Think Locally | Editorial

Virtually every public library has something in its local history or current circumstances that could serve as the seed of a program that personalizes big-picture issues by focusing on their relevance to patrons’ own lives and communities.

Local focus can be a library superpower

Meredith Schwartz head shotAsk people what they think about global warming and you’re likely to get a general answer, heavily informed by political allegiance. But ask local farmers how their crops have changed in the past 20 years, or city planners about flooding, or park rangers about wildfires, and you’ll start a very different conversation: one that reflects the real-world experiences, concerns, and needs of its participants—and opens the door to greater engagement and understanding between those who start on opposing sides.

That’s why the partnership between 21 Wisconsin public libraries and the University of Wisconsin–Madison on an online course called Changing Weather and Climate in the Great Lakes Region still sticks in my head six years after we wrote about it. “It’s clear the programs that affect our daily lives and relate to people’s understanding of their lives are the ones that resonate and hit home,” Terri Fleming, Fond du Lac Public Library community information coordinator, said in that article, and the nearly 4,000 Wisconsin residents who took the four-week class clearly agreed.

Dayton Metro Library, OH, recently hosted an exhibit that does similar work in bringing home why it is important to study racism in U.S. history. Undesign the Redline literally invites viewers to place themselves on the map and see whether they were disadvantaged by or benefited from housing segregation. It is supported by tours, virtual programs, companion art exhibits, and, of course, booklists. And it’s not just for Dayton; the traveling Undesigning the Redline exhibit from design studio designing the WE offers a preexisting framework for cultural institutions to adapt using local maps and stories.

Other libraries have built their own projects to grapple with the local impacts of racism, notably the work Tulsa Library, OK, did around the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Angela Tucker at Johnson County Library, KS, and her colleagues present Race Project KC, including segregation bus tours to see the ongoing impact of redlining today. And Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room, led by Andrea Blackman, uses the city’s local history to train police officers to improve their treatment of the Black community. Of course, programs like these have emotional and sometimes traumatic impact; those looking to adapt these examples should be sure to include support for staff as well as patrons.

While not every library will have the partnerships and resources to create such a major program right away, chances are, virtually every public library has something in its local history or current circumstances that could serve as the seed of a program that personalizes big-picture issues by focusing on their relevance to patrons’ own lives and communities. Every location is impacted by climate change and the pandemic—the latter can be addressed by considering past epidemics, such as the 1918 flu, or the adoption of previous vaccines such as the one for polio. With more than 10,000 former sundown towns in the U.S., plus closed pools and other examples of resistance to integration, there is no shortage of object lessons on the impacts of racism that shape our lived experiences. Local history may also offer opportunities to reckon with land seized from Indigenous tribes and the harm done by nearby residential schools or Japanese American concentration camps, such as the Central Arkansas Library System’s collection documenting life in the Rohwer camp.

Nor is it just public libraries. Academic libraries are increasingly delving into their own campus archives to reckon with buildings built by enslaved workers or with money donated by slaveholders, evidence of quota systems for admissions, blackface in yearbooks, and more.

Whether librarians start by learning local history to see what striking events occurred, exploring current local issues and seeking out their historical antecedents, or researching national and global issues to discover their local impact, those looking to convene conversations that go beyond entrenched viewpoints are well advised to begin by digging deep into what makes their own communities unique—and then develop the connections that show what all our communities have in common, the forces that shape them, and the changes they can effect to make a difference both within and beyond their borders.

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Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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