Public Libraries Yield Research Treasures for Historical Novelists
I’ve talked quite a bit about university libraries’ digital collections in past posts. But you should know that the larger public libraries in many English-speaking countries have begun to join their university counterparts in offering digitized historical materials on their websites.
Placement of digitized collections on public library websites is apparently not standardized. Sometimes it takes some digging to find the digital collections inside a library’s homepage. One of the collections I mention in this post was found under the “local history” link, one was found under “community album”, and another under the unpromising tab “books and media”.
To find public libraries’ digital collections, it’s probably best to type “[name of library] digital collections” into your favorite search engine. That should help cut more directly to the appropriate digital collections page.
Here are examples of public library digital collections that will be useful to historical novelists:
ALLEN COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY, FORT WAYNE, INDIANA (US)
If your research needs documents from the history of a mid-sized US Midwestern city, Allen County Public Library in Indiana offers digital images and documents on its “Community Album” page. Includes: photos from the history of Fort Wayne and Allen County, photos taken by a firefighter/photographer documenting life in a 20th-century fire department, a historic postcard collection, records of the International Harvester Corporation and the Nickel Plate Railroad, and photos of damage from a 2012 derecho storm. Allen County Library is also noted for having the largest public genealogy collection in the US.
Image: 1929 Studebaker Fire Truck, courtesy of the Allen County Public Library, Ft. Wayne, Indiana
HAMILTON PUBLIC LIBRARY, ONTARIO (CANADA)
This photo is of the first set of refugee children evacuated from London in 1940 to reach Hamilton, Ontario, pictured with their hosts Mr. and Mrs. Stohge. The Hamilton Public Library offers 12,000 images of the history of Hamilton, Ontario and the surrounding areas, including Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Welland Canal, etc. Any novelist researching southeastern Ontario history will find useful material on HPL’s website.
Image: First child evacuees from London to arrive in Hamilton, Ontario, 1940, courtesy of the Hamilton Public Library, Local History & Archives
ENOCH PRATT FREE LIBRARY, BALTIMORE, MARYLAND (US)
One of Enoch Pratt’s stars of their extensive digital collections has materials related to Edgar Allan Poe, including a portrait, locks of his hair, family letters, and original works in his handwriting. The macabre among us may appreciate seeing a photo of a piece of Poe’s original coffin. Anyone writing a novel about Poe will be glad to find this treasure-trove. Pratt’s digital offerings are especially rich, including the great Baltimore fire of 1904, a collection of over 71,000 greeting cards dating back to 1870 (useful to get the details right if your character is sending a greeting card), H.L. Mencken papers and artifacts, images of Maryland Colonial currency (I had never seen this kind of Colonial artifact before), World War I and II posters, and slave documents.
Image: Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe, creator and date unknown, courtesy of Enoch Pratt Free Library, Maryland’s State Library Resource Center. All rights reserved.
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE, PUBLIC LIBRARY (US)
This photograph of Grace McKinley walking her daughter to school in Nashville in 1957 while trying to ignore anti-desegregation protesters is part of Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights collection, which also includes numerous oral histories. Writers setting a novel in the 1950s’ South will find story ideas and documentation to plot incidents during the Civil Rights era. NPL’s digital collections also include photos of the city’s 2010 flood, documents and sketches of a local architect and an interior designer with celebrity clients, the archives of the Nashville Banner newspaper, and historic postcards. Anyone researching Tennessee history will want to consult this site.
Image: Grace McKinley walking her daughter to school in 1957. Copyright Nashville Public Library, Special Collections. Used with permission.
ADELAIDE CITY COUNCIL/CITY LIBRARIES (AUSTRALIA)
Here’s an image of firefighters from the “Adelaide Picture Collection,” offered by the Public Library of the city of Adelaide in Australia. The main link will take you to a page called “ACC History Hub,” offering photos of Adelaide from the mid-19th century through to the 1970s. The site also invites local residents to bring their own historical photographs to the library, where they will be digitized and added to a “ReLive Adelaide” collection. Both of these collections are searchable by topic.
Image: John Martin & Co. Fire, Adelaide, Australia [undated], Courtesy of City of Adelaide Archives.
UK PUBLIC LIBRARIES
Many thanks to Regency author Louise Allen, who informed me that “virtually all local [UK] authorities have separated their public library services from their archives. In most, the local studies collections (printed books and pamphlets, photographs, newspapers and printed maps) remain with the library service. The manuscript material goes to archives, although for most of them you’ll find important printed works in the archive collection as well as reference sources. Some library services have digitized their photograph collections.
“Where you’ve got a County Council as the top level of local government, the archives rest with them. In counties with a lot of major urban centres which are self-governing it can become complicated. One easy way to work out where stuff is, is to look in the Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers (which ought to be in any reasonably sized library’s family history section as a reference book. That gives the record offices/archives for each county.). Or choose an administrative area and simply Google e.g. ‘Hertfordshire archives’. That should lead to the online catalogues and to the phone numbers.”
Allen provided an example of a link to a document outlining where to find online resources for Norfolk. Another example is an online collection for Lincolnshire: “‘Lincs to the Past’ is a site that contains hundreds of thousands of records covering items held in Lincolnshire’s Historic Environment Record, Archives, Libraries, Museums and Tennyson Research Centre.” It has collections on Joseph Banks, Tennyson, windmills, and examples of painted cloth from the late 17th century.
NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY
New York Public Library’s online collection of digital documents is so wonderful and extensive, it’s worth promoting to authors and researchers. Just be aware that if you find a document you like when using their site, looking is free, but if you want to download one, be prepared to pay.
I came across NYPL’s collection by chance, after watching CBS’s “Sunday Morning” TV program when the show aired a food-themed episode in November. It included a segment that mentioned that NYPL had a large menu collection.
The Miss Frank E. Buttolph American Menu Collection ranges between 1851 and 1930, though most menus are from 1890-1910. Writers setting scenes in an American restaurant of that era will want to consult this site to get menu items and prices correct.
I was amazed at the variety of topics in the NYPL digital collection. Here are just some that might be useful to novelists, several of which may also be useful to non-US researchers: Native American portraits, early baseball photos, New York City history, cigarette cards and other tobacco advertising, fashion history, photos of immigrants at Ellis Island, Regency-era decorative arts, Japanese woodcuts, African American history, medieval manuscripts, and theater history.
When I visited NYPL’s site in November 2014, they were advertising the beta version of their digital collections page, “evolving in the coming months”. So by the time this article is published, the following link may replace the current one: http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Metadata and Archives Librarian at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.