactic: if your library is part of a larger organization (county government, a university), request permission from your payroll office to insert a short flier into everyone's paychecks. Invite your coworkers to consider the library when their churches publish their histories, when they have unwanted high school yearbooks, etc.
  3. Tactic: introduce yourself to the officials in your local government most likely to produce publications: city planners, executive officers, school board, highway department, etc. Ask to be put on municipal mailing lists.
  4. Tactic: attend public meetings on local controversies and look for literature tables with free handouts (for example, new commercial developments frequently draw vocal opposition, motivating people to produce publications arguing against the project).
  5. Tactic: if there is a college or university nearby, students might choose or be assigned to study your community’s architecture, industries, ethnic groups, and so on. Introduce yourself to professors and offer to give class tours of your library or department. If students then return to work on papers with a local theme, ask if they might consider donating a copy to the library when they are finished. Then have your business card ready.
  6. Tactic: if a patron has something interesting, unique, or old and doesn’t wish to part with it, ask if you may make a photocopy for the library’s collection. This tactic is usable only when you are reasonably sure that applicable copyrights have expired.
  7. Tactic: if you enjoy yard sales and second hand stores, examine the used books. Amidst the National Geographics, romance novels, and textbooks you might find all manner of locally-published material--for pennies. I look at all slender, noncommercial-looking pamphlets or booklets at used-bok sales. And I have a patron who will stop and examine books left on the curb if it looks like there are high school yearbooks being tossed--and these she will donate to my library.
  8. Tactic: establish a Researchers' Registry. Start a file in which your local history & genealogy patrons may voluntarily add cards for the families or topics that they are researching and how they prefer to be contacted. When you get to know your researchers, you might start noticing items in your collection that this or that researcher would want to see. The Researcher's Registry then gives you a mechanism for contacting him or her. Many of these dogged researchers go on to publish their work in one form or another, and may remember your kindness by donating to you the source materials that they collected along the way, or copies of their books or articles.
  9. Tactic: have any buildings or structures in your county been added to the Historic American Buildings Survey or the Historic American Engineering Structures Report (HABS/HAER)? Check the HABS/HAER page at the Library of Congress Web site to find out and, if so, consider acquiring copies. [http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/hhhtml/hhhome.html]
  10. Tactic: invite collectors with vintage photographs of your community to display them. Ask permission to photocopy all images displayed and record all names, dates, places, etc. These can be inexpensively bound and labeled with the owner's name, e.g. "The Mary Smith Photograph Collection."

One final suggestion which isn't a tactic but a tactful way to introduce your collection to local celebrities: treat all local authors as royalty. Make a little fuss over them. Even if the patron at your desk happens to have written the crudest, most amateur self-published booklet in your collection, ask him or her to autograph it. Invite them back to do research in your department for their next books. Have an annual Local Authors reception in your library and invite the public.

Perhaps this sample of low-budget collection development ideas will get you thinking of ways to involve your community in developing their local history collection.

Updated 18 March 2010