Homes for Historians in ALA

By Bernadette A. Lear

Ms. Lear, Behavioral Sciences and Education Librarian at Penn State Harrisburg, has more than two decades of experience working in libraries, including the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C., and the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. She deeply enjoys helping people and cites library interactions with children, formerly incarcerated persons, international students, LGBT students, military veterans, students with disabilities, and other diverse clientele as enriching her understanding of what college librarianship can be (and should be). In 2009-2010 and 2013-2014, Mrs. Lear was Chair of LHRT, and she served a third term in 2020-2021. From 2008 to 2017, she served as Chair of the Archives and History Committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association. Other areas of interest are American Indian history and literature, which were the focus of her Master’s degree in American Studies at Penn State Harrisburg, and Children’s Literature, a new focus in her research.

“Be a history major, and then you can study the history of anything!”

It was my second year of college and Dr. Stott had just overheard me telling another classmate that I needed to declare a major and I couldn’t decide which one to choose. I had started in The George Washington University’s International Affairs program and although I was doing well, I didn’t feel like I fit in with the career I was training for or the fellow students that would become my colleagues. I loved to learn about the viewpoints and customs of other people. I was especially interested in Eastern Europe and Central and Eastern Asia, and I had taken courses in Russian and Chinese history. But at the time, GW’s focus was preparing new employees for the U.S. Department of State. Although the Soviet Union was being dismantled and perestroika/glasnost encouraged hopes for new approaches to global relationships, it seemed that a lot of my professors, guest lecturers, and classmates had retained adversarial Cold War attitudes. Within the Economics and Political Science courses that formed the backbone of the International Affairs program, too many of my comments were labeled as “naïve,” “unimportant,” or “leftist.” I’m ashamed to say it now, but the fact that I was the only female in most of my classes intimidated me too. 

So when Dr. Stott suggested that I choose history as my major, I didn’t need much convincing. He was absolutely right about History enabling you to study anything. Over the years, I’ve worked as a subject specialist in Business, Science, Engineering, Education, Psychology, and Health, and I’ve drawn on my historical background in each of those roles. From helping public library customers figure out the value of old stock certificates; to assisting a college student in identifying children’s antiwar books like Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand; to helping a faculty member locate early news reports related to HIV/AIDS before it was known by that name—History is a body of knowledge and a method for making sense of the world that has helped me on the job and beyond it. A lot of people who believe they don’t like History associate it with the “whats”—dry facts like names, dates, and events. But the questions of “why” that History can answer are meaningful and rewarding. History can help us understand today’s people, events, and material culture, which have often been shaped by the past. History can inspire us with ideas for approaching our challenges—and help us recognize blind alleys that have already failed. History can anger us enough to take action, and it can help us make peace with things that we can’t change. Although it’s seen as an intellectual endeavor, it does important psychological and social work as well. 

If you majored in History or you value it as I do, you can keep that interest alive as a librarian. There are several potential homes for you within ALA: 

If you don’t work with historical materials or answer history-related reference questions, but you have an abiding interest in how our profession developed and where it’s headed, ALA’s Library History Round Table is a great place for you. Despite the winding path of my career, it’s been my consistent home for more than 20 years. By reading LHRT’s publications, attending its programs, and networking with its members, you can learn the history of services for diverse groups, as well as the history of collections, cataloging, and every other area of librarianship. While the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) is often described as ALA’s conscience, LHRT is ALA’s memory—and strives to keep that memory honest and inclusive. The round table’s blog and its scholarly journal, Libraries: Culture, History, and Society include not only the admirable strides libraries have made, but also the internal challenges that libraries have had with misogyny, racism, and other social issues. You can contribute to this important effort by reviewing books for LCHS and contributing to the blog, as a number of our student members and new writers do. And although professional librarians are an important part of these stories, LHRT embraces stories and volunteers coming from the retiree, trustee, and community arenas. Truly, anyone who wants to know more about libraries can (and should!) become a member of LHRT. 

If you work with archives/special collections—especially technical aspects like acquisitions, arrangement/description, cataloging, preservation, and security—the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) is for you. Not an academic librarian?—don’t let the “C” in ACRL scare you away. A variety of public librarians, museum employees, and other types of professionals are members too. RBMS welcomes new volunteers to serve on committees. Its blogs, journal, and other publications are vital resources and means of communicating with others. 

For public services librarians, especially those who focus on genealogy and local history, the History Section of the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) is where you’ll meet like-minded people. HS has subcommittees for instruction/information literacy, collection development, and other concerns that pertain to librarians who serve the history discipline. Members have compiled a fantastic site on finding, evaluating, and using primary sources on the web

Besides these 3 entities, other units with ALA engage in history-related initiatives. For example, within SRRT, the Feminist Task Force has a Women in Library History Project which raises awareness about females’ contributions to the profession. For those who are literary-minded, the Intellectual Freedom Round Table provides a Banned Author Birthday Calendar and other items that can help you delve more deeply into controversial books. The Library Research Round Table offers awards, a conference, and other opportunities that are open to library historians as well as other scholars. ALA also has an archives, located at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which is a treasure-trove of information and primary sources about ALA’s history. 

Feel free to contact me (bal19 @ if you’d like to build connections between your love of history and your chosen profession. Although I know the most about LHRT, I’d be happy to help you navigate RBMS or HS and find friends there as well.  

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