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

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