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Massive volunteer effort mounted to rescue public library archives

Friday, December 10, 2004  
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Reprinted from Jersey Journal – December 6, 2004

 

Massive volunteer effort mounted to rescue public library archives

Monday, December 06, 2004

By Alexandra Fenwick

Journal staff writer

 

Libraries are usually quiet places, but on Make A Difference Day this year, the Jersey City Free Public Library was in a relative uproar.

 

But despite the commotion, no one was shushed by librarians. The noise - including the thudding of heavy boxes and dust-induced sneezing - all came as part of a massive volunteer effort to rescue the library's vast archives, a portion which has been sitting uncatalogued in storage, for more than 80 years.

 

Make a Difference Day, an annual nation-wide project that is the largest cumulative community service effort in the country, was held this year on Oct. 23rd and attracted 3 million total volunteers.

 

In Jersey City, after just one day of sifting through documents, volunteers uncovered a 17th century Dutch Bible complete with wooden cover and metal locks, a scrapbook of original photographs, newspaper clippings and letters chronicling the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial, one of only three rare, original 1841 Douglass maps of Hoboken and Jersey City, employee records from the local, now defunct, Bethlehem Steel factory and a 1796 letter handwritten on vellum, with a still-intact wax seal.

 

All of it belongs to the library's New Jersey Room collection, an extensive collection of local historical documents.

 

And it's enough to tickle New Jersey Room Manager Cynthia Harris, the quiet librarian who erupts into gleeful giggles when she comes upon a folio of ink caricatures portraying once-prominent local businessmen and city fathers whose names now grace local streets.

 

The New Jersey Room restoration project began in late July when former City Councilwoman Melissa Holloway happened upon the neglected archives.

 

While researching two books she was writing, Holloway was told that no one at the library really knew what was contained in its photographic collection. She was then led to a third floor room where the bulk of the archives lay, in what she describes as, "no rhyme, reason or order."

 

Holloway decided something had to be done. After meeting with Harris, Holloway lobbied Valley National Bank to donate $2,500 to start conservation efforts. State Sen. Joseph V. Doria added $500 from his campaign funds.

 

Then one day, a newspaper ad for Make A Difference Day inspired her to expand the project into a community effort.

 

That was how St. Peter's College Academic/Athletic Coordinator, Quentin Ball, found himself leading the school's women's cross country and basketball teams through the musty library attic, lugging 30-pound volumes of 19th century newspapers out of storage.

 

At the end of the day, Ball, one of 68 volunteers at the library on Make A Difference Day, was awarded the proud distinction of "dirtiest", his T-shirt covered in black soot and red rust-colored dust from disintegrating leather binding, known in archival terms as "red rot."

 

Ball said his T-shirt still isn't clean after a tumble in the washing machine.

 

"It was a dirty job," he said, noting that it was a small price to pay compared to the years of neglect the rescued documents were subject to while in the library's attic.

 

The New Jersey Room dates back to 1964, the year of Hudson County's tercentenary celebration. Civic pride and interest in local history were running high that anniversary year and the New Jersey Room collection promised to be the new symbol of the region's rich history.

 

According to the June 8, 1964, edition of The Jersey Journal, then-Library Director William H. Roehrenbeck said he and other library officials were certain the room would "stimulate greater interest in Jersey and Hudson County history once all the material is easily available in one location and properly cross-referenced."

 

But they never did mention a deadline.

 

Twenty-two years later, in 1986, the ominous headline, "Jersey City's history may soon vanish forever" appeared in The Jersey Journal's April 30 edition.

 

At the time, the principal librarian, Joan Doherty, said, "As things stand now, books, maps and pictures are being stored in cardboard boxes and garbage cans for want of adequate storage and shelving space."

 

Until this year, not much had changed since that cry for help.

 

Jacqueline Wisner, a member of the New York Genealogical & Biographical society, couldn't agree more. Born and raised in Jersey City, Wisner comes to the library from Timonium, Md., every year to work on her family's genealogy and again made the trip to help with the volunteer effort.

 

"It is very important to know your history," she said, "I have found out so much about our nation's history through my own history. So many people have gone through those streets and they shouldn't be forgotten

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