A photo of the Homeplace-Keller plantation in Louisiana, from the Library of Congress. Historypin

With a grant from the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge, Historypin will help libraries weave together the history of rural American communities.

Public libraries aren’t what they used to be—and for the most part, that’s a good thing. Over time, they’ve evolved into many different shapes and sizes. Their roles have also changed in order to stay relevant to the communities they serve.

“Libraries are really gathering places,” says Jon Voss, the strategic partnerships director of Historypin. The global nonprofit is one of 14 winners of the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge on Libraries. “In popular thought or literature, we think of them as storehouses for materials, but that's really changed in the past 20 years at least.”

In February, the Knight Foundation challenged people to reimagine libraries to fit the information needs of the 21st century. More than 600 groups submitted proposals, including some that would turn libraries into environmental monitoring hubs and spaces for children to interact with incarcerated parents. The winners will share a $1.6 million grant to realize their visions.

Voss, who partnered with the Digital Public Library of America, received a $222,245 grant from Knight to move forward with his project, Our Story. Its aim is to help rural libraries in New Mexico, North Carolina, and Louisiana establish programs that will share and preserve the history of their communities.

Librarians will be given tools—handbooks on how to reach their target audience, guidelines for creating surveys, and low-cost scanners, for example—to organize events where people of all generations can come together in one space. Voss says they’re modeling their programming after a similar project in Colombia, South America, in which hundreds of public libraries hosted “community memory projects.” Those were part of a Gates Foundation-funded program to improve the country’s libraries. At some events, libraries might share their collections of archival photos and ask older participants to fill in the history. For others, gathering the personal stories and photos of older residents may be the only way to fill in gaps in the town’s historic timeline.

Part of the program will use Historypin’s platform, launched in 2011 as a way to essentially map the past: Organizations and individuals can share photos of what their neighborhoods or towns once looked like. The photos are then grouped into collections and “pinned” to Google Maps. Visitors, in turn, can search for photos by time, location, or subject. And users can also overlay photos onto Google Street View to see just how much a place has changed.

“We got a huge uptick in cultural-heritage organizations using them,” Voss says about the initial public release of the platform. “Small public libraries and community historical societies found the tool useful to start mapping photos and engaging communities in a way that they had never done before.”

Indeed, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Archives have made use of Historypin, as well as smaller groups such as the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership in Michigan. Project topics range from “emotions in Victorian London” to the 1945 “victory-over-Japan” day celebrations in Washington, D.C.

The project comes at a time when America’s population is skewing increasingly older, and is growing more diverse. “This is a huge time to be asking, ‘What stories are we missing, what stories are not represented?’” says Voss. “We're at a turning point, where we're able to say, ‘This needs to be recorded,’ and it doesn’t need to come from a traditional historian view. It can come from the communities’ perspective."

For Voss’s team, it’s also an opportunity to measure the social impact of libraries. “We’ve seen a lot of storytelling efforts, but what we haven’t been able to capture is the social capital,” Voss says. “Particularly, one thing we're looking at is senior isolation. How can we start to reach people who aren't otherwise being reached?”

Rural libraries, which typically serve populations of 2,500 or less, are particularly good for studying that. Libraries reach a larger proportion of the local population who frequent libraries to find information on accessing social services or finding jobs. According to the Federal Communities Commission, 39 percent of rural Americans lack internet access—and for many, Voss says, libraries are where they go to to log on.

“When you start looking at the politics dividing us, public libraries are places that bring people together,” he adds. “They also really believe in free and open access, and that is radical today as it has been in the past.

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