By Dave Muhlena, Library Director
One of the most familiar faces at the NCSML is that of Dave Muhlena, director of the Skala Bartizal Library. His longevity and contact with visitors provides him a unique view gleaned from 21 years of service and innumerable interactions with people on a search of one type or another. He shares his views of the library’s role over the years in his guest column.
Despite the word “Library” being in our formal name, visitors to the NCSML are sometimes surprised to find that we actually have a fully functioning library in addition to the “Museum.” And I get it: Exhibits featuring art, history, and culture attract people to visit the NCSML. But the founders of the precursor to the NCSML, the Czech Fine Arts Foundation, had the foresight of establishing a library along with a museum. Why? Because they understood that history and culture are preserved through books and documents, just as they are through museum artifacts. By reading the reports in the early issues of the Czech Heritage Foundation’s newsletter, Naše České Dědictví (Our Czech Heritage) – found here: https://ncsml.omeka.net/collections/show/1 – you can read about the early efforts of our founders to solicit donations of library materials and artifacts, which soon led to the opening of what was then called the Czech Museum and Library in 1978. (In fact, all issues of that newsletter can be found online.) The founders soon expanded the mission of the institution to include Slovaks, since they were an integral part of what was then Czechoslovakia, and to be national in scope. So, by the time I arrived on the scene in 1997, the institution was named as it is now: the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. Since then, I have had the privilege of being entrusted to collecting and preserving the NCSML’s library collection, as well as making these materials available for use.
I was tasked with was taking the library to the next level. The first few years of my career were focused on cataloging the book collection and, with the help of several dedicated volunteers, methodically going through the myriad boxes of materials that were acquired before by our founders. After a while, patterns started to emerge. It was apparent that the Czech and Slovak immigrant communities were active producers and consumers of books, newspapers, and periodicals, especially those issued by the fraternal insurance organizations they established here in America. And they were also avid fans of popular dance music (especially polkas and waltzes) in the form of sheet music, phonograph records, and player piano rolls. These materials form the core of our library collection. As the NCSML grew, people and organizations continued to offer their library materials to us. The bulk of our collection has been (and continues to be) acquired through donation, which is a wonderful though rather random way of building a collection.
A defining chapter in our institutional history was the Flood of 2008, which was both destructive and disruptive. We were fortunate to have been able to remove nearly all of our archival materials, periodicals, and English-language books before the flood, though what remained were our foreign-language books and phonograph records. After the flood we were able to salvage most of the phonograph records and either repaired or replaced many of the flood-damaged books. Because of our behind-the-scenes recovery efforts, we had a fully functioning library by the time we opened to the public in our new facility in 2012.
Today, the library staff consists of me and cataloger Leroy Bradway. We continue to add materials that support the museum’s mission, which can be explored by visiting the library’s web page at https://www.ncsml.org/library/. And we look forward to helping our library users find information about their family history or who have questions about Czech and Slovak history and culture. So, when the genealogy bug bites or if you need to know what the difference is between Slav, Slovak, and Slovene, you know who to reach out to.