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Using a Library for Historical Research

August 1, 2011

by Paul Koeller

Paul KoellerEveryone knows that libraries are a great place to check out books to read. However, you might not know that they are also a great archive for historical data and contain a wealth of resources for researching history and genealogy.

I was fortunate to grow up in a house where reading was strongly encouraged. I’ve always been a morning person and some of my earliest memories are getting up early and reading before school. I also remember reading many of the “We Were There” histories and lots of biographies in grade school. When summer came, we always signed up for the summer reading program at the public library in La Crosse, Wisconsin where I grew up. Each summer there would be a theme and we’d get a theme related stamp from the librarian for each verbal book report we’d complete. By the end of the summer I’d always have collected all of the stamps.

I’ve continued my love of reading as an adult. Seldom does a week go by that I’m not at the library checking out several books. When our daughter Mara was born, we’d read to her every night. I’m happy to see that as an adult she now has that same love of reading. Back in 2000 Mara graduated from Century High School and went off to college at the University of Wisconsin. With an “empty nest” I started looking for something to fill my time. With my life long interest in history, I ended up deciding to research and write a book on the history of the G. Heileman Brewery in La Crosse where my father had worked for more than forty years.

I quickly discovered a new use for libraries. I spent many hours researching the brewery in the historical archives at the La Crosse Public Library and The Murphy Library at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse. I discovered that the library had all of the old La Crosse newspapers on microfilm. In the case of Heileman, the articles had even been organized and indexed into separate files making it much easier to access. I was also able to find census records, biographies, personal histories, and obituaries for all of the key Heileman personnel including Gottlieb Heileman the brewery founder. At The Murphy Library I found hundreds of old photos that I was able to incorporate into my book. In 2004, that research resulted in the publishing of the book Brewed With Style – The Story of the House of Heileman that I co-authored.

After writing the book, I decided to do additional historical research on a variety of topics related to Rochester and Olmsted County. You’ll often find me on the second floor at the Rochester Public Library researching and reading microfilms of old Rochester newspapers. One of the really nice machines that is available allows me to not only view microfilm, but also to scan the images and save them to a flash drive. I make use of that machine to include actual newspaper headlines or photos in my power point presentations. I also make use of the special collections kept on the second floor of historical documents, maps, and local records. The materials are often one of a kind documents that don’t circulate but can be viewed in the library. The library staff at the research desk on the second floor are always happy to help with these materials.

When I’m not at the Public Library I’m often at the library at the Olmsted County History Center using their archives and their extensive collection of historical materials and photos. The result being numerous history presentations that I’ve given at the Rochester Public Library, The Olmsted History Center, Mayo Clinic, Charter House, The Rochester Senior Center, and most recently at the University of Minnesota – Rochester.

I’ve come a long way from those early days in grade school reading the old “We Were There” histories. I’ve published my own history book and filled my retirement with historical research and an active life giving history presentations. Libraries have given me the information I’ve needed, hours of enjoyment, and have definitely changed my life.

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