My First Year As A Local History Librarian

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2015-12-12-ScannersIn mid-October, I marked my first anniversary as the “local history librarian” at the White Plains Public Library. Four years earlier, I was a library clerk at an urban public library trying to figure out how to make a job out of my seemingly varied interests. I liked direct service, helping people, but I also valued more solitary, research driven work. I knew Intellectual freedom and a progressive, supportive community were a necessary part of any job I might hold, but I did not want to obtain a PhD or set out on my own for the wilds of self-employment. I knew I loved education, but I didn’t want to be a teacher. So the world has another librarian.

Through a friend, I began working at Albany Public Library as a Library Clerk and found the public library united my passions for working with people and knowledge in a democratic, autonomous space. Librarians can be educators without being constricted by the bureaucracy that comes with teaching. Librarians can also be historians, but don’t have to work within the traditional academic or museum systems, where publishing requirements or institutional obligations can take up lots of time. Attracted as I am to intellectual autonomy and the propagation of alternative historical voices, working as a local history librarian looked like a perfect opportunity to see if I could manifest some of these values.

Though I fell short of my personal goal to devise a better job title than “local history librarian,” I discovered in the public library an important and powerful place for historical, educational, and community-building work. My job started with a broad mandate: I was to “maintain the local history collection” and “develop programming,” all while doing the daily work of a reference librarian at a busy, urban public library. I was not sure which task to take on first, so I decided to treat my inexperience as an asset. I jumped right into processing collections, developing programs, and educating myself about the “local history” of a city I was new in.

The collection was all over the place when I arrived. It no longer had a central home (the local history room was removed during a past renovation) and represented the work of an indeterminate number of different librarian-catalogers, the first working as early as 1928. I started by just opening random boxes, pulling out clippings files, and consulting random books from the print collection. Although there was a collection guide, it was not completely current. Coming up with permanent, stable solutions for processing and housing collections has been challenging, but there is a dedicated space for the collection on the horizon and the administration is committed to creating a long-term solution.

More daunting than processing or cataloging was programming. I had some experience running a library program and learned from great mentors at Albany Public Library, where an entire program never rested solely on my shoulders. It occurred to me that rather than try to learn all I could about White Plains and then present a fully-formed public history program, I could blend my introduction to White Plains history with an introduction to White Plains people.

An oral history program was a no-brainer, and New York Public Library’s Community Oral History Project provided a strong template. People & Stories, our project, is entering its second year and going strong. People have warmly praised the accessibility of the interviews on our website and my use of them in other programs and education efforts. Former residents who live across the country have called and written to express their pleasure in listening and often suggest candidates for interviews, people “you just have to talk to.” A community design class at a local college used the oral histories as inspiration for the artwork they installed in vacant storefront windows in the downtown area.

WPHR Jan 2015 3A few months in, I developed the White Plains History Roundtable as a space where people with shared interests and varying personalities could come together and inspire each other, create new knowledge, and share. It is an educational, participatory, and social event where we hear a presentation, examine materials from the White Plains Collection, and have a discussion. I called it a Roundtable to emphasize the participatory nature and add to the sense of ownership among attendees.

We have done Roundtables on “slum clearance” during the 1930s; student resistance led by black students in the late 1960s; a speech given by Dr. Errold Collymore, a civil rights leader who lived in White Plains; affordable housing; and “Women, Work, and World War I in White Plains.” I collaborated with non-profits, community members, and local historians to develop an audience and pool of presenters for the Roundtable. It has taken relatively little work to “make local history interesting.” White Plains is a crossroads for Westchester County and a great location for examining the local manifestations of a broad set of historical themes and events. White Plains was the setting for important events in diverse circumstances — from European colonization and the Revolutionary War, to public education reform and urban renewal.

As much as possible, I try to amplify and record the voices of the people I serve. Approaching local history work from a service-based perspective excites people. There’s more than enough historical authority to go around, and I find the more diverse the group of people brought together around a project or event, the richer the results. The results are not simply increased historical knowledge among the citizens of White Plains. Many of the people I met in the course of my work are now “regulars,” friends of local history, who are great at mobilizing other people and gathering sources of historical knowledge. The “regulars” are best at identifying and utilizing people, the city’s richest historical resource.

IMG_0482I also quickly realized that I would never win a game of “Stump-The-Historian” with people twice my age who dedicated much more of their lives to studying the past in White Plains than I could ever hope to. Giving up the idea that I could “become an expert” freed me to pursue two much more important goals.

Growing the White Plains Collection and transforming the Library’s presence as a historical resource in the community are ongoing tasks. Neither is possible without attention to relationships with the people who make White Plains a place, rather than just a location. These people are not just memory-keepers or storytellers who support historical work, they are also historical actors themselves, no different from the people who we reconstitute through our work together.

In summary, my first year as a local history librarian has been enlightening. The freedom to develop collaborative, innovative programs while also fulfilling research and collections needs creates a wonderful balance between traditional local history librarian work and the emerging realm of community-based public history.

Photos by Ben Himmelfarb: Above, for Community History Day we had equipment for people to digitize their items with, computers with the White Plains History Quiz (made in collaboration with the Library’s Digital Media Specialist), and refreshments to encourage socializing and storytelling. In the middle photo people at the White Plains History Roundtable on “Slum Clearance in the 1930s.” People consult atlases, common council minutes, and ephemera from our collection. A number of the attendees lived in the neighborhoods affected by the programs of the 1930s and shared their memories and experiences. The photo at the bottom shows a group walk in the Silver Lake Preserve organized by local citizens to examine the remains of The Hills, an African-American community that existed there from the late 18th to the early 20th century. I attended with maps and relevant documents from the White Plains Collection.

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Ben Himmelfarb

About Ben Himmelfarb

Ben Himmelfarb holds master’s degrees in Information Science and History from the University at Albany, SUNY. He works as a Librarian I at the White Plains Public Library where he is responsible for the White Plains Collection and local history programming. Ben is committed to sharing and preserving alternative historical voices and the stories of people generally absent from mainstream narratives. He also makes music, writes poetry and fiction, and loves working at the reference desk. His research interests include urban renewal, social justice movements, and Dutch colonial history.

5 thoughts on “My First Year As A Local History Librarian

  1. Steve Adams

    Congratulations on what looks to be an exciting and successful start. There’s a lot of food for thought and inspiration in your post.

  2. Candace Broughton


    You nailed it! I am a retired school librarian…but if I had a choice I would have stuck with being a public librarian…trouble is out here in the hinterlands I could never have supported myself. I have visited White Plains in the past year and it strikes me as an up-and -coming place….Congratulations on your derring-do and creativity.
    Keep going and posting to the blog.


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