As a frequent user and long-time supporter of our Miami-Dade Public Library System, I was overjoyed by the outpouring of the hundreds who came to the County Commission meeting to make the case for additional library funding.
It brought to mind the drizzly day in July 1985 when the new Main Library opened in the County Cultural Center with a book brigade of 800 volunteers including kids in t-shirts proclaiming “Miami Reads” passing books from the old library in Bayfront Park to their new home. The Miami Herald summed up that day: It was a symbolic gesture, of going from the old to the new, linked by books and people.
Though not all that is currently needed for our libraries, the commission’s recent vote was encouraging. One item, however, has been overlooked. The Main Library is the anchor of our system and is extremely important to the citizens of Greater Miami. Among its holdings is the Helen Muir Florida Collection of important documents that highlight and illuminate our evolving metropolis. Sadly, in recent years, it has been ignored, underappreciated and underfunded.
I discovered the Florida Collection in the mid-1960s when it was housed in the Bayfront Park Library. Librarian Kathleen Leathen shared important documents with me, thus beginning my 50 years of researching and writing South Florida history. I continued my quest in the new Main Library. The collection is outstanding. Subsequent librarians — Sam Boldrick and John Shipley — have been and continue to be extremely helpful to users.
Despite herculean efforts by staff, the Florida Room has serious problems. First, the staff has been reduced from around seven to two — less than it had 50 years ago. Second, there has been no plan for or investment in digitizing and making available this treasure trove of information for broader use.
So why does this matter?
The collection includes thousands of items — many not easily accessible. Important microfilm reels include The Miami Herald, The Miami News, Diario Las Americas, The Miami Times, The Coral Gables Riviera, as well as other national and important state newspapers. Unfortunately, the Florida Room has few microfilm readers and the ones they have are antiquated and frequently inoperable. In addition, none of the earlier newspapers has been digitized, making research difficult because they lack an index and search capacity.
The Florida Collection also includes a significant Cuban Collection, Spanish American War Collection, the Romer Collection of early South Florida photographs, a complete set of city directories, phone books and plat books, clipping files, federal documents relating to Florida, as well as important local government documents.
It also has manuscript, ephemera, local writers and historic book collections. It houses the genealogy department heavily used by local and national researchers. This is just a small list of what is there and what decision makers should factor in when planning the future.
What does the Florida Collection need?
First, more staff. Librarians are not just people who check out books. They interact with the public to help locate items they might not even know exist.
It also needs new technology, people to operate it and people to catalogue the materials — an important component that has been cut until it is almost non-existent — not only in the Florida Collection but throughout the whole library. The Romer Collection is barely catalogued and not available online — these priceless images could be scanned and put online for study and purchase, generating revenue to offset the expense of the project.
As a former teacher, I support all the branch libraries and their important role in literacy and learning. As a historian and resident, I strongly advocate for additional funds for the Helen Muir Florida Collection.
We owe it to ourselves and our future to encourage our citizens to learn our past as they plan our future. As Alberto Ibargüen so aptly wrote in his recent call for a national search for a new visionary leader for our Library System: “Libraries can be a powerful element binding people to this place.”
Now is the time for new substantive and symbolic gestures signaling our move into the 21st century by linking library content with people. Additional funding to make the Helen Muir Florida Collection more accessible to everyone is a good way to begin.