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Bringing New Life to Local History Programming

by on August 26, 2013

Do you work with a local history collection? Are you constantly striving to develop new programming initiatives to highlight your rare and unique materials? Or are you looking to bring in new library users—or, perhaps, even attract non-users who might not be aware of an element of the collection that matches their interests? At the 2013 ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, I attended the PLA-sponsored program, Hip History: Promoting Archives and Special Collections with Creative Programming. Each of the speakers was from the Sacramento Room, site of Special Collections of the Sacramento Public Library. The three speakers were: Amanda Graham, Library Services Specialist/Archivist; James Scott, Librarian; and, Lori Easterwood, Programming Supervisor.

The “Shushing” Room

Amanda, James, and Lori spoke about the often intimidating and old-fashioned nature of local history rooms and archives. These special collections and the people who work with them can sometimes be viewed as unwelcoming; the speakers noted that the Sacramento Room had once been termed the “shushing room.” In 2010, they decided an image overhaul was needed and so they launched a series of innovative history-themed programs aimed at engaging a broader audience. The goal of educating the program participants remained, but with an additional focus on entertainment—all with a limited budget.

Sacramento Room Programming Highlights

Here are a few of the new programs they’ve run in the last two years:

Haunted Stacks

Staff show a classic film then conduct a tour of the Sacramento Room (including the stacks). Historic Sacramento individuals represented by staff in full costume pop out to tell their stories during the tour. This program is held annually at Halloween, and the library is spookily decorated (cobwebs! ghosts!) to set the scene.

Sacramento Archives Crawl

On the first Saturday in October, the Sacramento Room partners with three other local archives. In this program, participants are given the opportunity to view key treasures from the various collections, chat with special collections librarians and archivists, and go on behind-the-scenes tours while gathering stamps in an archival passport that’s produced for this program.

April Fools’ Sacramento History

What happens when you’re in a program and one of your audience experts knows more than you about the topic, or you find yourself stumped by a question from an audience member? What if… you could just make up some answers? This is how the April Fools’ program evolved. Librarians tell around 5-6 historic stories (each story includes both truths and wild fabrications) and audience members are asked to guess which is which. They even include a display with photos from the collections, and do a little Photoshop work to change them in some way. What’s real, what’s not? The audience members must decide.

Capital Decades

What’s more interesting than a series of lectures about the history of a decade, highlighting arts, music, fashions and culture? Why, bringing it to life, of course. Capital Decades is enhanced by the presence of fashion shows, dance instruction, movie clips, and visual displays. The program has been conducted three times thus far (1920s, 1930s, 1940s) and has allowed the Sacramento Room librarians to form partnerships with local experts who volunteer their time and knowledge in exchange for increased exposure and publicity.


This is a new program that was launched earlier this year. It involves a historic tour of downtown K Street optimized for mobile devices. Participants walk down K Street while viewing historic photos of highlighted locations, reading descriptions, and listening to audio narration on their mobile device. The audio portion was recorded by staff, and they also added images and text description for each historic site.

Revamping Local History Programs in Your Library

Looking for a way to liven up your public library local history programs? Borrow some of the Sacramento Room’s ideas and tailor them to your existing audience. Even better, find a way to bring in new people to your library: try promoting your programs in novel places, use word of mouth to let people know what’s happening in your library, and most importantly: ensure staff outside of your department are kept in the loop so that they can spread the word about your programs and events to their patrons.

Has your library developed creative local history-focused programming? Or maybe you’ve attended a program elsewhere that could be adapted for a public library local history or special collections department? Tell us about it in the comments.