Collecting Community Stories: Local Studies Collections and What They Can Tell You About the Community




Copyright, Local studies, Public Libraries, Trove

How to Cite

Forsyth, E. (2019). Collecting Community Stories: Local Studies Collections and What They Can Tell You About the Community. M/C Journal, 22(3).
Vol. 22 No. 3 (2019): regional
Published 2019-06-19


This article investigates how local studies collections in public libraries can help people explore the experiences of regional Australia. Some of this discovery can be done online, but as not all local studies material has been catalogued, is online or available in a digital format, some of this exploration will need to be onsite at public libraries throughout Australia. This exploration could be combined with other investigations into regional areas. What are local studies collections in public libraries? These collections are defined as being

inclusive of local history and so the local collection should support studies that look at the historical past, both distant and recent, or at current concerns in the community, such as local environmental issues, or plans for the future development of a locality. (Dewe 1–2)

This broader look at the context of a place should provide information in a range of formats to help explore an area, and to find out about the history, geography and the environment as well as other local concerns and issues. Local studies collections should contain recent as well as older material. Each local studies collection will be different (McCausland; Bateman; Johnston; Gregg; Heap and Pymm) with some of these differences simply being because each area has a unique collection of stories which can be told about it. Other differences will be in how each public library interprets their remit to collect information and stories about a community, and which stories are included or excluded from the collection. There are budget constraints as well because each public library has to choose how to fund local studies as part of their overall library provision which means there are tensions and competing priorities in what is collected and how it is made available for research as well as information and entertainment. Some areas have more research activity so there is more being written, photographed, drawn, or otherwise recorded about an area, but no matter how small an area is, there is usually new local studies material being continually created.

Local Studies Collections

Local studies collections are important as they provide key information about an area. For professional scholars, even in social history, the local becomes interesting only within a larger context, however. Local case studies may throw light on wider questions (Reid and Macafee 127).

This highlights the value which local studies can contribute as part of research as these collections may provide case studies to explore, or different avenues to investigate. It also shows the importance of information in many local studies collections being brought together so the separate, local information can be connected to other local information. This bringing together can be as a result of research or through an aggregation system such as Trove (Trove).

Peter Reid and Caroline Macafee have stated that because

the potential is always there for local history to be pulled into issues of wider concern, it could be said to occupy a liminal space, a borderland between knowledge that is personal, and therefore academically trivial, and knowledge that is generalizable and therefore worthy of scientific attention. (127)

This seems a harsh description, but it shows how these collections can be undervalued and that this undervaluing can risk them being overlooked by biographers, historians, and other researchers. Despite this thinking, local studies collections can offer unique and valuable insights into people and places; including for regional areas. The skilled library staff who manage these collections are also key resources in the history of regional areas, as they can help connect the local studies information to other local collections. As well as connecting people to the resources, the unwritten knowledge of staff is a separate and very important resource.

How to Discover Local Studies Collections

A good way to start exploring local studies collections is by searching Trove. Trove had, around the time of writing, over 457,524,491 Australian and online resources (online) and is an Australia-wide database, managed by the National Library of Australia. It enables you to search many library catalogues with one search tool which means that you can search once, in one place, rather than by individual library or museum catalogues. Trove brings together metadata including catalogue records, mostly from library catalogues, from organisations who choose to contribute access to their information. Some of the resources you can search for on Trove are in local studies collections in public libraries or held by other organisations which collect local information such as state and national libraries. Start your search by the name of the location which you are exploring. Be as specific as possible, as you can always broaden your search later. If the item has been digitised, or is already digital, you are often able to view or listen to this material online.

As well as providing access to library catalogues, many local newspapers have been digitised and are searchable and viewable on Trove. Some newspapers have been digitised up to 1955, while some titles have fewer years available online, and microfilm will need to be used to find more recently produced information. Public libraries often hold the microfilm for their local newspapers. State libraries may hold them as well. This timeline of digital access is important to keep in mind as searching newspapers on Trove is very easy and searching on microfilm is not so appealing because of having to work through each newspaper page by page, microfilm roll by microfilm roll. You need to check the information about what issues of a newspaper have been digitised so you know when you need to start looking at microfilm copies rather than digitised ones. Older newspapers often include syndicated stories, so an event may have occurred in an area you are interested in but be reported in the newspaper from another area. You could also use the Trove API (application programming interface) to explore high volume digitised newspaper or catalogue data (Sherratt).

This method of starting with Trove can also be a helpful way to find out which public library is in the area you are looking for, as the name of the organisation which holds the resources is listed online. You can click on a link to take you to their catalogue. While public libraries are often named for the town they are in, you may be looking for a place with a different name, so this method can be helpful. It can also show resources held in other libraries which may relate to the area of your research. Trove Mosaic by Mitchell Whitelaw (online), although an older interface, is a visual way to explore Trove and clearly highlights the different organisations contributing photographs.

Libraries include local studies photographs in their social media and a very small number of them are collecting social media about their community (Forsyth et al.). Searching social media for terms such as #flashbackFriday or #throwbackThursday may also provide a way to discover local studies material online, although depending on your research topic, this method could be too haphazard an approach. There are still some local studies blogs to follow (MacRitchie) and searching for these can also provide information about local studies material in public libraries.

Public Libraries and Local Studies

You can also start at the public library. Depending on where in Australia you are searching there are different tools to help find your local public library. Rather than list them all, a useful starting point is to go to your favourite search engine and search for the name of town/suburb followed by public library. This should connect you with information about the local library through the library website, the regional library website (where two or more councils work together to provide a public library service), or via the council website. This is likely to provide sufficient information to be able to contact the library. However, before you contact the library, search the library catalogue. They may even have a separate local studies database for some or all of the local studies collection. This is why is it a good idea to start with Trove, before going to a local library search, as Trove should be aggregating collection information from a variety of sources bringing together the local public library as well as other organisations (sometimes some unexpected ones) which have material of relevance.

Work from the State Library of New South Wales had demonstrated that not everything in local studies collection is catalogued (State Library of New South Wales) which makes it impossible to search for everything online. Quite a few (but not all) public libraries have a webpage where they describe their local studies collections and services. This can provide helpful information so that if you do not find something online you can telephone or email the library seeking further information. If the library is nearby you could simply visit it, but it is best to ring or email first if your time is limited, as it can be helpful to make an appointment to ensure that staff will be able to assist you with using the library collection. 

For searching the catalogues for local studies information, again, be as specific as possible, knowing you can always broaden your search terms. Helpfully, most (but not all) library catalogues have a sort by date option once material has been found, and some even have local studies specific search help. Often you can view or listen to digitised material online, but some libraries only make low resolution images available, which is rarely of good enough quality for research. When you have searched the catalogue or other online local studies database and not found anything, contact the library as they will be able to provide further information.

Library staff will help you use their collections. Some public libraries charge a fee for more detailed research, others, quite reasonably, require you to do this more detailed research yourself.

There are many variables, and it really depends on what and where you are researching. Perhaps you are looking for a written history of each area you plan to visit when exploring regional areas of Australia, or you might be planning to visit local studies collections to see how they lead you to areas and stories of local interest, or there is a particular research question you want to explore in several regional areas. How local studies books and other materials are written will depend on the time they were written, and the purpose for them. They can depict ideas and priorities which are outdated and/or offensive.

Not Everything Is on Trove

While Trove is a suggested starting place, given that every item in local studies collections is not catalogued, visiting the local public library can be an important step to take. Always check if the local studies area has different opening hours to the rest of the library. If part or all of the local studies collection is in a locked room, visiting the library at a very busy time is unwise as it may make it harder for the staff to assist you as they will have many other priorities and you may not be able to access the collection.

Visiting the Library

Visiting a public library and looking at how their local studies collection is arranged can help you see the collecting priorities. It also makes it very clear as to which public libraries have prioritised their local studies information. Occasionally the local studies area will be a partnership with both the library and the local family or local history society providing resources or the collection. This can result in different access conditions being applied to different collections.

Visiting the collection means you can talk with the library staff about the history of the area as part of your experience of regional Australia. It is interesting to see how different local studies collections are arranged and how the local area is promoted through the collection and any displays or merchandise for sale. Often local publications will be for sale in the library so that you can purchase titles about the history of the area. Some councils commission histories of their areas, other times niche histories will be written by people in the community and the local studies collection can be a helpful way to discover these.

Keep in mind that local government boundaries change (Leigh) and this may mean that resources you are looking for could be in a neighbouring area, rather than the location you are exploring. This is another reason to start with Trove.

You May Not Be Able to See Everything Even If You Visit...

For reasons of preservation you may not be able to see everything in the local studies collection even if you visit. Sometimes you need to watch out for special tours, which may not coincide with your visit to the area. There may be parts of the collection stored but not fully explored by staff, waiting their time in the queue to be catalogued and made available for research. Generally public library staff will be very helpful for you in your research, particularly if you have specific questions about the area.

Know about Copyright

Know the information about duration of copyright as some libraries say on their catalogues that everything which has been digitised is in copyright. This may be accidental as a result of some bulk cataloguing processes linked with digitisation. Stating something is in copyright is not the same as it being in copyright. The Australian Copyright Council has a helpful information sheet on the duration of copyright to help you understand what is in copyright and how long it is likely to continue to be in copyright.


There will be collection gaps. The risk of bias is highlighted by the statement that libraries are not, and have never been, socially or politically neutral institutions (Gibson et al. 753). There has not been detailed research exploring these collection gaps, so the exact extent of exclusion or omission of information is not yet able to be quantified. There is a

renewed professional imperative to position information centers as central locations for social justice work [which] has also turned our attention to the need to preserve materials that support a diverse and pluralistic society … [and] as a duty to steward unexplored histories. (Sheffield 573)

Material may not be in the collection because it was not collected, or because it was not created. For example, in the past not everyone could afford a camera which means they may not have photographed or videoed their family, or public events. Not every grave had a headstone so someone may not have their grave recorded. Public libraries recognise these gaps, and in some areas library staff create or commission content to help with these omissions. For example, oral histories can be recorded to include stories which were not available in other ways, and photographs can be taken of current events to make sure a wider exploration of local stories are recorded in the local studies collection.

Conclusion (and Opportunities)

Grant White states, in relation to local studies that the

survival of the artefact is only ever significant when it can be accessed by someone who can see meaning in it. The collection is in fact much more than the material sitting upon the shelves, it is access to it. Access which keeps it current in the community memory rather than as a separated, isolated adjunct. It is also the participation of the community in the creation of the collection, feeding it with its experience, reflections and memories. (98)

This access is crucial, and with digitisation and digital collecting the access can increasingly be at a distance, without actually visiting a library. This increasing online access, especially through aggregated sites such as Trove, will hopefully enable research exploring the similarities and differences of regional areas, as connections can be made, and not only by people who can afford to travel to different places to do research. Digitisation, digital collecting, effective cataloguing and use of metadata can open up access to collections, just as digital preservation, preservation of other formats and conservation can help make sure that these materials are available into the future. Connecting to skilled staff who manage these collections is another way of exploring access as there will be information not recorded anywhere you can find, but which the staff may know because of their experience and knowledge of the collection as well as their knowledge of the community they work in.

If you have been using public library local studies collections for research, it is helpful if you can share this research back with the public library, helping to build their collection for other people who are researching the region, even if they are exploring different topics. It may be a printed book you are providing, but more public libraries are able to accept donations of ebooks, or other online content. This can be a helpful way for you to contribute to the collections which have assisted in your research.


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Author Biography

Ellen Forsyth

As well as working as a librarian, Ellen Forsyth is undertaking a research degree at the University of Southern Queensland. Her research explores contemporary collecting for local studies collections in public libraries.