The power of library content to connect us…personally

Bonnie Allen

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As librarians, we digitize, collect, archive and promote content collections for many different reasons. Our digital collection management efforts often revolve around the idea of preserving materials for historic and scholarly purposes. That’s obviously important, and librarians have always played a major role in such programs. But sometimes we discover far more personal connections to these materials.

While I was working on the Montana Memory Project from 2009–2012, it made perfect sense that some of the students we sent to the National Archives would be Native Americans, as the materials they were digitizing were from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Local history being preserved by local students for the use of historians is often a part of these programs. What we were not expecting, however, was that some of our students would find materials that involved their own direct ancestors.

In some cases, the documents being scanned had actually been handled, signed or marked by the students’ own family members. How thrilling for them that was! Even something as simple as a telegram or deed can hold so much meaning when you know the background personally.

More than any other project I’ve worked on, that brought home how important the work we do is. Not just for scholarship and study. But for the deep, personal connections that our efforts make possible. We are, in many ways, the sum of our ancestors and their history. To be able to touch and preserve and understand a small part of what shaped them—and us—is a rare privilege.

Guest contributor Bonnie Allen is Dean of James E. Walker Library, Middle Tennessee State University, and Chair, OCLC Americas Regional Council.

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