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White Plains Public Library

Library Friday: Tapping into Local History with Ben Himmelfarb

“I dare you to honk the horn!” I say this to my mom as we wait inside the car dealership. Surrounding us are sparkling vehicles, as we wait to see the next available car salesperson. I point at the car and begin to laugh at her tempted expression. I can almost hear her thoughts: “If I do it, I can say that it was an accident….no, no, no I shouldn’t do it!”

Ben Himmelfarb, Librarian and local historian at the White Plains Public Library
Ben Himmelfarb, Librarian and local historian at the White Plains Public Library

This is just a glimpse of the silly times my family and I shared this past winter break. I tell this story because when we finally sat down to meet with a car salesman and discuss my mom’s new car, I overheard another car salesman speaking with the local high school Spanish teacher. The two knew each other. The car salesman kept saying and asking things like, “I really have to learn Spanish. Maybe it will be my New Year’s Resolution! Do you think I should invest in Rosetta Stone?”

In a polite way, once their conversation was over and the woman had left, I popped over one cubicle. I taught the man about Mango language learning, available through many public libraries. An on-the-go reference transaction, I’ll call it! I asked him what public library system he belonged to. By checking online using my phone, I could see if the system offered Mango, and sure enough, it did! I also recommended that he try out the app, Duolingo, in the meantime. The man was so appreciative of my recommendations and by the time my mom and I left, he proudly exclaimed, ‘According to the app, I am now 7% fluent in Spanish!’

This encounter got me thinking about public library programs and resources that people can test drive in 2018 (pun intended). For this month’s Library Friday, I decided to interview Ben Himmelfarb, a librarian I met at the NYLA Annual Conference this past November. Ben is the librarian responsible for local history at the White Plains Public Library in White Plains, New York. He had a lot to share about how patrons can tap into local history and take advantage of library programming this year.

Could you please tell me a little bit about yourself and your responsibilities at White Plains Public Library?

My official title is Librarian I. My position is half adult services in the adult services department, and half local history programming and collections work. I end up spending time at the public service desk, the reference desk, and the welcome desk. We rotate, so all staff get the chance to work this triage.

Each week, my local history time is usually spent working on 3-5 queries which I’ve received from people. These are sometimes walk-ins or phone calls about genealogical information, or questions specific to the local area. For instance, someone may live near a park and wishes to know about a certain statue in the park. Creating a finding aid or cleaning something also takes up some of my time.

What do you think are some best practices for planning good programming that your community members will want to attend?

Some advice my coworker gave when I started was, “You plan 80% and you leave the other 20% to the Gods.” In other words, the other 20% will come from people who show up, so it doesn’t help to over-plan. From my personal experience and the advice of others, one suggestion is to make sure that you are not creating a program in a vacuum. It is better to coordinate programming with an individual, an organization, or a local historical society.

For the History Roundtable I organize, people share stories and ask questions. If I know I’m planning for a 2-hour slot, I won’t want to plan it down to the smallest detail, but instead, leave 30-45 minutes for people to really delve into the topic.

Having partnerships and having other people be involved in the creation of a program can help with promotion. I always see if people want to help in the creation of a program and, of course, give them credit when they do. Since many people are passionate about local history, this is a good way to include them in a meaningful way. Marketing has always been organic to me— websites, flyers, and email lists all work. Another great way to reach people is to talk to them about a program while they are in the library.

Getting out of the building and going to the meeting of another organization is important to build these partnerships and it’s okay to be unsure of what the outcome of attending a meeting or asking how you can help a certain group will be.

Highlight on local history: How do you teach patrons about the history of White Plains and Westchester County? How do you assist in patrons’ personal historical research interests?

Some research methods work well with people, like showing them how the newspaper database works, or teaching them what information is trustworthy.

We also have an Oral History project where we record local histories, showcase them on our website, and keep physical copies of them at the library. I’ve conducted most of the interviews and I’ve trained 15-20 interviewers. 2-4 of these people have actually interviewed people. That’s sort of an ongoing project.

Again, there’s the History Roundtable, where we hear a presentation on a topic, look through primary source materials and things from library’s collection that pertain to the topic, and sit around at a table to talk about people’s stories. I don’t always do the educational/presentation part. Sometimes I bring in amateur historians or professors. It’s a great way for me to learn more. We hold a Roundtable every other month, besides July and August.

What is your favorite part of you work? What is the most challenging?

My favorite part is teaching research methods and sharing in a part of that storytelling process. The most challenging part is balance, and making sure I don’t put too much on my plate.

How can people begin to learn about local history?
Ben’s tips:

  1. Start at home online and gather as much information as you can.
  2. If you want a more personal experience, reach out to a librarian ahead of time to set up a research visit.
  3. If you go to a library or historical society, you can usually find mainstream, standard history book that’s been published in the last 100 years. That’s a good starting point.
  4. There are some helpful resources that are common to almost all places— census information (available online), city directories, telephone directories, newspapers on microfilm or digitized.
  5. There are genealogical societies that you can send queries to.
  6. At WPPL, there are a lot of different things in our collection to browse— administrative documents, civic history information, city reports. To get beyond the official documents or city reports takes some digging. Sometimes a person is the best resource for learning about the past where no other primary source documents exist. Official records and even newspaper articles can’t tell us everything about the past.
  7. Finally, there are Facebook groups that people interested in local history can join.

Besides tapping into local history, what are some other hobbies people can fulfill at the library?

Most of our programming is broken up across age, but there are blurred lines. This month we have 3D printing and design for teens, community service group for teens, and tabletop games.

For adults, we offer computer classes, coding classes, English classes for English Language Learners and English conversational groups, book groups, literary classes, business and finance classes, classes on copyright law, nonprofit funding, and opportunities for civic engagement through attending public planning meetings.

We also feature intergenerational programming— chess club, poetry slam, National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) meetings, library board meetings, gentle yoga, and meditation.

For children and families we have English conversational group for families, programming centered around public health information, and different cultural events for Black History Month, Diwali, and more.

If people come to us and say “I want to learn about X” and we have X, we recommend a program. If people say “I want to learn about Y” and we don’t have Y, we would take a suggestion or make a referral to a different organization.

Anything else you’d like to add about the importance of public library programming?

Libraries should reflect their communities and help people achieve what it is they want to achieve. I don’t think that there’s one way it should look. And don’t be afraid to develop a program or engage with community members on a seemingly controversial or niche topic!

Kayla Del Biondo

Kayla Del Biondo

Kayla is a second year MLIS student, and the current program assistant for the Library and Information Science Master's program at SU. She is interested in research, instruction, and academic libraries, and aspires to be both a librarian and a small farmer.

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