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Bloomington Library Tool Connects Patrons To Military History

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Rhonda Massie
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In 1857 the library opened to the public in a single room of a building on Center St. It was opened by the Ladies' Library Association, formed in 1856, and supported by book donations and membership fees handled by the Ladies' Library Association.

After her passing in 2015, Irene Mischler left a trust in memory of her brother Charles Mischler to be used for economics and history materials. The Bloomington Public Library has used the proceeds to buy access to a tool that’s helping to keep veterans’ history alive.

Fold3 by Ancestry provides convenient access to military records, including the stories, photos, and personal documents of the men and women who served.

“Fold3 is just such an amazing product because a lot of these military records before this database were scattered in many different government repositories,” said librarian Mimi Davis. “It's so much more convenient to have basically, one-stop shopping to search for military records.”

Davis said Fold3 features an interactive Vietnam wall, an interactive USS Arizona Memorial and many things that anyone interested in military history would find interesting. Davis said anyone with a Bloomington library card can access the subscription from home for free, which she said has proven to be a hit since the pandemic.

“I've presented Fold3 at the McLean County Museum of History for folks and we've done some hands-on workshops. Now since COVID, we're not as hands-on as we used to be. But that'll be coming back again. In the meantime, people can access it from home,” said Davis.

In 2020 Fold3 received more than 4,000 page views from library patrons. (The name “Fold3” comes from the third fold in a flag-folding ceremony, which is made in honor and remembrance of veterans who served in defense of their country.)

“There're so many people that have questions about their ancestors that served. Either those folks are no longer here, or perhaps they were someone like my grandfather who was a World War II veteran, but never wanted to talk about it,” said Davis.

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Credit Mimi Davis
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In 1944, Kenneth Bentley, Mimi Davis' grandfather, married Sarah Margaret Millard in Chicago.

Davis herself used the tool to see her grandfather’s World War II draft card, when he was 17. Davis said seeing it made her family feel close to him again.

“It was very touching,” she said. “To see his handwriting again after all these years, it was a really special thing that I shared with all my cousins.”

Davis is BPL’s electronic services librarian and has helped patrons use Fold3 in hands-on workshops. Davis said it is a very moving experience to watch patrons unveil history. 

“A lot of folks have been surprised by things they found. They’ve been moved by things they found, and even found ways to continue their research on. I've had folks that never knew their parents or didn't know their grandparents learn all about them and have that connection they never thought they would,” said Davis.

One family learned of an ancestor who had been awarded medals for military service. These medals had been lost over the years, but Davis said through the program they were guided in how to contact the National Archives to apply for replacements.

“Many of the records are from the National Archives. But in recent years, they've also been working with National Archives from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. There's loads more primary sources that we would never get to go to, for example, to see World War I Australian records,” said Davis. 

Davis said students often use the Fold3 product for projects and as a primary resource. 

The Bloomington Library Foundation Board currently manages the distributed $83,340 from the Irene B. Mischler Trust. Since 2019, the Mischler Trust has supported the library’s subscription to Fold3 and has been used to make an annual purchase of $2,000 in local history materials. A Fold3 subscription is almost $100 a year.

“We are so grateful to Irene Mischler for her generous bequest and the ability to continue to offer important historical resources to the community for many years,” said Library Director Jeanne Hamilton.

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Catrina Petersen is an intern at WGLT focused on reporting and online writing. She is also a student in Illinois State University's School of Communication.