Public history and public libraries: A natural affinity
28 April 2015 – Jeff Manuel
I’ve always loved a public library. The public library in my hometown was just across the street from my dad’s office. In middle school, I would walk there after school and read books until my dad picked me up at five o’clock. Now that I teach public history classes at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, I have come to see how valuable public libraries are as forums for collaboration between university-based public history programs and local communities. Public history and public libraries have a natural affinity. We should work together more often and speak up about the value of these collaborations.
In 2014, I coordinated two semester-long collaborations between public history students and public libraries near my campus in southwestern Illinois. Students in my upper-division public history class designed a small exhibit on the 1918 lynching of German immigrant Robert Prager in Collinsville, Illinois. I challenged the students to interpret the history of this controversial event for public audiences. They quickly honed in on the idea of a small exhibit to raise awareness of the event, which is rarely taught in the Collinsville schools and has been largely erased from the town’s memory.
Although Collinsville has a local history museum, the students elected to build the exhibit in the town’s handsome public library. The library gets more foot traffic than the museum, is open more often, and, most importantly, had empty display cases we could use. The exhibit was completed in May 2014 and stayed up throughout the summer. It attracted some local attention and even caught the eye of national media. National Public Radio’s All Things Considered viewed the exhibit while taping a show in St. Louis about German influences in the United States before World War 1. (Alas, the show never aired.)
In Fall 2014, students in my oral history class partnered with the Edwardsville Public Library to record oral history interviews for the library’s ongoing Edwardsville Speaks oral history project. Students selected interviewees who could speak to town-gown relations over the years and recorded interviews (often in the public library) that will be uploaded to the project’s SoundCloud page. Both projects were successful in large part thanks to outstanding partnerships with local public libraries.
There are several reasons why local public libraries make valuable partners for university-based public history projects. First, public libraries have a more diverse audience than most small history museums or university libraries. Although small history museums often do an outstanding job of drawing attention to local histories, the audience for these museums is self-selected. People visit them because they’re already curious about history (student field trips are the exception). Your local public library, in contrast, reaches a wide swath of the public who come to the library for many different reasons: to find a new book, to vote, to access the Internet, or just to find a warm and dry place to spend the day. My students’ projects were seen by more people, and a wider range of people, because they were in the public library.
Library visitors need content, too. I have found that local libraries are hungry for interesting objects and exhibits to fill their display cases, which are often turned over every season or even monthly. In Collinsville, the library was happy to have my students’ exhibit because an old exhibit (of local cowbells) needed to be replaced with something fresh.
Public libraries are also less afraid of controversial or radical histories than many historical sites or small museums. This is important for those of us who see public history as a way to engage the public in understanding difficult or uncomfortable topics from the past. A great deal of ink has been spilled by public historians who ask why some historical institutions are so reluctant to engage in controversial histories. Contrast this reluctance with the example of Banned Book Week, when public libraries prominently display books that have been banned in the past. Can you imagine the Smithsonian prominently recreating the Enola Gay exhibit every year? If we read carefully in the professional public history literature, there are examples of public libraries taking on controversial topics long before historical museums or sites were on board. For instance, historian Stephanie Yuhl notes that for many years the only public commemoration of Sacco and Venzetti was a bas-relief hanging in the Boston Public Library. Professional history organizations and sites shied away from this chapter of radical history, but the public library hung the controversial bas-relief on the wall. I was initially concerned about these issues when I proposed an exhibit on the Prager lynching to the Collinsville Public Library. The lynching was easily the most controversial thing that ever happened in town, and I worried the library would be hesitant to prominently display information about it. They didn’t bat an eye.
Reflecting on these collaborations between public history and public libraries, I glimpse an alternative vision of our field. Rather than seeing ourselves primarily as a subfield of historians focused on engaging with public audiences, we might re-imagine public historians as specialists in public engagement who happen to focus on history. And we’re hardly the only public library patrons who have expertise to share. Even on my quiet Midwestern street, several of my neighbors use the public library to engage the public in their own passions and interests. For instance, my neighbor travels to Ghana every year with a nonprofit group, and she gives public talks at the library about Ghanaian culture. Another neighbor shares parenting tips during toddler storytime. At the public library, I am not foremost a public historian. I’m just another member of the public. I happen to have more interest and background in history than others, but we all have our strengths to share. And our overdue fines to pay off.
~ Jeff Manuel is an assistant professor in the Department of Historical Studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
 Stephanie E. Yuhl, “Sculpted Radicals: The Problem of Sacco and Vanzetti in Boston’s Public Memory,” The Public Historian 32, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 14-19.