Saturday, October 22, 2011

Building a Local History Department from Scratch – Month 1

At the beginning of September, you might remember that I announced my new position as Local History Librarian at the Chester Public Library (CPL) (in addition to being added to a grant for the work I do as an archivist at Plainfield Public Library). Now that it’s been a bit over a month, I thought it was time for an update on my progress at CPL.

First, when I say "from scratch" I mean it. I didn’t have a desk until October 11. But, that’s an issue easily handled – put a few tables together, and you have a makeshift desk. Ergo, it’s not, but it does the trick for a limited time. One of things about working in a library, archive, or museum, is that you have to be flexible and adjust quickly to change.

Another important trait is being persistent, in a kind and friendly way, while educating folks about information that might be new to them – especially concepts or situations that might be pretty complex or detailed. Some of the folks need repetition, visual aids, and lots of supporting facts and literature (sometimes I fall into that category too, I must admit). I enjoy teaching and training experiences, so that part of the job is fun for me. It also gives me a chance to review my education and pursue new research in order to more clearly educate others and keep up-to-date with best practices in the field.

This new position at CPL was created for a number of reasons, but two in particular are key: 1. Work with the Chester Historical Society (CHS) to process, arrange, describe, and make accessible their collections, and 2. Provide local history and genealogy reference services for the library and the larger community. It sounds pretty clear cut, doesn’t it? Well, it will be once we get a few big details out of the way. But first, you’ll need a bit of history to understand why.

For years, the CHS has been keeping a portion of its collections at the CPL. They also have holdings in a large room within the equivalent of a warehouse in the area. At CPL, they keep resources such as binders with historical site surveys of both the borough and the township of Chester (the land the library occupies sits in both locales); books on Chester, Mendham, Morristown, Morris County, and New Jersey history, as well as the Revolutionary War; Roxbury High School yearbooks; volumes of New Jersey legislature; nearly 200 years of the Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society; many decades of the New Jersey Genealogical Society’s publications; cemetery lists; rare, scarce, and not-at-all rare, but old books; and records of the CHS. All these now sit on shelves (with the exception of a few of the Proceedings, which needed conservation, so I foldered and boxed them) in my office (the former Young Adult Room).

Additionally, there is a pretty big storage closet in the new Young Adult room, which holds some other historical items and printed materials that the Society sells from time to time (which we will also begin to sell when we have a system set up to do so). So, what’s the problem with all this? Well, three big issues come to mind. First, there has never been a formal agreement in place between the library and CHS, e.g., a deed of gift or a loan agreement. These legal documents act to protect the collections as well as the institutions involved (more about these later).

Second, there is the issue of security. The CHS has access to my office and the storage closet. Because there are library-owned items in both those locations, this situation presents a security dilemma. Further, because there is no formal agreement in place naming each item of their collections within the library, there’s no control of their materials on site.

I have a good example of what this means. Recently, on a day when I was not working, one of the CHS officers borrowed one of the reference binders from my office. In its place was a note saying which binder and who had borrowed it. Because the collection isn’t formally “open” to the public, and because it is still the property of the CHS, it isn’t a tragedy. However, let’s say that we did have a loan agreement or deed of gift in place. That loan agreement would likely say that in order to ensure that we could offer access to the materials to patrons on a consistent basis, we would need to secure the area where the collections were kept.

Third, there are some big drawbacks to keeping the CHS’ “rare” books and other materials in my office (especially photos and audio tapes – oral histories in file drawers). My office is not designed to be an archival repository. It is not climate controlled (for archival items, we like to aim for a constant 68 degrees F or lower – the lower the better, as far as photos are concerned, and 45% or lower relative humidity). Ideally, archival items would be stored in an area separate from the workspace. That doesn’t often happen in small libraries, unfortunately, due to limited resources. For example, in Plainfield, the archivists and librarians in the Local History Department work in the archival space adjacent to the compact shelving.

Over the past month, I have been educating my very supportive, and frankly pretty awesome, Library Director, as well as the kind folks at the CHS, about why climate control is important to archival materials. Paper, the primary material in the CHS collections, is hygroscopic (it absorbs moisture in the air and swells). When the humidity drops and rises, and when the temperature drops and rises, it causes all kinds of changes in paper that leads to its demise. In short, the more changes in the climate, the faster the deterioration of historical materials. Those changes can be especially painful when it comes to film-based materials (some of which are in those binders). The Northeast Document Conservation Center has excellent resources online explaining in great detail why it's important to maintain lower temperatures and humidity. In some of my communications with the CHS, I have referred them to the Preservation Leaflets.

The last bit of background information is pretty important when it comes to work milestones and realistic expectations. I work for Chester only 20 hours of the week. So, when I track my hours against all the activity (which I do within an Excel workbook), I can see that I have made efficient and effective use of my time so far. I also need to remember that at the beginning of any project or job, there’s a big learning curve and a large amount of activity. In my case, it’s also been deliverables in a variety of formats, but I’ll get to that below.

The Working and Waiting
During the first month, the majority of my work comprised the following:
1. Creating forms and databases that I would need to serve the public,
2. Inventorying the CHS materials on site (including condition reports and conservation recommendations, as well as comparing my inventory against the Morris County library system’s catalog),
3. Researching and/or purchasing supplies for the library and CHS,
4. Corresponding with members of the CHS on a variety of topics, and
5. Researching and composing deeds of gift and loan agreements.

The waiting is due in part to the time it is taking to create the gift/loan agreements. Until these are in place, I cannot begin the actual processing work of the CHS collections. That brings me to an area where I have spent a significant amount of time over the last month -- communicating why I recommend a deed of gift over an extended loan regarding the CHS collections.

There are a number of reasons why a gift is preferable to a loan, but one that is worth considering concerns the members of the community rather than the immediate parties involved. Let’s say the CHS would rather have its holdings on loan (renewable annually) with the library, and we enter into an agreement. As we would do if there was a gift, we would announce the availability of the collection to the public and let folks know that is a loan.

Let’s also say there is a savvy patron who happens to be a tax payer in the area. That person could argue that his/her taxes are going toward housing and caring for materials that the library doesn’t even own, and what if the CHS decided to just remove them? By all rights, they could, since the items would be on loan. The library and its patrons would then lose all their access to those collections, and the tax payer would feel ripped off.

If the CHS decided to make a gift of the collections, they might fear that if the library no longer wanted them at some point in the future, it could just get rid of the items. However, in a draft gift agreement I created (and in no way a final document, since it has not yet been reviewed by legal counsel), the Society would have first crack at anything we would deaccession from the collections.

The point I keep trying to drive home throughout our discussions is the intention. Everyone’s intentions are to make these historical materials accessible to the public, especially local researchers, students, and genealogists working at a distance. I also try to remind folks that while a handshake and good will are wonderful things, we all need to prepare for the time when we are not the ones in charge of these collections and cultural heritage institutions, and there might not be as much mutual admiration among future parties involved.

I feel like I should write a book about this – or at least a paper. For now, I’ll be documenting my experience (for the most part) here on this blog because I believe that it’s important to share it. I’ve reached out quite a bit lately, especially to fellow archivists, to find others who also have built local history departments from scratch. There aren’t many of us out there. But, I met someone last night at the MARAC reception who has created a few archives in her time, and I plan to ask her how she did it. I know there will be missteps along the way, but I will try to prevent as many as I can and share the big learning experiences with you here. I hope you’ll do the same for me.

Importantly, I'll still be writing about my visits to cultural heritage institutions and my MARAC experiences. For example, I have upcoming blog posts on my recent visits to the Smithsonian Archives and the Archives of Acadia National Park. Keep tuned!


Jody Lutter said...

Great work, Debra. It's great that these records are being preserved.

Deb Schiff said...

Thanks for stopping by, Jody. I like your family history blog.