Who has access to collections?

 mist in the valley of East Randolph
Mist in the valley of East Randolph, from the National Archives on Flickr Commons

This started out as a cranky email and then I decided to write this up instead and be (somewhat) constructive.

I was listening to a local history podcast which I love called Before Your Time. It’s a joint project of the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont Humanities (where I used to be a board member). They look at one item from the VHS collection and talk about what it tells us about the history of Vermont. It’s a well-produced podcast which is full of facts and yet also brief. I liked this one in particular because it’s about forests and one of the people they interview is my county forester and I like listening to him. The other two people they interview are a librarian at VHS and a man who was a past director of VHS and wrote a book about Vermont maps. One of the things they both mention is how much they both wish that their collections were used more. In fact the former director says towards the end of the podcast

I hope people who listen to the podcast take the initiative to go to some of the great collections. You can’t be more than about 25 to 50 miles away from excellent Vermont history collections if you’re living in the state, whether it’s Bennington Museum in the southwest, Sheldon Museum in Middlebury, the VHS here in Barre, UVM Special Collections in, in Burlington, extraordinary resources that are open to anyone who wants to come in and use them

As I was listening to this I thought to myself “Yeah why don’t I go to the Vermont Historical Society collection more often? I like that place.” and then I remembered: it costs $9 a day if you’re not a VHS member or a student.

Which, look, I have nine dollars. But I’m not sure I’d spend $9 to just browse in a library. In fact I know I wouldn’t. And this is coming from someone who has a pretty good idea what this library has, feels comfortable searching this library’s catalog, feels okay talking to library staff in general, and knows people at this library in specific. The VHS Ask a Librarian page says that simple questions will be answered for free and detailed inquiries may require a fee; that fee is $20/half hour for non-members. That page is titled “Ask a Librarian” but also suggests that a question–via a mailto link, not a reference interview form–may be answered by a volunteer. I know some VHS volunteers and they’re top notch, but if I did not, I might balk at asking a question that might “cost money.” As an aside, one thing that has always surprised me when I work at my own library is that people don’t really always understand that if you haven’t given a website some sort of payment information, the site can’t just charge you money if you click the wrong link. This stuff is genuinely confusing to people and I sympathize.

Back to the list of museums. The other ones are the Bennington Museum which is $15 (free to kids, members and, impressively, people receiving SNAP benefits) and the Sheldon Museum which is $10 (free to members, kids, students) and only has access to the research center by appointment. Only the University of Vermont’s Special Collections are open to, and specifically say they are open to, the general public at no cost. They even have basic photocopying at no charge!

Part of my job is getting paid to work in a library so I get that these services aren’t free or even cheap. I also know that someone showing up at a library with a “simple” genealogy question can take up an awful lot of professional time, however inadvertently, and that everything has to balance. At the public library part of this balance is spreading the costs of maintaining these collections and the staffing for it across entire geographic populations. UVM is a state school, this is (partly) why access to its collection is free I suspect. I do not know the economics of the VHS but I can look at their 990 and know they brought in 1.8 million dollars in 2021 (1.3 mil of which is “government grants”) and their ED makes less than $150K which seems reasonable, and their “fees and admission” income nearly doubled between 2020 and 2021.

My larger point, because I love the VHS and don’t want this to sound crabby at them, is that the average Vermonter does not consider themselves a researcher. These resources are sort of “open to anyone” but also sort of aren’t. They might be curious about maps, or local history, or their family’s history, but they would rarely think “I should check out that stuff in the museum.” And for people who work in the world of libraries and archives and museums, they may not remember what not having access to all of that cultural content felt like. I’ve always considered myself fortunate that I felt like I could go up to any librarian and say hello and then ask if their building had a creepy attic or basement that I could look at. Part of that was understanding those systems–it will surprise no one to learn that I was a heavy library user as a kid–but part of it was feeling like I belonged there and that those systems were meant for me or people like me. I think it’s a testament to this podcast that it made me think “Oh I should check out those collections” because the stories it told me made me feel welcome. And I think it’s worth thinking more about what else we can do to make our collections not just be accessible to anyone but feel accessible to anyone.

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