Local Commentary

Our Man In Arlington

clark-fcnpThe rumor pinging around the Internet is that public libraries are obsolete.

The death knell rings true if you buy the notion that anything worth reading is downloadable from your armchair. Or that the hundreds of patrons of all age groups you can see every day packing the eight branches of the Arlington Public Library are there because they’re lonely or homeless.

Though nationally public libraries are viewed by many as unhip, a January report by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that an impressive 60 percent of 2,252 respondents used one over the past year, with 91 percent agreeing that “public libraries are important to their communities.”

But nothing knocks down the rumor like a 21st-century digital-friendly public commons that Arlington’s libraries have become—despite the system’s strangled budgets of recent years.

Lately, I’ve been giving up sunny Saturdays to do Arlington history research (did you think I make this column up?). My immersion in four-leaf-clover- hunting in the microfilm, folders and shelves of what for years has been called the Virginia Room has only deepened the appreciation we scholarly dilettantes reserve for the full-time pros.

This spring, a set of renovations prompted the Arlington Central Library’s local history team to revaluate the Virginia Room’s mission. It reopened as the Center for Local History “to provide a better explanation of who we are: our many projects and the mission that links them.”

The center – with its vintage wall clock from Arlington’s old Tops Drive-In– will continue collecting, preserving, sharing what it calls Virginiana (books from around the state), community records and a growing digital archive. But its leaders are taking fresh initiative to exploit communications technology to more fully engage the public. (Indeed, at August’s County Fair I enjoyed a marketing pitch for the center by Stacia Aho, Arlington’s virtual library services manager).

“We get researchers and queries from all over the country, from elementary school kids to graduate students,” I was told by center manager Judy Knudsen, a 19-year-veteran of Arlington’s libraries. “A lot of professors come because Arlington is prominent in smart growth.”

Of course, an increasing amount of material is conveniently available online for access remotely. “But not all of it is online or digitized,” Knudsen says, noting with pride the center retains a rare print index of The Washington Post. But you have to show up if you want to see primary sources—I favor the old phone books and business directories, bound government meeting minutes, and subject-sorted folders of aging news clippings. A sizable collection of old Arlington photographs and private papers are stored off site at the Woodmont facility.

A coming Digital Projects Lab will allow anyone to use an array of software and hardware to scan family photos or record oral histories and create digital projects.

Knudsen actively recruits prominent Arlingtonians to sit and record oral histories, many of them prominent business folk or eyewitnesses to social change—and two of her staff just returned from an oral history conference in Oklahoma City.

I can attest that my impatience with the built-in frustrations of research is eased by staffers John Stanton, Heather Crocetto and Tad Suiter, who really know the collection.

To date, not all the old Virginia Room signs have been replaced. But hey, they’re pre-digital. Like many of my four-leaf clovers.