January 28, 2022

Tiny Public Library in Kansas Uses Digital Projects to Stay Relevant


By Mary Hooper

Joan Weaver and Rosetta Graff aren’t exactly reinventing the small town public library, just . . . well, reinterpreting it.

Weaver and Graff are library director and librarian respectively of the Kinsley Public Library in Kinsley, which, with a population of roughly 1,450, is the largest town in Edwards County, in wheat-growing central Kansas.

Before the Internet, the public library was the source of books and information. Now, it’s one of many sources. So, like a company rewriting its business model in changing times, the library, especially the small library, also must adapt to remain relevant, Weaver says.

“We have to do more than check out books. One way a small local library can stay relevant is to become a repository of local information.”

In recent years, the Kinsley Library has become just such a repository. With the help of dedicated volunteers and some grant money, the library has amassed a trove of local history, vital statistics, genealogical information, burial records, church records, a digital map of the changing downtown, and hundreds of historical photos, including photos of the five family-owned carnivals that once headquartered in Kinsley.

In addition, the librarians recently completed two oral history projects on how World War II affected Edwards County and its residents, and how the county changed during the post-war decades.

All of this has been digitized and is accessible online at the library’s website.

“Local history is a unique and valuable niche a library of any size can fill,” said Weaver.

The library’s digitization process began in 2002 when Weaver and Graff attended workshops on digitization in Salina and Dodge City sponsored by the Kansas State Library and the Colorado Digitization Project, later the Collaborative Digitization Program, centered at the University of Denver.

The CDP provided training to cultural organizations, such as libraries, museums and historical societies, to enable them to convert data and images into digital form.

In 2007, the CDP, which was having funding difficulties, merged with the Bibliographic Center for Research, which itself closed in 2010, again due to fund-raising woes, worsened by the recession.

Some projects of the CDP-BCR, however, continue, one being Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection, a digital archive of state newspapers, at the Colorado State Library, according to Jim Duncan, director of networking and resource sharing at the library.

The CDP training, in which Weaver and Graff learned the basics of scanning and cataloging pictures, was vital.

“It was way over our heads, but my motto is, if you learn it you will use it,” Weaver said.

In 2003, a local computer programmer offered to digitally map changes in Kinsley’s business district from its early history to the present. He had the help of eight volunteers who spent months reading old newspapers and digging in county records to keep track of which businesses were located where, and when.

In ’04, the library received a $1,900 grant from the Kansas Library Network Board, at that time part of the Kansas State Library, to buy an external hard drive, printer and scanner to share with its grant partner, the Edwards County Historical Society, and to use to digitize photos of downtown Kinsley which were then linked to locations on the digital map.

The librarians also catalogued the contents of the library’s vertical files—metal filing cabinets of files relating to local people, places, businesses, churches and events.

“Adding the subjects of the vertical files to our catalog made this often uncatalogued information much more accessible, not only to the librarian but also local and remote patrons,” Weaver said.

The county cemetery sexton created a digital directory to the county’s numerous cemeteries and offered it to the library for its website. Later, volunteers photographed the tombstones, which number in the thousands, for the directory.

The library has partnered with the Kinsley-based National Foundation for Carnival Heritage to digitize the group’s extensive collection of photos from Kinsley’s colorful carny heyday.

Amassing records and pictures is a very good thing. But what about flesh-and-blood repositories of history, the county’s elderly with their memories and stories?

A desire to tap those memories led the library to embark upon complementary oral history projects: “Patchwork of Dependency: The Effects of World War II on Edwards County, Kansas,” and “Patterns of Change: Edwards County, Kansas, 1950-1970.”

In 2008, with a grant of $3,245 from the Kansas Humanities Council, the librarians began interviewing 29 elderly residents about their wartime experiences, at home or in the military.

In conjuring a project title, Weaver thought of the patchwork quilt of towns and settlements that lay across Edwards County before the Great Depression and how the Depression and the war years compelled residents to depend upon each other.

When finished with the wartime oral history, the Kinsley librarians turned their attention to the post-war era. They applied for and received another Kansas Humanities Council grant, this for $3,252, to interview 20 residents about Edwards County during the ’50s and ’60s.

The grant money helped pay for supplies, interview transcriptions and fill-in help at the library while Weaver and Graff were conducting interviews.

“We decided to interview a cross-section of the men and women of varying ages and races that lived in Edwards County—farmers, business people, veterans, educators, professionals, housewives. We digitally recorded them on the computer with an audio tape back-up in case the technology-challenged library director messed up the digital recording. The backups were never needed, but they offered peace of mind,” said Weaver.

She and Graff photographed those interviewed and asked them to choose photos from their family albums to illustrate their lives. These were scanned and grouped on digital “album pages” on the library website along with their audio tapes and transcripts.

Weaver and Graff decided against video taping the interviews, fearing that their subjects might not want a camera pointed at them for an hour, the length of a typical interview. So they audio recorded the interviews, but at the end of each interview, asked each person to be filmed telling a story. They put these stories, two to five minutes long, on You Tube, linking them to the library website.

All told, the time interviewing, transcribing, proofreading the transcripts, scanning photographs and reproducing all of the documents and photos for online viewing amounted to about 12 hours per subject. The librarians also sent copies to the Kansas Historical Society and the Edwards County Museum.

It was time well spent.

“Everybody can buy a best-selling book, but we librarians can preserve local history and make it accessible. It’s important for the community and it builds support for public libraries,” says Weaver.

Graff agrees.

“Some day I’m not going to be here, but this material will be here, and thanks to technology, available worldwide.”

Weaver’s advice to other libraries that might want to digitize their local history collections?

“You can expand your staff with volunteers,” she said. “Without our volunteers, we’d never have been able to accomplish what we have.”

The library placed an ad in the local newspaper and contacted the Edwards County Historical Society for volunteers. Historical societies and libraries are natural partners, Weaver said.

And be on the lookout for funding sources, including those which are not necessarily library-related, such as organizations that support the arts or historic research. When the Kansas Humanities Council announced it was taking grant applications for its “Kansans Tell Their Stories” project, the Kinsley Library successfully applied for funds to support its oral history projects.

The library hosted an open house on November 5 to celebrate the completion of the Patterns of Change project.



  1. Michael Girard says:

    This is a FANTASTIC story!

    Michael Girard
    Community Engagement, Radian6

  2. Nancy Masters says:

    This is one of the niches that public libraries can excel in – in contrast to competing with market-driven content providers like Amazon. Small libraries often already hold ephemera, manuscripts, newspapers, etc. and fulfil research needs for an array of genealogists, historians and authors. A library’s ability to collect, organize, preserve and provide access to unique items that document the history of a region can be parlayed into public support and inter-agency cooperation, as well as ensuring that the nation’s history is preserved piece by piece. In the hoopla of the electronic age, sometimes the critical function of retention and preservation by libraries of all sizes has been lost. Kudos to Kinsley PL!

  3. Linda Knupp says:

    Wonderful project! Inspirational Kinsley! I love Thelma’s story.

  4. Julie Ackerman says:

    This is truly a wonderful library and I am glad I am able to use this library. They have “gone the extra mile” to make it a very relevant place to go in Kinsley. Being able to access it on the web is great too, for all those not living close to Kinsley.