Historical societies may seem old-fashioned to those of us accustomed to having Google Chrome and Firefox search engines at our fingertips. In reality they are a researcher’s dream. And, the people who are work there curating, archiving, and helping the general public search for accurate or obscure information are an invaluable resource. Don’t let yourself be deterred by rumors that historical societies are only manned by formidable older ladies and that they don’t operate on the same schedule as the rest of us. Remember, some of the best stories and articles are the ones that pose the most challenges!
Though I’ve often written articles about historical societies in my neck of the woods, they’ve usually been about special exhibits (the Moog synthesizer, the history of Girl Scouts in our area, and the Living History tours come to mind) and have involved interviewing key staff members rather than delving into the artifacts and files in the research library. Given this, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I entered The History Center in Tompkins County the other day. I had a topic I wanted to learn more about but wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to know or how I would use the information (does this sound familiar to other writers?). Donna, the archivist, seemed unfazed by my request. However, she had a few requests herself before we could get down to business. The first thing I had to do was put my purse in a storage locker.
“Even my water bottle?” I asked plaintively.
“Yes!” she responded firmly, reminding me that there was a drinking fountain just down the hall.
My next question was about how I could take notes. Donna provided me with some pale green paper and a pencil with an eraser. Apparently no pens were allowed either. I sat at the small table feeling like I was back in elementary school which, surprisingly, was not a totally unpleasant sensation!
After some consideration, she told me where she thought I should begin reading, not in the 1950’s as I had proposed, but in the 1930’s. Handing me four articles, she returned to her desk and I began to read. In between reading and recording my impressions and observations she and I and one of the volunteers had a lively discussion about the historical implications of certain events and how peoples’ attitudes and beliefs influenced them. Not everyone is as interested in our country’s history and how it shapes our lives today as I am so it was a pleasure to be in the company of two women who were. I felt a genuine sense of regret when 5:00 p.m. arrived and it was time to close up. This was followed by a pang of fear that I wouldn’t be able to remember where we had left off when I next returned. I shouldn’t have worried; Donna had that covered too! Brandishing the information card she had given me to fill out when I arrived, she showed me the notations she had made on it so we’d know exactly where to pick up and not waste precious time trying to recall what I’d already read. Though I’d entered the History Center feeling apprehensive, I left it with a light heart. In fact, I can’t wait to return and experience the thrill of discovery once again!
Anyone out there want to share your favorite research haunt?