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Kentucky by Heart: Kentucky’s library collections offer a wealth of resources on state and local history

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part column on Kentucky collections in the state’s local libraries.

By Steve Flairty
KyForward Columnist

The first place I go when I enter the doorway of a local library in the state is to where Kentucky books (ones by Kentucky authors and/or the subject of Kentucky) are located. I’ve noticed they’re found in a variety of places, depending on the particular library; sometimes they are clearly seen and sometimes assistance from the staff is needed. I’ve seen large rooms dedicated to the Kentucky subject and other places where Kentucky books are mostly integrated into the system as simply “part of the bunch of books we have.” Regardless, all configurations have their part to play in enriching our knowledge of the Commonwealth.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

I figured it would be interesting to get a sampling of what our libraries have to offer on the subject. With time limitations a factor, I did not contact all, but what I’ve found in contacting an appreciable number of them is enough to stretch this into a two-part article that will conclude next week. Hopefully, it will illuminate what is generally available for your Bluegrass literary cuisine and will whet your appetite to find out more. It might even spur some readers to travel a little extra distance to taste a special resource delight.

The Local History Collection at the Boone County Library contains “a wide array of resources for genealogists and historians alike,” noted Bridget Striker, the local history coordinator. It’s housed at Main Library in Burlington, where the physical collection consists of both circulating and reference research materials related to Boone County, Kentucky, as well as surrounding counties and states. The digital archive, she noted, has over 15,000 images and family documents which can be accessed through the online catalog. One can visit the Local History and Genealogy webpage and click on Chronicles of Boone County to delve into Boone County’s history through short articles and related topics.

“Nationally recognized and affiliated with the Park Service’s Network to Freedom, BCPL’s African American Collection and Project Initiatives provide researchers with a wealth of information related to Northern Kentucky’s enslavement history and the Underground.” This feature can be explored through the database, African Americans of the Kentucky Borderlands, and there is help for those who are not sure how to get started. “BCPL offers local history research help in-person, virtually, and through email at no charge. Most importantly, you don’t need to be a Boone County resident to receive assistance,” said Bridget.

At the Paris-Bourbon County Library, Suzanne Dungan called the materials in their Kentucky Room “a reference collection comprised of print materials covering local history, genealogy, as well as over 300 books on the American Civil War which were donated by the late David Leer Ringo.” It’s located on the second floor of the original Carnegie Building portion of the library.

The Kentucky Room at Scott County Public Library. (Photo courtesy SCPL)

Patti Burnside is the director of Scott County’s beautiful library, and they have, like in Paris, a dedicated space for all things Kentucky. There are over 1,650 volumes in the special reference collection not to be checked out, but there are 1,200 in the room that can be circulated. The most popular subjects in the room are travel, history, true crime, and sports, especially UK basketball. “Several years ago, when our shelves in the Kentucky Room began to fill up, we moved our Kentucky cookbooks out of the Kentucky Room and have interfiled them with the other cookbooks on our regular nonfiction shelves,” said Patti. “They are, also, very popular.”

The small town of Liberty, in Casey County, is large when it comes to showcasing the state within its local library. According to librarian Jan Banks, their Kentucky Room includes children’s books connected to the state as well as adults. But there is much more. “Our Kentucky area and around the library have pieces of artwork and historical artifacts crafted or collected and donated by Casey County residents,” said Jan. “Some examples of this would be photographs of Kentucky by local photographers, wood carvings made by an 85-year-old lawyer from Casey County, memorabilia such as a WW1 belt with medals, a medical saddle bag from a Civil War doctor whose descendants lived in Casey County, a gavel made from Abraham Lincoln’s cabin, an elaborately painted nursery rhyme-themed children reading corner, and quilts made by local homemaker groups.”

For fiction and non-fiction Kentucky books, the library at Louisa, in Lawrence County, has worked them into the main collection. Additionally, the genealogy collection has many items, noted spokesman Caleb Farley, that are “mostly centered on Lawrence County, but it does contain some general state information on surrounding counties… (and) three large display cases for local historical items for us to display in. We have a large yearbook collection for the Lawrence County High School dating back to 1929.” The yearbook collection is digitalized and can be found on the library website. The genealogy collection also has a large selection of family histories, including many unpublished unique items.

Wayne County, in the southern part of the state, has a bit of a hybrid (my word) way of presenting their Kentucky materials. Librarian Olive Anderson told me that Kentucky fiction books, a total of 613 titles, are presented with regular fiction, but Kentucky nonfiction is shelved separately from regular nonfiction in its own corner in the main part of the library. There are 1,378 Kentucky nonfiction titles. Kentucky biographies, 182 of them, are put with regular biographies. The library also has a local history/genealogy room with emphasis on Wayne County. Included are 26 biographies, 650 family histories, and 475 local county records.

The Kentucky non-fiction shelves at the Paul Sawyier Library, Frankfort (Photo by Diane Dehoney)

The state capital, Frankfort, has a Kentucky Collection “built-in” shelving at Paul Sawyier Library exclusively including Kentucky history books, stated Diane Dehoney. “This section also encompasses books pertaining to Frankfort history,” she stated. “As the capital city’s public library, we do find that this collection is quite popular and sees frequent usage. All of the items shelved in this area are available for regular circulation and checkout.” A large source of Kentucky fiction is mixed in with the rest of the books. Incidentally, the building also includes a book sale shop that is one of the better ones I’ve seen.

In far western Kentucky, the Ballard-Carlisle County Library has a “small collection of non-fiction and fiction on Kentucky” but shares space with the local Historical and Family History Society, an official there said, and “is used regularly with inquiries directed to the genealogy staff.”

Paul Burns, at the Louisville Free Library, informed me of two impressive resources. One is the Kentucky Collections at the Main Library location. It has 30,000 non-circulating items, mostly books, that are relevant to the study of Louisville and/or Kentucky. Along with books, microfilm presents a wide range of vital records and historical maps, city directories, government reports, and some business records, along with thousands of federal government documents. He added that the African American Archives are housed at the city’s Western Library, having “thousands of items pertaining to the history of African Americans in Louisville, including the papers of renowned poet Joseph S. Cotter and pioneering librarian Rev. Thomas F. Blue.”

The Jackson County Library, in McKee, has their Kentucky Books section located in the Main Library adult collection area, with approximately 900 items. “We also have some titles secluded in our Kentucky Room,” said a library spokesperson.

Three distinct designations for Kentucky materials make up Danville’s Boyle County Public Library offering, said Jamie Helle, who heads Reference/Acquisitions there. “Non-fiction focuses on books about Kentucky, its history, family genealogies, and record books from Virginia and West Virginia that may help people conducting research,” said Jamie. “The Kentucky Room has all these books and family files that were donated from their compilers with prominent last names from the area.” She noted that the focus is on Boyle County, but some surrounding county information is also available. Kentucky biographies (generally about those born in the state or have an impact on its history) have their own section. The fiction section shelves books written by Kentuckians, though some (like Kingsolver and Grafton) are in the regular collection throughout the library. Special Collections encompasses all the collections mentioned above, except for family history files. They include regular adult fiction and non-fiction and are deemed “irreplaceable” and available only through appointment or a librarian’s permission.

Glenda York, at the Russell County location, bemoans the fact that a lot of the Kentucky sections in state libraries are “hidden instead of being front and center as it deserves to be.” Russell’s new library building features the collection on a wall next to genealogies, forming a corner space. They have 117 Kentucky biographies and 554 non-fiction holdings. Kentucky fiction is interspersed with regular fiction. As for the popularity of the Kentucky materials, Glenda would like it to improve, but hopes it gets better soon, when Covid passes and more visitors are able to occupy the premises.

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One Comment

  1. Diane Daubert says:

    Kentucky has a rich diverse community of artisans. Their talents and mediums vary widely as you travel across the state. It is wonderful to see libraries displaying and bringing attention to this rich heritage. Thank you for getting the word out.

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