How do public libraries stay relevant in the age of the internet? That's the million dollar question that every public library on the planet is currently grappling with. After all, how does a physical and finite collection of printed materials and photos compete with the endless amounts of materials that are available to anyone with a WiFi connection?
One way that the Western History and Genealogy Department at Denver Public Library is working to stay relevant to our customers is by purchasing manuscripts that simply are not available elsewhere, and making them available to the public ourselves (whether by digitizing them and/or just by having them in our physical collection). Two recent manuscript acquisitions we've made are excellent examples of this phenomenon.
What is a Manuscript?
Before moving along it's worth taking a moment to define what exactly we mean when we say manuscripts. At its simplest, a manuscript is a non-published item. A handwritten journal, is an excellent example of a manuscript, while an annotated edition of that same journal is considered published material. While our department will always have plenty of published materials that you won't find at many other libraries, it's our manuscripts that really set us apart from other institutions.
For researchers, manuscripts are invaluable primary sources that deliver history directly from the sources that were closest to it while it was happening. Primary sources are the gold standard of authenticity for researchers and are highly sought by research institutions.
The Western History Collection at DPL acquires manuscripts from a variety of sources, including donations from the public, donations from other city agencies, and purchases made from rare book and antiquities dealers.
Surviving the Dust Bowl
This year, our department acquired an amazing manuscript that exemplifies the type of items we want to add to our collection to stay relevant in the digital age and serve our researchers' needs. The item is the Journal of David Scott Grinnell or the Dust Bowl Diaries (as we refer to them in-house). These journals preserve the thoughts and recollections of Grinnell as he struggles to keep his small town pharmacy afloat in the Dust Bowl-stricken town of Hobart, Oklahoma, in 1932 and 1933.
When we saw this incredible item appear on the market, we moved quickly to acquire it and bring it to the library.
Grinnell was a fastidious journal writer who filled up two diary calendars with his observations of life in a small town that was being ravaged by natural, and man-made, forces over which its citizens had no control. Unlike many of his neighbors, Grinnell's business was doing well enough that he didn't have to resort to the desperate measures (such as pickling tumbleweed) that were the mainstay of many other Dust Bowl denizens.
This sort of first-hand glimpse into life during this grueling era is impossible to find anywhere but a primary source...and there's only one place where you can see Grinnell's diary.
Making Manuscripts Available to the Public
Once an item like the Grinnell Diaries arrives at the Western History Department, it's sent immediately to our archivists and catalogers. These folks use a very specialized skill set to make sure the diaries are described in a manner that makes it possible for researchers to easily find it. Once they've completed their work the items are available for use by the public.
While our catalog is easily searchable, we'll frequently take some extra steps to ensure that recent acquisitions are not lost in the vast holdings of our collection. One way we do this is by introducing the items at staff meetings. This helps librarians stay abreast of what's new in the collection and allows them to provide suggestions to researchers about items pertinent to their research.
We'll also write blogs (like this one!) that not only bring the diaries to the attention of the public, but also bring them to the attention of search engines, such as Google. Once our blogs have been indexed by search engine bots, anyone in the world who searches terms like "Dust Bowl" and "Dust Bowl Manuscripts" will be aware of the fact that we have exactly what they're looking for.
Moving Forward to a Relevant Future
Our efforts at acquiring one-of-a-kind items are just one piece of a much larger effort at Denver Public Library to keep our institution as useful to the general public as possible. These efforts include, but are by no means limited to, the work being done at the ideaLAB, Computer Technology Center and our Services for Immigrants and Refugees. As long as we're providing materials and services that cannot be found elsewhere at no cost to the general public, there will always be a place for the public library in public life.
The Dust Bowl Diaries, and our entire Western History Collection, is available for public viewing during library hours on Floor 5 of the Central Library.