Princeton University Library builds collection of local history across the United States

 Steve Knowlton working with a student

Steve Knowlton (left), Librarian for History and African American Studies, is currently building a collection of local historical sources from across the United States at PUL. In this photo, he is working with a student in the Firestone Library Thomas-Graham Reading Room. Photo by Shelley Szwast, Princeton University Library


As Princeton University Library (PUL) increasingly works to ensure further access to diverse intellectual and cultural research for not only Princeton's scholars but also national and international researchers, a librarian at PUL is building a collection of local history from different regions across the United States. Established by Steve Knowlton, the Librarian for History and African American Studies, the project aims to help fill a current gap in collection development created by a steady decline of local library budgets.

“The purpose here is to leverage Princeton’s resources to fill in [these] gaps. . .” Knowlton said. “It benefits not only Princeton users, but the users at other libraries.” 

In 2015, the American Library Association reported that only 21 percent of public libraries in 47 states saw an increase in state funding. The other 79 percent saw either no change or a decline in their budgets. While patrons (including Princeton patrons) would ordinarily rely on these regional libraries to access local historical sources, the cuts have led to fewer acquisitions in their collections. 

“Historians know that national trends play out in the lives of everyday Americans in specific ways,” Knowlton said. “While it’s important to study prominent persons and institutions, students researching history can get a sense of how life changed over time by looking at specific individuals and localities that were affected by national developments.” For instance, he explained, while many rightly study the national leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, desegregation was largely accomplished through efforts by local activists. The collection currently includes and aims to include more of the histories of these influential and locally notable figures.

Other materials included are memoirs of key individuals who lived mostly in an area where they had a meaningful interaction with the people and institutions of the region; histories of companies, schools, colleges, and local institutions; genealogical records; early land maps; foodways, which detail how food preparation and gatherings reflect cultural and socioeconomic history; books on local arts and crafts; and reproductions of historical photos and local newspaper articles.

“This is a vast, vast area to collect in,” Knowlton commented. According to David Magier, Associate University Librarian for Scholarly Collections and Research Services, “Local history materials from around the country are essential for a wide range of research areas in social, political, and economic history. Because this material has mostly been collected by local libraries, the national capacity for its discovery and access has been somewhat limited. PUL’s focus on this area through Steve Knowlton’s targeted collecting will significantly enhance that capacity and bring more of these hidden gems into the mainstream of academic library access and research.”

Archival materials, however, are not and likely will not be included in the collection. Knowlton believes it’s best for these materials (which cannot be loaned) to remain in their regions. “Most researchers working in local history are based in the area they research. For them to have to come to Princeton to research materials about Boise, Idaho, would just place a lot of material out of reach for them. It’s better to let those materials find a home in Idaho.” 

With Interlibrary Loan, materials at PUL are available to users across the country through their local libraries. While many of the materials in this collection are currently available in the Research Collections and Preservation Consortium (ReCAP), the PUL Acquisitions Team continues to process more every month. Related local history research materials are also available to PUL users through ReCAP, BorrowDirect, and other collection sharing arrangements.

In the meantime, Knowlton continues to build and expand the scope of the collection by consulting bibliographic information available through sources such as publishers' catalogs, to bibliographies from library associations or history journals, publications from local historical societies, or independent and self-publishers. The work of Special Collections Assistants Danielle Vuong, Alpana Mukherjee, Yuming Sun, and Anna Meerson is crucial in identifying material listed in these bibliographic resources that PUL lacks. 

For more information about the collection, contact Steve Knowlton.

Written by Stephanie Ramírez, Communications Specialist and Staff Writer

Media contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications