Connecting Past and Future: Libraries on the Lewis and Clark Trail

October 17, 2014

Simmons SLIS Professor Mary Jordan chose the Lewis and Clark Trail as the inspiration for a unique research project. Dubbed the Library Corps of Discovery, Jordan plotted a road-trip across the nation following the Lewis and Clark Trail to visit public libraries and collect data about libraries at each stop.

Lewis and Clark's expedition in search of a water route to the Pacific has a near-mythic place in American history. In 1803, on the heels of the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson charged his personal secretary, Merriweather Lewis, with a mission to explore the newly acquired territory. Lewis enlisted skilled frontiersman William Clark, who would co-command the group known as the Corps of Discovery. The team spent the next two years traversing the western half of the country, a journey that would irrevocably impact U.S. expansion policy and relationships with Native Americans.

Simmons SLIS Professor Mary Jordan chose the Lewis and Clark Trail as the inspiration for a unique research project--not just the geography, but the concept, as well. Dubbed the Library Corps of Discovery, Jordan plotted a road-trip across the nation following the Lewis and Clark Trail to visit public libraries and collect data about libraries at each stop.

"I like the sense of going places where you know some things but not everything," Jordan explained, "that spirit of adventure: we have to try some new things, we have to explore. I think that's what public libraries are for. We know what we are doing, but we don't always have a sense of what we should be doing in the future. And clearly things are going to be new and exciting and changing [for libraries]. And I like that. I like change."

Jordan shared this sentiment in her Unbound blog post on the project last May: "Public libraries are changing; I want to uncover the small hopes and big dreams people working in them have for the future!"

Change might be considered an understatement. With constant, compounding budget constraints, libraries everywhere must do more with less, especially to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse patronage in the context of the digital world in which immediacy and convenience are paramount.

Yet libraries across the country have continued to meet the needs of their users, even in the face of sensational media reports that "libraries are dead" and irrelevant in an era of Google and Amazon.

"Libraries are doing amazing, huge amounts of things. That's what I want to publicize," Jordan said. "Public libraries are not dying or going away in any sense at all, except that their budgets keep getting cut, but what they do and what they provide are amazing."

Jordan's trip took her to libraries big and small, well funded and struggling. Thus far she has visited libraries in Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. During each visit she shared a survey with the director, their designee, or whoever was available at each library. The survey asks about the history of the library, current library services offered, and thoughts and plans as librarians look to the future. The libraries she is unable to visit in person will receive an email version of her survey. Jordan aims to capture data on these three topics from all of the libraries along the Trail. Jordan said many scholars and library policy-makers have discussed the issues, but she wanted to capture the "voice of people who are in public libraries and what they think about the future."

This fall, she will continue her tour, exploring the eastern part of the country and documenting libraries along the initial portion of Lewis's trek, which "starts in Monticello, Virginia, up through Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Ohio, Indiana, and back to Wood River, Illinois, where the whole Corps met," she explained.

While the Library Corps of Discovery is still collecting data, Jordan was able to make some initial conclusions about the approach libraries are taking. "The use of the library as a community space . . . was an idea that repeated at big and small libraries," she said. "They are facing the same issues; and they are reaching out to their communities. What can we do to bring more people in? What do we do that might be new? Of course we provide books, that's great; but people also want other things. All the libraries seem to be trying to develop a new way to be a community resource."

Jordan highlighted examples of this concept in several settings. One large and well-supported public library in Kansas City, Missouri, is in an old bank building where they converted their basement vault into a theater, with a movie projector and old-fashioned movie seats for screenings. Another library built in an old bank in rural North Dakota customized the round shape of the structure by designating "nooks all the way around"--one for adult materials, another area for children, young adults, etc.--fostering an open, collaborative atmosphere.

Jordan found many summer reading programs and saw puppet stages for kids built into walls. One Missouri library held "a program for adults about food and cooking. Every month they would read a book about food, or fiction related to food, and would have a big festival where everybody would cook."

In Missoula, Montana, she saw that "outside [the library was] a bike parking stand and a vending machine where you can buy Cliff bars and things to repair your bike." The same library held film festivals, including not only foreign films, but also a LGBTQ film series, a fairly controversial endeavor in their community. The library planned to host other events that would attempt to spark dialogue, including a program exploring Muslims and Arab peoples. Jordan was constantly impressed by the library personnel's commitment to outreach. "They would say: this is what we do. We bring information. Let's all expand and learn."

Over the summer Jordan visited some 75-80 libraries across 14 states, racking up well over 10,000 miles on the odometer. She started planning the trip a year in advance, with invaluable help from her Simmons students. "I had underestimated how much planning it was going to take," Jordan said. Students assisted in plotting her route, determining which libraries she would visit, collecting contact information for each stop, and locating campsites for Jordan along her way. Jordan did stay in hotels for a few of her stops just to insure she would have access to a shower, and as it turned out, wifi, for a night.

Jordan blogged throughout the trip, but often found that phone coverage was minimal and wireless nil for long stretches of her journey. "I was trying to blog on my phone, which would send emails to my blog. Often I would end up leaving them in my outbox and every so often I would pass through something [a cellular hotspot] and a couple posts would go out." Jordan explained that this discovery "was part of my results" in determining what varied issues libraries are facing nationwide. "The western part of the country is so different. And if all people know is Boston, New England, or East coast--it is so different. It is so big, so open." Jordan spoke of the vastness of the Western U.S., especially in terms of differences in access to reliable Internet and cellular service.

Two Simmons students, Lindsay Clarke and Sarah Smith, were especially pivotal in seeing the Library Corps of Discovery into fruition, which included developing a Kickstarter campaign for the project. While the project did not meet its funding goal, Jordan succeeded in garnering a lot of publicity and it connected her to librarians across the country. "Kickstarter has an all-or-nothing component [in terms of funding]," Jordan explained, "I had another student whose research project was to find other places, like Indiegogo and a few other Kickstarter-like tools for science endeavors. That might be a way to go. I think more people should try to fund research through crowd-sourcing."

Items collected along Jordan's trip are currently on display at the School of Library and Information Science. Jordan will be presenting her findings on October 20 at the New England Library Association's Annual Conference in Boxborough, Massachusetts. She will ultimately produce three articles about her research and hopefully a book down the line. The goal of the Library Corps of Discovery is about "getting the word out" about the work libraries are doing across the country. When asked what advice she had for library professionals who struggle with self-marketing, she replied that it was vital to "think about what kind of message you are going to craft, say for a job application." She encouraged job seekers to go beyond describing themselves as nice or easy to work with and consult the job posting to "figure out what things they want you to do, and then say 'I can do these things.'"

Tying it to the field as a whole, Jordan touched on the larger issue of alternative funding, citing declining property taxes in places like her hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin. "Libraries have less money because the value of the land around them and the city has dropped." She suggested libraries might take their cue from a museum model. "They have gift shops; you can buy expensive things online. You can go in and support the library in many ways: be a member, pay a daily rate, get your name on the wall. Libraries need to be thinking about this."

Such suggestions can be seen as reflecting the symbolic connections to Lewis and Clark's expedition: libraries must adopt an exploratory attitude if they are to chart the unknown future. From the Pomeroy, Washington, library in an early 1900s structure that once housed not only its collection but also its librarian, to the well-funded public library of Omaha, libraries "are still offering great things," Jordan said. The challenge is to keep looking forward, reaching out, and making sure the message of what libraries provide our communities is heard loud and clear.

By Dean's Communications Fellow Lily Troia