A visit to the Muncie, Indiana, local history library

This past weekend, I traveled to Muncie, Indiana, for a conference about CONTENTdm. The conference was on Friday and Saturday, but I went up a day early and explored Muncie (in the rain).

The first place I wanted to check out was the local history and genealogy department of the Muncie Public Library. Yes, geeky, I know.

(On a side note, I remember when I first started working at my current job, a co-worker remarked that he liked to visit other libraries while on vacation. I had never really thought about it before, but now I find myself doing the same thing. I do this especially on work trips if I have time, because that seems like a pretty good work-related activity: scope out what other libraries are doing, maybe bring home some good ideas.)

I knew from the library’s web site that I would be looking for a Carnegie library building. However, when I arrived, I got a little confused about how I was supposed to get inside, as I was parked near the back of the library, but there was this other building across the alley that had “Local History & Genealogy” etched in stone above the door (but was not attached to the Carnegie building). I tried to open the door, but it was locked. I know this place said it was open on Thursdays, I thought to myself. Then I saw a truck pull up, and a man wearing some kind of emergency responder uniform got out, and entered the locked building using a key. Hmm…that’s weird. Why would the library be locked?

I began to wander around to the front side of the Carnegie building, somehow missing the back entrance with the large “Open” sign on the door:

Muncie Public Library - Local History and Genealogy

Muncie Public Library - Local History and Genealogy

I didn’t make it all the way to the front of the building at that particular moment, but I found out later that it wouldn’t have done any good anyway. During my later walk around town, I came back to the library from the front and noticed that you can’t get in the front doors anymore; they don’t use them (“emergency exit only”).

But let me take this opportunity to share a picture of the front of the building, because who doesn’t love a good Carnegie?

Muncie Public Library - Carnegie Library

Muncie Public Library - Carnegie Library

Anyhow… So was I was about to wander around the back corner of the library towards the front, wandering if I had the wrong entrance or the wrong day (I kept thinking it was Friday for some reason, and they’re not open Friday), I heard a voice: “Ma’am…?”

I turned around, looking for the source of the voice. I saw a woman standing at the top of the stairs that led to that basement entrance (shown above). She said, “Are you looking for the Local History and Genealogy library?” I said yes, and she said it was through the basement door. She said she’d seen me wandering around, from her place at the reference desk…

Now, the only reason I am telling you the details of this story that makes me look like a dolt…is to highlight the dedication to public service of that librarian (whose name turned out to be Cindy). It’s one thing to help someone who’s already standing at your reference desk. But this woman went far out of her way — even out of the building — and into the rain — to flag me down and help me find my way. Now that, my friends, is excellent public service.

Once we were inside, she said she had seen me walking around in the alley and that I’d tried to get into the other building across the way. She explained that the Local History department used to be in that other building, which they had built new a few years ago for that exact purpose and that the Carnegie building had been a regular branch library. But then with budget cuts, they couldn’t keep both buildings as libraries, so they moved Local History back to the Carnegie building and rented out the other one to one of the local government offices. They figured the newer building would be easier to rent out…plus the Carnegie Library already looked like, well, a library.

Then she asked me what I was looking for, and I said, “Well, nothing in particular.” Then I explained about being a local history librarian from Dayton and how I was curious what their Local History department was like. So she gave me a full tour.

The Local History and Genealogy division has the majority of that Carnegie building all to themselves, with a small circulating collection and a computer lab on one half of the lower level. But the other half of the basement and the entire first floor were dedicated exclusively to LH&G.

The place looked great. It had been renovated a few years ago:

Muncie Public Library - Carnegie Library - interior1Muncie Public Library - Carnegie Library - interior2

There were lots of interesting little details of which I made note:

  • In addition to public computers specifically for LH&G use, they also have two flatbed scanners for patron use. This is something that the Dayton library has not embarked upon, although it has been discussed.
  • They had a nice little bookshelf where they display new items. There is a New Items section at the Dayton library, but we do not have one specifically for new local history items.
  • They have work study students from the university scanning items for their digitization projects. (They have scanned many kinds of records, including deeds and wills.) However, while the digitization itself is awesome, I was more intrigued by the idea that they are able to get work study students to do this work: meaning, the students are paid by federal work study, so it is low-or-no cost to the library, yet it gives them a staffing resource to work on these projects. I later asked the department manager about it, wondering aloud whether we could benefit from a similar program. Her response: “You never know unless you ask.” Too true.

Perhaps eve more wonderful than that — yes, I have deemed something even more wonderful than free-or-low-cost digitization labor! — was the library’s collection of original county records:

Delaware County, Indiana, Marriage License Books

Delaware County, Indiana, Marriage License Books

As I understand the story, Delaware County (in which Muncie is located) is now on its third courthouse. When the second courthouse was slated for demolition in the ’60s or ’70s, apparently many of the original record docket books were in danger of destruction as well (for reasons not fully explained to me). Apparently, a Ball State University history professor caught wind of this and mobilized an effort to save the records, which were then given to the library for safekeeping. And so, there they remain, in all their glory!

I’m so glad to hear (and share) this wonderful story of how history was saved and is being preserved. The librarian mentioned that unfortunately, the Carnegie Library is not as environmentally well-controlled as the new building they had to give up (the one across the alley). But, I’ve got to say, any record that exists is better than one that was completely destroyed 40 years ago!

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