In the March-April 2011 The Horn Book, author Susan Campbell Bartoletti writes “I Heart My Public Library, but public libraries rarely have the authoritative texts that extreme research requires.”
I’m glad she stuck that “rarely” in there, because I once proved this wrong, and in a way that felt significant to me.
While researching Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman in Cleveland, the city where the story took place, I had two primary goals, both for illustrator reference: take photos of the relevant locations that were still standing and find archival photos of the ones that weren’t. In particular, I wanted to find what would be the first known photo of the building in which original Superman artist Joe Shuster lived.
My plan: first check the Western Reserve Historical Society, then the Cleveland State University archives, and finally the Cleveland Public Library. In other words, go from specific to general. Like Susan, I had the lowest expectation for the library.
It was not like I could walk in there and say “Do you have a photo of Joe Shuster’s apartment building from 1934?” For starters, the staffer (not a historian) would most likely say “Who’s Joe Shuster?” But more to the point, it’s not the kind of thing categorized individually like that. If such a photo hadn’t been in a book (and probably even if it had), it would be up to me to do the legwork.
Yet as the post hyperlinked above explains, I did find a photo of the building, and I found it at the library. This photo that had been hiding in plain sight at the public library led to a dedication of the previously unmarked site only a year after I publicized it.
Of course the offerings of public libraries vary, but in many cases, there is unexpected gold to be found there.