Monday, February 20, 2012

Work Update -- Chester Public Library

It's been a while since I've written in this space about work, so it's time. Last week, on a truly dark and stormy night, I gave my first solo workshop on "Caring for Your Family's Treasures," at Chester Public Library. Surprisingly, a stalwart little group of folks left their warm and cozy homes to brave the storm and later, the thick fog that seems to settle in Chester, to participate in the workshop.

During the last month or so, in between digitization projects, preserving library materials, helping patrons, and writing finding aids, I created a 19-page PowerPoint presentation for the workshop. It is dense with information about how to preserve and care for a wide array of materials that patrons might find in their collections. I then matched up the presentation with demonstrations using a few props from the library's collections.

For instance, to demonstrate how to handle maps, I used a small collection of cave maps one of my cowokers and I found in a file drawer next to her desk. Originally, these maps were folded in an envelope with a bulletin from the New Jersey Bureau of Geology and Topography. When we discovered them in the library, we only had the maps. I unfolded them, interleaved them with acid-free tissue, and rolled them around a legal sized archival folder I had opened and rolled lengthwise. I then used some cotton tying tape to loosely tie them in their rolled state and put them into a polyethylene plastic tube for storage.

I also demonstrated two ways to store fragile/rare books. In one instance, I used a custom acid-free wrapper to enclose an old minutes book from the library's board meetings spanning 1911-1945. In another example, I showed the participants a very large, fragile book housed in a drop-front, acid-free box and stabilized with archival tissue.

In the section of the presentation on photographs, I used an archival binder with polyester photo sleeves to show how we stored our color and black and white prints. It occurred to me during the workshop that I should have asked someone to photograph the presentation, but I'll just have to put it on the to-do list for next time.

I covered the essentials of preserving paper-based items (manuscripts, books, the aforementioned maps, architectural drawings, works on paper, ephemera, and more), film and photographs, recordings (audio/video), textiles, and metal objects. I avoided digitization, except to refer to it as a way of converting film and recordings into digital files. Digitization really requires its own workshop, and the library will be hosting a vendor in April (for Preservation Week) who will digitize all kinds of materials for patrons.

The workshop was attended by a mix of locals, Chester Historical Society members, and a few people from neighboring towns. Participants asked many good questions. My favorite question had to do with the work surface, because not everyone has a nice large, stainless steel worktable on which to do their preservation projects. The query came from a lovely older lady from Mount Olive who wondered if she could do the work on her bed or the kitchen table. I suggested that she avoid the bed and opt for a solid surface that was clean of all debris and materials that might transfer to the archival bits. One might even cover it with archival paper just to be safe. Sometimes the floor is an option for home preservation projects, just because of the size of an item (and I would recommend it be covered as well).

There were discussions about cost, since preserving materials in archival housing is not a cheap venture. I suggested ways of making the most out of archival housing without injuring the materials. Importantly, two vendors provided me with samples of their wares and discounts for shoppers who mentioned the workshop. It was nice to send the participants away with thick packets of acid-free folders, cotton gloves, photo sleeves, and other enclosures. I also put a color copy of the presentation in the polyester bag, as well as the discount coupons.

Overall, the workshop went well, and I received very positive feedback from attendees. I enjoy giving these types of presentations. The more props, the better. It also gives me a good opportunity to meet more of our local and nearby patrons. Importantly, teaching others what I have learned helps me to solidify that knowledge in my mind and practice. Areas where I feel a bit weak or questions I'm unable to answer just show me where I need to focus a bit more. To that point, I will be attending the upcoming MARAC workshop on identifying 19th century portrait photographs.

Otherwise, soon I'll be posting an online finding aid for the cave maps, as well as one for some lively World War II newsletters written by a local English teacher. Those newsletters are some of the most interesting artifacts I have seen, and I can't wait for the local folks to be able to access them online and read the facsimiles I produced. The originals are too fragile to be handled, but the digital copies as well as the printed copies go a long way toward bringing 1943-1945 back to the present.

I will be sure to link to the digital collections when the new Chester Public Library web site goes live before April.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Tour of Local History Collections at Plainfield Public Library

In a case of the cobbler’s kids finally being fitted for shoes, this post highlights the Local History Collections at the Plainfield Public Library (PPL) in Plainfield, N.J. During my library school days at Rutgers, I volunteered at PPL, and was hired last September as a grant-funded archivist. But while I am pretty familiar with some of the collections, whenever I’m not working on my main project, I always learn something new about the historic collections and the folks who work at PPL.

Recently, the History and Preservation Section of the New Jersey Library Association was hosted by PPL, and enjoyed a tour of the Local History Collections and the Plainfield Room.

From Plainfield Local History Tour Jan. 2012

About the Archivist
In the photo above, you can see Sarah Hull, Senior Archivist at PPL, shaking hands with NJLA H&P member Fred Pachman from Altschul Medical Library, Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch. Sarah was one of our tour hosts, along with Jessica Myers (Rare Books) and Jane Thoner (Genealogist). For the past 2 years, I have had the pleasure of having Sarah as my incredibly helpful mentor and supervisor. She also has a great sense of humor – an enviable trait in any job.

Before joining PPL a little over three years ago, Sarah served at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey’s University Archive and Special Collections (Newark, N.J.), the Forsyth Dental Institute Library (Boston, Mass.), and the Katherine Gibbs School Library (Montclair, N.J.). She received her MS in Library and Information Science with a concentration in Archives Management from Simmons College, and her MA in Medieval Studies with a concentration in Codicology and Latin Paleography from Fordham University. So, she’s not kidding around when it comes to “old stuff.”

About the Library
The PPL enjoys a long and storied history as an integral part of life in Plainfield. It was incorporated in 1881, and in its earliest years was a library and art gallery thanks to Plainfield’s first mayor, Job Male. In the photo below, you can see some examples of the art works in the collection.

From Plainfield Local History Tour Jan. 2012

Throughout the years, wealthy residents donated large sums to purchase books for the library. PPL quickly outgrew its building, and in 1911, Andrew Carnegie donated $50,000 to construct a new library for the city. By the 1960s, the library needed much more space, as well as many upgrades to the buildings. The original buildings were demolished, and in 1968, the current building was opened to the public. Many upgrades to that building have taken place over the years, including making the Local History Collections area (below) climate controlled and fitted for compact shelving. For more information on the history of the PPL, see the History of the Library page.

About the Collections
The PPL collections total approximately 1,100 linear feet (not counting the Library Records) comprising paper-based records, electronic records, audio, video, photographs, art works, objects, and pretty much any archival materials you can imagine, with the exception of films.

In the photo below, Jessica is showing the tour some of the rare books in the collection. Immediately on the left are some of the Plainfield Police logs, which date back to 1874.

From Plainfield Local History Tour Jan. 2012

In Local History, three of us are archivists (none full-time in the department itself – Sarah spends one day a week in IT supporting PPL’s web site, and Michelle Rausa and I are there part-time, both on grants). Otherwise, there are three part-time workers, two part-time and grant workers, and six volunteers per week that do the wide variety of work done in this frequently used community resource.

The people who patronize PPL are local residents and researchers. On average, 11 visitors per week use the Local History resources. I’ve seen my share of “regulars,” especially one patron who uses the yearbooks and other Plainfield High School records to research information for the Alumni Association. I especially enjoy watching as donors share their historical materials with the staff, and, importantly, the community. A former mayor often drops off items from his personal collections to an ever-growing set of boxes with his name on them.

From Plainfield Local History Tour Jan. 2012

The most popular collections are Plainfield Reference, Genealogy, and Early Newspapers. Plainfield Reference covers a wide field of resources, including the very widely used (and digitized) city directories (think phone books), the aforementioned yearbooks, city records, and much more. The Genealogy resources are extensive. They include many family histories, reference books, journals, historical local newspapers, church records, and lots more.

My favorite collections are (of course) the maps and the blueprints. Whenever I work on the blueprints, people stop by and ask about the houses. Sarah says the high school yearbooks and the early newspapers have the greatest impact on patrons with regard to nostalgia and research. As far as historic home research goes, the blueprints and the city directories are the focus of many patrons’ time at PPL.

The underutilized gems of the collections are the Clubs and Organizations records and the scrapbooks. The clubs and organizations of a city tell a lot about the good works its citizens do. I worked on the Garden Club’s records – a collection actively used and added to regularly by its members. In the records are the history of this club’s contributions to Plainfield, including establishing the historic Shakespeare Garden.

I’ve spent time with some of the scrapbooks, and they’re definitely worth a good afternoon’s viewing. My favorites are the ones connected with the Plainfield Seminary. The time it took someone to carefully paste each dance card (with pencils attached!), invitation, and thank you letter, as well as clippings and photographs, to the scrapbooks just amazes me. These documents provide an excellent look at a segment of young girls’ lives in Plainfield during the early 19th century.

“I think we make a substantial contribution to Plainfield history by providing truly public access while preserving the materials. We are heavily involved with oral history and memoirs of local ‘regular’ people – long-term residents of diverse backgrounds,” says Sarah. Another way the Local History staff reaches the local public is by doing truly inspiring exhibits. Currently, the library has a Civil War case exhibit, and in honor of Black History Month, a Snapshots in Black History in Plainfield exhibit will be unveiled soon.

One of the driving forces behind PPL’s exhibits (as well as many other efforts at the library) is Jeff Wassen, a former volunteer and now a staffer (see photo below).

From Plainfield Local History Tour Jan. 2012

Many of the collections at PPL have been digitized and/or have web exhibits associated with them. Users can search the blueprints, photographs, and postcards from here. Sixteen of the historical maps in the PPL collections have been digitized and placed in the New Jersey Digital Highway here. Finding aids are available for most of the collections, and provide a great deal of helpful information for researchers. What I like most about PPL’s finding aids is that Sarah adds digitized images from the collections to the pertinent sections. It makes them even more engaging and useful for patrons.

PPL is a great place to learn how to be of service in an archive, special collections department, and a library in general. It’s also a fine place to learn how to work with such a wide variety of archival materials. In fact, I’m quite fortunate to work with such knowledgeable and fun folks. Jobs in archives in New Jersey are not easy to come by these days. The best advice I can give today’s MLIS students is to volunteer or apply for an internship at a library like Plainfield Public Library.

Contact Information
Sarah Hull
Head Archivist
Plainfield Public Library
800 Park Avenue
Plainfield, NJ 07060
(908) 757-1111 ext. 136