Have you ever wondered where you can learn about local history and have access to one-of-a-kind archival resources? In addition to local and regional history items, the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library (HMCPL) Special Collections Department offers a wide variety of services as well as trained archivists and librarians to assist with your research.
Throughout May, the City of Huntsville is celebrating Historic Preservation Month by bringing special attention to historic and culturally significant places and tourist destinations that have been adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether you’re a Huntsville native or new to the area, HMCPL Special Collections is a destination worth visiting.
Beginning in the early 20th century, Huntsville librarian Mattie Darwin began developing a robust collection of books, equipment and services to serve the community, including a historical collection with valuable documents and artifacts. The archives were formally established in 1976, housing rare, fragile and unique materials that had been part of the library since 1818. Those items included original diaries, correspondence, scrapbooks, organizational and community group records, more than 25,000 photographic prints and originals, and the Zeitler Rare Book Collection.
When the current downtown branch was built in 1986, a space for the historical collections was officially designated as the “Heritage Room.” In the mid-2010s, the archives and Heritage Room were combined into the Special Collections Department to include collections of heritage books, archives, microfilm and maps related to Huntsville, Madison County and Alabama history.
The majority of our archival collection has been donated by members of the community and we are so thankful for our history-loving donors.
Heather Adkins, HMCPL Special Collections manager, said almost all material is available for viewing or handling by the public under the watchful eye of archivist Shalis Worthy. Exceptions include materials in need of repair and items that are extremely fragile in nature.
HMCPL Special Collections provides free services such as online subscriptions to Fold3.com and Ancestry.com, genealogy and local history classes, an online obituary index, exhibits and the Research and Writing Lab. This department serves as the library system’s multimedia resource center for genealogical and local history research, which is one of the most popular activities conducted by visitors to HMCPL Special Collections.
In addition to physical resources, HMCPL Special Collections also has online resources and databases available to the public. They have a new webpage that is regularly updated as well as a portion of their digital photographs online.
“We are working on establishing a web-capturing archive online that focuses on underrepresented populations in the historical record,” Adkins said. “It will debut later this year.”
If you have qualifying books or documents, namely items related to local history, HMCPL Special Collections will consider them for donation either as a physical item or scanned digital copy.
“The majority of our archival collection has been donated by members of the community and we are so thankful for our history-loving donors,” Worthy said.
Like many places, HMCPL Special Collections hasn’t been immune from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to more patrons staying home, the heritage and rare book collections have experienced a significant drop in use, but the department has seen an increase in book usage in recent months.
The pandemic also impacted the library’s volunteer program, which is currently suspended.
“A lot of our internal projects have slowed or halted as a result,” Adkins said. “We cannot wait to have volunteers again.”
To visit HMCPL Special Collections, come to the third floor of the downtown branch, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Appointments are not necessary but encouraged if you require assistance with your research.
The City of Huntsville recognizes places like HMCPL Special Collections help preserve our history and are instrumental in sharing that history with the community. HMCPL Special Collections is a treasure trove filled with books, documents and artifacts just waiting to be discovered. Plan your visit today!