ARCHIVES ALIVE Shines Light on Special Collections Programs

“Some institutions are reimagining traditional programs in the form of interactive exhibits and experiential tours, while others are experimenting with digital tools to enhance collections access, build new community connections and encourage citizen participation. Individually and collectively, the new programs and projects are repositioning special collections as core assets of our public libraries in the 21st century.”

Diantha Dow Schull, Author, Archives Alive

Archives Alive: Expanding Engagement with Public Library Archives and Special Collections is the first book to examine public library archives and special collections through the lens of public engagement.   Published by ALA Editions, the book will be available June 2015.  RESERVE YOUR COPY TODAY

Authored by Diantha Dow Schull, an expert on cultural institution programming, Archives Alive features:

  • A review of key trends in public library archival and special collections programming.
  • 104 examples of programs and projects that foster awareness and use of special collections.
  • Profiles of 13 special collections departments that are models of change.
  • Testimonials from many of the nation’s most creative librarians and archivists.

Archives Alive is a unique survey that reveals librarians’ capacities to build new connections between archives and their communities. It is also a call to action, implying the need for a professional conversation about the importance of archives and special collections for the future of public and digital libraries.

Archives Alive is structured to provide entry points to the key trends and programming approaches found in libraries across the county. Each of the ten chapters focuses on a major programming category such as Art and Archives, Educational Initiatives and Community Documentation Projects. Within these chapters program models range from interactive exhibitions and crowdsourcing projects to experiential tours and social archives.

Described by the author as a “report from the field,” the book illuminates a landscape characterized by experimentation and change. The following examples, drawn from Archives Alive, illustrate the changes that are occurring and their implications for public engagement with special collections in the digital age.

John Cage Unbound: A Living Archive John Cage Unbound: A Living Archive is an experimental archive developed by the Music Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to “allow the world to experience” its John Cage Music Manuscript Collection. In content and design the site reflects the philosophy of avant-garde composer John Cage, featuring crowdsourced videos of performances narrated by musicians, students, and others working to interpret Cage’s music. It also includes select copies of Cage’s manuscripts, photographs, and ephemera.

As a source for research, a performance forum, and a stimulus for new compositions, it is an instructive example of a new type of archive, a “living archive.” According to Jonathan Hiam, Curator of American Music and the Rogers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound:

“We want to inspire and engage with John Cage’s unique vision of music and its role in the world. In doing so, we hope to advance our knowledge of Cage and his work by sparking a global conversation among musicians, artists, and creative thinkers.”

Edible History Edible History: How Latin American Food Evolved and Transformed the World  was a 2014 exhibition mounted at the Newark (NJ) Public Library that examined the history and cultures of Latin America “through the lens of food.” The exhibit drew from the library’s various research collections, including Special Collections and the New Jersey History Research and Information Center (NJHRC).

With an array of accompanying programs involving Latin American chefs, writers, historians, performers, restaurant owners, and museum professionals, the exhibit provided a unique framework for the library’s commemoration of Hispanic Heritage Month. In addition, the Edible History exhibition initiative demonstrated how a public library can draw on its collections to enhance routine commemorations and to move beyond celebration to intellectual and cultural exploration.

Forty Families

The Forty Families Project of The Palos Verdes (CA) Public Library District is one of many dynamic community documentation and oral history projects profiled in Archives Alive. The project was prompted by questions about a 1923 photograph of forty Japanese American families from a farming community on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Those questions have resulted in a growing archive on the histories of these families, most of whom were interned in camps during World War II.

Through community outreach, family history research, oral history interviews, public events and social media volunteers and library staff have identified 65% of the individuals in the photograph as well as numerous descendants and relatives. They have also collected family files, books, maps, photographs, videos and art work, created exhibitions and public programs, and demonstrated the impact of one historical image on a community’s understanding of its past. Monique Sugimoto, Local History Librarian, states that:

“New advances in technology and the dedication of local history researchers are helping to reclaim an important aspect of the region’s history.”

Faces, Spaces and PlacesThe Houston Public Library’s Exhibit Snapshot (THPLES) is a new software tool that provides an interactive exhibition experience for viewers who cannot physically attend library exhibitions.

THPLES was developed by the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, a part of the library’s Special Collections Department. Serving as a vehicle for outreach and education, the tool offers virtual tours of library exhibitions, close-ups views of exhibit panels and captions, access to details on individual images and objects and opportunities to ask questions about or comment on the objects and exhibit themes. THPLES also has operational benefits by linking separate functions – preservation, exhibitions and digitization — around a common product and program.

Launched in 2012 with Faces, Spaces and Places, an exhibition based on glass plate negatives, THPLES helps expand access to Houston’s special collections and staff expertise while using its physical and digital spaces for the benefit of an unlimited public. Elizabeth Sargent, Assistant Director for Special Collections and Manager of the library’s Houston Metropolitan Research Center was instrumental in the development of THPLES. She states:

“The Houston Public Library’s Exhibit Snapshot is a tool that helps us fulfill the library’s mission to ‘Link People to the World.’ Exhibit Snapshots for our in-library exhibits complement these exhibits, preserve them in digital format, and enable anyone, anywhere to access them and interact with them.”

Golden Gate Bridge Construction Old SF and History Mysteries, are two of the crowdsourcing projects carried out by the San Francisco History Center / Book Arts and Special Collections that have added vital descriptive information to the library’s collections of historical photographs and maps. With the assistance of expert volunteers the library designed digital tools for garnering residents’ knowledge of the city and its neighborhoods. These tools, combined with outreach through hackathons and social media, have engaged many residents as citizen archivists. According to Christina Moretta, Curator of Photographic Collections:

“We are getting enormous and helpful feedback from community members who can identify the content and locations of photographs in the collection. By using social media tools we are expanding community engagement with the photo collections and deepening understanding of San Francisco history.”

Immigrant Voices Immigrant Voices is one of several oral history projects organized by the Special Collections Division of the Nashville (TN) Public Library. The Library has long been recognized as a leader in oral history through its national Civil Rights Oral History Project. Through new initiatives, including collaboration with the national organization StoryCorps, the library is recording and preserving the oral narratives of Nashville’s newest residents, including members of the city’s Latino, Somali, Laotian, Kurdish, Vietnamese and Sudanese communities.

The Flood History Project, which has involved numerous community partners and volunteers, documents the impact of a major flood that devastated downtown Nashville in 2010. Andrea Blackman, Special Collections Division Manager, believes that oral history is especially effective in engaging people with history:

“Oral history provides a venue for public discourse about the meaning of certain events or experiences. Interviewees go beyond nostalgia to reflect on the larger significance of their experiences, and the people who listen to them connect more readily than if the reports were far away and abstract.”

Year of the Bard The Year of the Bard: Shakespeare at 450 was a year-long celebration organized by The Free Library of Philadelphia in 2014 that centered around the library’s extraordinary research collections on Shakespeare and his influence.  A major exhibition by the Rare Books Division, Shakespeare for All Time, provided the catalyst for the celebration.  The exhibition of manuscripts and books from the Elizabethan Age included Shakespeare’s First Folio, one of the rarest books in existence.

The library described the Year of the Bard as “a year packed full of engaging, enlightening and entertaining programs and events designed to celebrate Shakespeare in all his classic and modern incarnations.” With partners such the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre and the Philadelphia Ballet, the library offered films, lectures, an insult contest, digital and live exhibitions, pop-up and theatrical performances and a birthday party at multiple locations. Janine Pollack, Rare Book Department Manager and Curator of Shakespeare for All Time, observed:

“It is inspiring to see the impact of a Rare Book Department exhibition, how it is radiating outward from Parkway Central Library and how the material speaks to everyone. This is where book arts and high culture meet popular culture, for public benefit.”

All the projects summarized above, and more than 100 others, are brought together in Archives Alive, the first publication to examine programming practices in public library special collections. From digital archives and teacher institutes to community albums and artists residencies, the programs profiled in Archives demonstrate the enduring power of special collections and their importance for the evolution of public libraries in the 21st century.

Archives Alive is also the first publication to present the perspectives of contemporary archivists and librarians who are transforming traditional practices and reimagining public access in the digital age. The voices of these professionals, from large urban libraries, public library consortia and smaller community libraries, complement the case studies and offer insights regarding the challenges and opportunities of special collections librarianship today.

To learn more about Archives Alive visit


Archives Alive: Expanding Engagement with Public Library Archives and Special Collections