Living in the Past
In small and rural libraries all across the U.S., librarians are not only providing unique services that reflect their community’s needs, but are also wearing many different hats and juggling many responsibilities at the same time. For this issue’s column, I had to look no further than the office right next to mine for rural library inspiration. I hope you enjoy this chat I had with Benson Memorial Library (Titusville, Pa.) historian Jessica Hilburn as much as I enjoy working with her.
You work at a small(ish) rural library, and with that comes a lot of job responsibilities. How do you manage mashing up your historian activities with the day-to-day stuff you have to do?
Wearing multiple hats definitely makes every day different and interesting. It also helps me keep my finger on the pulse of the community—what they are interested in, how their tastes are changing, what problems they are facing, how we can best serve them and meet them where they are.
I always have multiple to-do lists going: separate ones for grant applications/closeouts, summer reading, winter reading, adult programming, history requests, blog posts, future planning, conferences, ARC reviews, etc. When I get overwhelmed, I just remind myself that all of this work is for the benefit of the people I love most—my community.
Tell us about your local history events and other things you’re offering at the library to bring in adults.
Adults are incredibly challenging—especially adults with no children—to draw to the library, and I relish the challenge. In order to entice them, I have established a set schedule of programming that they can rely on month-to-month. I think routinization helps in keeping program numbers up because people begin to unconsciously remember that they should be at the library on a certain day and time.
On the first Tuesday of every month, I hold an alternating trivia night and book bingo night. Both are family events that people really seem to enjoy because they can come and make new friends or participate as a group with their families. We also theme the trivia if there is a request or a holiday.
The second Tuesday is devoted to history and heritage programming. I have done a variety of presentations such as how to access and read census and vital records, the role DNA plays in genealogy, taking people to explore the history of local cemeteries and the citizens interred there, food programs featuring family recipes, a quilt show, and bringing in guest speakers to talk about historical events they lived through.
What are the activities of a historian working in a public library?
The most popular requests are house histories, obituary requests, and genealogy roadblocks. People are extremely interested in their homes—when they were built, who lived there, what were they like—and I love being able not only to perform the research, but also craft the story of previous occupants’ lives. History isn’t just the “great men,” but all people who have lived. The Joneses who lived on Spruce Street in 1880 are just as important to me and deserve to be remembered.
The most interesting requests I get are what I call ghost requests. They usually come from people who have had weird experiences in their homes and wonder if anyone died there (don’t freak out, but if you live in a single-family home older than 1950, chances are someone died there).
A Distinct Character
Meg Backus and I worked together for a year at the Chattanooga Public Library in Tennessee, and in that brief but wonderful time, Meg constantly challenged and inspired me to think differently about libraries. Six years later, I still call upon her wisdom at least once a month to help me better serve my community.
Congrats on your new job as the executive director of the Northern New York Library Network (NNYLN). This is your first time leading an organization. What are some of the goals and projects you have for yourself and the organization in your first year at NNYLN?
My goals for the first year are mostly about my own learning of a new setting and an impressive organization and building relationships in my region. NNYLN is an organization one step removed from library practice; we’re here to support and develop strong libraries of all types (public, academic, school, special) within the seven northern counties in New York state. Our audience is primarily library workers, although we’re also responsible for a giant database of historical New York newspapers used by researchers of all kinds, the public included. I expect my first major undertaking will be to expand the forms our professional development offerings take, incorporating project-based learning methods and regenerative design, carried out via local partnerships.
A few years back, you made the leap of a lifetime and accepted a job at the Anchorage Public Library in Alaska. What made you go on that adventure, what did you learn from living and working up there, and what would you say to people who are thinking about making a big life change like that for a job?
I had never lived in a place with such distinct character. If your family is not local, then they are many, many, many hours away, which contributes to a spirit of acceptance and of community in Anchorage. That is a special environment for a public library. Irresistible.
When I visited the library before accepting the job offer, the director told me, “You can do more here.” She meant that in a less remote area, the candidate pool would be bigger and I would not be competitive for a department head position with such high-level responsibilities. The job was challenging and rewarding, and I learned a ton of new technical skills and administrative practices.
Back in 2010, you helped start up the LibraryFarm community garden at the Northern Onondaga Public Library in New York, a half-acre plot of land where community members garden, share space, teach each other about gardening, and more. What inspired that project? Are you happy with how the project has continued and grown through the years?
The LibraryFarm was inspired by a mix of social and environmental issues, an interest in horizontal leadership structures within communities, and Michael Buckland’s 1991 article “Information as Thing” (preprint), which had a powerful impact on my understanding of library resources and services. The LibraryFarm was more than a community garden; it was a hackerspace that intervened in questions about responsibility, property, health, and more, and it undermined ideological differences among participants.
I was thrilled that the LibraryFarm continued after I left and blown away when I saw the library eventually created a position to manage it. That’s an indisputable sign that the library and the community value the resource, that I was able to make a contribution. I think the project has developed differently than my original vision for it, which is beautiful and to be expected.