or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Town-Wide History Project

   November 20th, 2008

Town of Chelmsford sealSomething new my library is undertaking is a Town-Wide History Project. Our goal is to create a master index of all of the historical records in town, so we'll know where different types of information is stored. Phase 2 will be preservation and digitization of as much of this as possible.

Good idea? Yes. Lot of work? More than we realize.

We expect this process to take years, so we're trying to start slow and small so as not to get overwhelmed. We're also trying to document everything as we go along, so we'll have a record of how we went about doing this, and when certain things were accomplished. Since other libraries might be interested in the same sort of project, here's our progress so far (I'll occasionally post updates, too).

Our Process
I'm told that this was tried about eight years ago in Chelmsford, but was abandoned less than a year after it started. The library was approached a few months ago to try again, and I immediately took to the idea. A comprehensive local history finding aid would be very valuable at the reference desk.

In addition to library staff, we also have a volunteer who has been helping with a lot of the work. She's been responsible for most of the data entry and envelope stuffing, and will also be helping when it comes to visiting each site to do an inventory. Without her, most of these steps would have been much more difficult.

  1. Meet to organize project - A project like this will have a lot of meetings. Initially library staff met with our volunteers to define the scope and goal of the project, and to create a rough timeline
  2. Identify groups in town with historical records/artifacts - In our case, we had a few resources that helped with this. Since a similar project was begun a few years ago, some of their records still existed, including a list of the organizations involved. Another tool is our Community Information database, which lists non-profit groups in town. My volunteer also found official Town departments and boards which might have historical records
  3. Compile a list of groups - The volunteer took these various lists and created a master contact list as an Excel spreadsheet, with just name, address, phone, email, website and contact name
  4. Contact the groups - While the volunteer was compiling the spreadsheet of names, we were also drafting a letter that would introduce the project to these groups, and a preliminary survey, which would be sent along with the letter. The goal of the survey was to give library staff an idea of how much materials each group had, what kind of shape it was in, and where it was located:

    To mail them, we did a simple mail-merge between Word and Excel, and enclosed a stamped return envelope. We also enclosed a list of all the groups contacted, in the hopes that the recipients will be able to suggests organizations we didn't think of.

    Also in the cover letter, we invited everyone to a meet-and-greet type introductory meeting, scheduled about a month in advance

  5. Compile the returned surveys - As the surveys were returned, we compiled the answers into the same spreadsheet we had begun. We used a different worksheet, and kept track of who replied, if the contact information had changed, and how they answered the questions. On another worksheet, we aggregated the answers for all groups, so we'd know how many map collections were in town, how many were available online, etc.

    At this point we have outgrown Excel, and need a database for our needs, not just a simple spreadsheet. I'm going to have to find a tool to accomplish this before the project grows more, because the less data we have to rekey, the better.

  6. Introductory meeting - We wanted our first face-to-face meeting not be a lecture by library staff, but more of a conference, where all participates in the group were equal. Library staff did lead the meeting to give an overview of what we had in mind, but once things got going the other attendees really began to take ownership of the idea and see a role for their organization.

This is as far as we are in the process right now - which is to say, the very, very beginning. The consensus at the meeting (which was just last night) was to invite a speaker to give an overview on what kind of materials are historically-important, and what groups can do to prepare for an on-site inventory. The groups also wanted to see examples of what the end result will look like (for our project, we're using communities like Westford, Sudbury and Ipsiwch as models).

We're going to plan that for late January/early February, and then start scheduling site visits for initial inventories. How those first few site visits go will shape how we proceed, and help define who does what. Eventually we will apply for a grant, to help with the preservation and digitization aspects.

It's an exciting project, just massive. I'm happy that the town is behind such a project, and that it is being coordinated by the library. Local history questions are often the most difficult to answer, and a project like this will go a long way to ensuring this information is both available and accessible to researchers and the curious alike.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to “Town-Wide History Project”

  1. Suzanne Says:

    Northfield, MN, is undertaking a similar project, the Northfield History Collaborative, spearheaded by the municipal and county historical societies and the two local colleges. It might be valuable for you to connect with them.

  2. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Suzanne: thank you for the tip. I need to start contacting groups who have already done this to find out what software they’re using to manage the information and make it web-searchable.