Final Say: Kendall Wiggin
Kendall Wiggin, 61, has been Connecticut State Librarian since 1998, and as such, oversees the Connecticut State Library [CSLIB], the State Archives and Museum of Connecticut History. He lives in Windsor Locks.
What’s in the water there—only 10 state librarians in 158 years?
I don’t know, but I’m enjoying it! [laughs] I think because the job is not overly political and as long as you’re doing a good job and folks can see that, you can stay here.
Is it the top of the profession? Is there no more room to go up?
It depends on what your interests are. If you’re really interested in working in public libraries, then working in a large, city library can be one of your goals. I’ve always enjoyed working dealing with statewide library issues. I don’t want to be a politician, but I enjoy working with them, so there’s a little more of a political aspect of working at the state-library level. There’s only 50 of them in the country, not including D.C. and the territories, so it’s a small group. The wonderful thing about libraries is that you can work in academic libraries, school libraries, special research libraries—there really are a lot of opportunities to try different things.
What do you see as the role of libraries in the 21st century?
I think it’s continuing to make sure that we have a well-informed populace. Thomas Jefferson was right: If we’re going to self-govern, we need to have the best information available to citizens. Libraries are critical in helping people to find the information they truly need and evaluate it. They need to be a trusted resource, and ensure the information needs of a community are being met. It’s carving out a place in a very rich information world, but an information world full of bogus information. Then there’s the whole aspect of being a community center, a place where people can come and meet, discuss topics, run into old friends, new friends. There’s also introducing children to the pleasure of reading. Schools teach kids how to read, but I think libraries instill the love of reading.
How has the library adapted to changing research methods?
I think it’s more to change the nature of collections. There are certain things that 20 years ago, I was dreaming we’d be able to do this, have access to more information. Books always took so long to get printed, directories were outdated by the day you bought them, so to some extent, this has been a wonderful thing for libraries, being able to have access to timely information. Despite what people think, you still have to purchase a lot of this. The state library serves as the principal law library for the state. We get more and more things online now—legal resources—but you have to pay for those—we used to get the book, now we get it online, and often that version is more up-to-date, which is a great thing but you’re still paying for it. So libraries, in some cases, are not purchasing a printed book, but are purchasing access to the information.
Of course, there’s a lot of free information out there as well; some libraries do a nice job of providing lists of recommended online resources that we’ve vetted a little. One of the ways you built a collection was to understand the material you were buying and understanding if it was a reliable resource. So that has changed; librarians have to become more knowledgeable about the resources available on the web, being able to identify a trusted resource as opposed to somebody just creating their own little web version of something—is it real, is it authentic, can it be trusted? So librarians are learning, and they’ve taken their basic skill set for being able to find things in the print world and have become quite good at researching on the web. You can enter a word into Google and hope you find something; sometimes you can structure that inquiry in a way that gets back much better results. And then, even understanding what those results are . . . people can get overwhelmed by the information and not understand how Google and others present information. It may not be the best resource that shows up first, it could be one who is advertising the most. It’s a very different world, but in many ways, the Internet has provided great ability to create and share resources that we were not able to do before.
What are the challenges with digitizing collections?
Time, money . . . . [laughs]. And selecting the materials. I will say that the methods for digitizing have greatly improved. We do more with cameras today; we used to put things on flatbed scanners. We still do that for some things. We understand better how to digitize certain kinds of material—photographs are done a little differently from a book. Books present certain challenges as people still want to page through them. It’s not just digitizing a bunch of pages, but stitching them together in such a way that allows you to actually “read through it,” if you will. In some cases, it’s being able to search within what you digitized. Sometimes there is work needed to be done to OCR [optical character recognition] it or make it searchable. Sometimes .pdfs are not searchable. So we’re learning a lot, we’re doing a lot, and we’re realizing that when people come to the web, they want to find the information—not just find a locator to it, but they want to be able to find it. So we’re doing a tremendous amount of digitizing of collections. We’ll never have it all digitized, but whether it’s sampling of collections or discreet collections, just so more people can have access to their history as well as get an idea of what they might find if they came here to do research.
With the massive amount of information now being recorded, how do you decide what to keep track of?
To some extent, you use the same methodologies as you do with print collections. You can’t keep everything, you have to try to discern what might be unique, what might be of longer-term value. The state library itself is the archive for the state government, so we can’t take everything in; we never did. But there’s ephemeral material, sometimes you capture a little of that for historic purposes. If we kept it as printed paper, then we’re keeping it as a digital object.
Some people say, “Oh, it’s digital, you can just keep everything.” Well, keeping everything, you still need to be able to find it—it’s like the needle in the proverbial haystack. You can have this humongous cache of digital stuff, but you still have to be able to organize it, be able to search and find information because just being able to do a word search through billions of bytes can be overwhelming.
Does electronic storage space become an issue?
Electronic storage space is one of those things that keeps getting cheaper and cheaper. I often joke that some of the first computers I worked with, the disk drive was huge, but the storage capacity was next to nothing. Today, we can store terrabytes and even larger amounts. It’s knowing how to preserve that material that we’re working on. Right now, we’re working with the UConn library and the Dodd Center to establish a trusted digital archive because you want to know that those bits and bytes that you store can be viewed 10 years from now, 100 years from now. That’s a technology and a knowledge base that’s just developing now. It’s getting to the point that we’re fairly confident that we know how to do it. Paper was challenging, but we know how to treat it, how to preserve it, we can microfilm things. We’re not going to be able to microfilm everything that’s digital—create an image, and do a microfilm of it. It’s just overwhelming.
So we need to store these things, but it’s more than doing back-ups of it. If you think of a family, they have all their photographs on their hard drive, and then they have some up on the web somewhere, and they have them all over the place—well, that’s a lot. But then you think about if you’re collecting information on a much larger scale, that volume is enormous. While we’re interested in cloud technology and all these things, permanence is an overriding issue. Will that service be there 10 years from now, in some cases two years from now?
One of the challenges we face is getting that material back out again. Right now, .pdfs are a heavily used format, what happens when the next one comes along? Or .jpegs for images? We’ll need to be able to update those, but keep the material authentic. You don’t want it to be changing what the nature of that way, but you need to be able to use the new form. There are things that were done pre-Excel that were done on funky old systems that nobody has anymore. It’s a real interesting issue.
Libraries have always been free enterprises, but with new demands and access, do you see that changing?
That’s a question I’m often asked, and I still firmly believe in the free public library, although we know it’s not free—it takes government support, as well as local and private support. I hate to see a public library get to the point where it’s like, “Well, if you’ve got the money, you can get at this resource.” If that’s the case, then we shouldn’t be having those materials in a public library, maybe they’re available somewhere else. We want to make sure that every citizen, no matter their ability to pay or not, can have access. It’s a good thing to maintain public libraries as free public libraries.
Why a librarian?
My mother was a librarian for 50 years—but growing up I really didn’t know what she did that much! [laughs] I’d go to the library for help with homework sometimes, and she’d tell me, “No, you have to do that on your own.” When I went to college, I was on work study, and I thought I was going to end up in the cafeteria, washing dishes. When they were interviewing me, they noticed that my mother was a librarian, and I said, “Uh, yeah—the library! I’d like to work there.” So actually, I had a great job working in the college library. And then, it was in a small town, and they were looking for somebody to work at the town library on Sundays and afternoons, so I got that job. Then it was like, “Oh, that’s what my mother did.” But I really liked the work, I enjoyed the interaction with the public, all the different aspects of it. So from there, I decided to go to library school.
You started in New Hampshire, right?
Yes, I grew up in New Hampshire, and I worked there for many years. I was state librarian up there for eight years before coming here.
What drew you to Connecticut?
The job was really interesting because no two state libraries are the same—I like to say, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen one.” In Connecticut, it also includes the state archives, public records and the state museum, so it just had a lot more than New Hampshire. It paid a little better. [laughs] I saw some opportunity to do some things down here that I wasn’t seemingly able to do in New Hampshire. It wasn’t that far away; moving south has been great for my gardening—I can grow things down here that I couldn’t grow up there. So, what the heck.
Aww . . . you know, that’s a tough question to ask any librarian! I read, but I’m not a fast reader. I always tell kids that I’m not the world’s speed reader, that I spend a lot of time reading what I read. But my interests vary so that I can read a book that I really, really enjoy and tell everybody about it, then a couple of months later, read another book that I really like. History background, so a lot of historical books interest me. When I was in college, I didn’t dare read historical fiction because I was afraid I’d get the facts mixed up with the fiction. But since I don’t have to worry about that any more, I enjoy historical fiction or mystery. I read a lot of mysteries because I can relax. But I like ones that are either set in a historical period or in an area that interests me. But I’m not going to tell you a favorite book. [laughs]
One thing about the state library that everyone should know?
People probably don’t know the scope of the collection that we have. I mean, it is truly a wonderful resource. We’re a federal government depository and we have been since God knows when, so we have great, wonderful historical governmental archival materials here. If you’re looking for family history, we have probate records that go way back. We have all kinds of wonderful histories of various aspects of state government. It’s just a very rich collection—early maps, current maps, we have the aerial surveys of the state. It’s a very far-ranging collection—if you have an interest, we probably have great material about it. We’re not a current popular library. We don’t have current fiction. But if you’re doing any sort of research, it’s a wonderful, wonderful collection. And we have great people working here who want to help you find what it is that you want to find. It’s amazing to me how many authors do research here, or will include us in their forewards and know our staff. The staff works with all kinds of folks who are working on books. We’ve started having a luncheon program on the third Thursday of every month, and a lot of our speakers are either people who have done research here on a Connecticut topic or have some connection to history in Connecticut, or have used the collection here. It’s really neat.
Most unusual research request?
We’re not supposed to put any judgement on anybody’s request, but the sad thing is that I haven’t been on a reference desk in so many years—although the staff tells me that I’m going to have to get out there soon to help cover. I’d love to tell you a great story, but I don’t have one. I’m sure there is one.
Have you ever had to send out an investigations officer to recover a lost copy of The Tropic of Cancer (a la “Seinfeld”)?
No, but we’ve had issues with eBay and some of the auction sites where things have shown up for sale that had been listed. So that’s been interesting, asking them to pull them down. We’ve gotten some things back. We’ve had people find things on the sites that we hadn’t seen, and gotten them and returned them to us. That happened with a federal document, too, but I can’t remember the whole story. But there are times when we actually bought something that turned out to belong to the federal government, and had to return it, which is fine, and then we got reimbursed from the person who actually had sold it. Sometimes people don’t know where it came from. But that’s been happening more and more.
The museum curators also do a lot of searching through eBay looking for Connecticut material because many things have traveled with families across the country. Something that may have originated here may have ended up with a family in California. So we acquire things for the museum often through eBay. But yeah, people occasionally have a book up there that shouldn’t be up there. A number of years ago we had some issues with the Mashantuckets over some documents that they had legitimately purchased but the material had come from our collection, an there was a large investigation of that, and the materials were returned here. We had the state police involved, too.
Most unique thing in Archives?
We have a whole collection of letters from George Washington to Gov. Jonathan Trumbull. We also have a lot of George Washington signatures. It’s one of those things, you keep finding things in the collection and you go, “Oh wow, this is interesting.” The staff also found in World War II-era government documents some illustrations that were given to soldiers, and it turns out that Theodore Geisel had done them before he was Dr. Seuss, when was doing art illustrations for the military. Very cool, and you can begin to see some of how his characters were already developing, and his thought process.
One thing about State History Museum knows about, other than that museum even exists?
This is true—it’s one of those little-known resources that once you find it, it’s a treasure trove. Of course we have things like The Fundamental Orders, if you want to see this document you can’t read because it’s in early English, but it’s there. The Charter, of course, is a very fascinating document to look at, the illustrations. I think the governor’s portraits are interesting, especially the later ones—I like to look at the background they chose to have as their background.
Do you have the John Rowland portrait back?
John Rowland is here. All the others have been commissioned, and this was one that was found in one of the state park’s building—I forget which one, it may have been down at Harkness, actually. Someone had given it to the governor as a gift, and it’s not a portrait the governor particularly liked, but it was one we had, and so one summer, some reporter decided, “Well, is there going to be a portrait of John Rowland?” “Good question, no we’re not aware of any.” We don’t fund them, all we do is hang them in the gallery, and we work with the artist. And then it came to light that there was this portrait, so since the state owned this portrait, we decided that we should hang it as his official portrait. Some day, if Gov. Rowland decides to come up with a better portrait, well, we’ll gladly substitute it. But right now, it’s there. I know Gov. Rell’s portrait is being done right now, and I think that’ll be unveiled this summer, as far as I know. It’s a great collection—it speaks to the times, it speaks to the governors, it’s a good focus for anyone who wants to put a face to a period.
Any other gems?
Our coin collection is one of those things that I don’t think people know we have. It’s like the second- or third-most complete American coin collections in the world. A gentleman in Connecticut had collected it, and then donated it to the state library—it’s a wonderful collection, particularly used by coin collectors when they want to identify a coin because we have a presentation of everything minted. That’s a little treasure. We basically collect the political, military and industrial history of the state, so we have a large collection of both manufactured goods and the machines that were used—as factories have gone out of business, we’ve acquired some of the important pieces of machinery. We’ve got tons of iron, and of course, a lot of firearms.
Is genealogy still popular?
It seems to be. Every time I go down to the genealogy area, there are folks doing research there. There are professional genealogists who use the collections for clients a lot, and then there are a lot of people who come up here, sort of genealogy tourists that come up for the summer or whatever, visit some cemeteries, come in here to do their research, go to a historical society to do research. Yeah, there’s always the next generation always wants to know more than the previous one. There’s usually someone in every family that keeps that history. People are often looking. The other aspect that’s becoming interesting is medical genealogy—people who want to know more about their ancestors because they want to find out if there were any medical issues or conditions that might be important. So sometimes, because we have records that might give a little inkling of that, they come here looking.
Like if your family had a few generations who died of cancer . . .
Or if they were in a state hospital! [laughs] There are a few things to find out about your family, you know, if they were arrested and you didn’t know they did a stint in state prison. There’s that all kind of fun stuff.
The Dewey Decimal System vs. the Library of Congress Classification—Is that sort of like Kirk vs. Picard?
[laughs] I always saw it like high church vs. low church. The academic libraries used the Library of Congress Classification system, or if you were an aspiring large public library, you went that route, where Dewey was for the rest of the folks. The state library here converted at some point from Dewey, although we do still have some things in Dewey. In reality, the Dewey Decimal System is a very biased system. When you begin to look at it, there’s a whole social history in it, the way Dewey classified things were clearly from a different time period and a different way of looking at the world. LCC is a little more agnostic. It’s just one of those things. I taught both at one point.
Biggest myth about librarians?
I’ve known a lot of librarians over the years, and what always galls me is the way we get portrayed. There’s an ad out—I don’t remember the product—but I get so upset with a librarian shushing everybody because I’ve never worked in a library where we ever shushed anybody. When I was younger, I used to get so upset that I would write to these companies and say, “How dare you portray us this way!” I just let it go now. I hope that people have a better experience in a local library. I can laugh it off. It is frustrating, though. I also don’t know any women librarians that have their hair in a bun with the big-frame glasses. It’s like, come on!