"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Monday, March 5, 2018

Montgomery County's Custodians Of The Past Have A Bright Future

The town of Norristown, Pennsylvania, has been stagnating for decades.  But buried in a residential area of north Norristown is a gem of an organization that itself was stagnating, also for decades, but is clearly on the road to revival and new heights of relevance.  Perhaps there are some lessons to be learned here, ones that apply to every town along the lower Schuylkill River.

I write about the Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, located at 1654 DeKalb Street in Norristown.  I invite those of you from the Conshohockens, Bridgeport, Royersford and Pottstown to read this, because the HSMC is the County Society, not just “the Norristown historical society,” as too many ignorant people have proclaimed.  It preserves your history also.

The people of Montgomery County need to know more about the HSMC.  This month I write about the transformative experience the HSMC has undergone in recent years.  It is an example from which many can learn.  Next month I’ll write about how you and yours can take advantage of the Society’s new capabilities to write your own community’s history and see that it is preserved.

I write this first post from experience; I was a part-time employee of the Society between 1996 and 2001.  Those were some of the years of stagnation, and I can testify to that.  I don’t know when that period began, but by the time I began there it had been underway for some time, and had settled into a pattern.

Genealogy had almost single-handedly sustained the Society, and had become pretty much its sole focus.  The late Vivian Taylor and Rose Brown earned the Society high marks for its support of genealogists.  But little else got done, and nothing approaching maintenance.  The staff knew what the few researchers were looking for, and collected those works in an easy to reach location.  They recognized each book by sight, and paid no attention to its actual call number.  The mail—largely genealogical queries—was answered, the few visitors serviced (quite well), and the bills were paid, but that was about it. 

I remember clearly my first day at the Society, when I explored its nooks and crannies.  The upper floor of the stacks was an absolute mess; things just piled about, in no order, or in anything close to proper storage.  I was appalled to see that there was a window up there (who puts windows in an archival storage room?) that each day spread sunlight across a large pile of old newspapers that were just sitting there.  There were pre-Civil war papers, largely anti-slavery in theme.  Very valuable items just sat there, gradually fading under sunlight.  The last thing I did that first day was to take a piece of cardboard and tape it over the window, to keep out the sunlight.  I had to start somewhere.

Much of my time at the Society was spent simply moving things around.  One of my ongoing efforts (it took a couple of years to accomplish) was to slowly put all the books and pamphlets in their proper call number order, so someone who didn’t know what the book looked like could still find it, just like in a normal library.

The core of the Society’s collection is the many old, large, handwritten property records of Montgomery County.  They are huge, heavy, and hard to carry.  This group of books was divided into three different locations, and were themselves not in chronological order.  There was a good reason for that; the HSMC’s shelves were built from what must have been a giant erector set (anyone remember those?); everything was assembled with bolts and nuts and a wrench.  Shelf heights were adjustable, but only with a great deal of effort.  I kept working on those shelves, at the cost of a great many skinned knuckles, until they could accept items in their proper order.  Finally, one proud day, I could actually proclaim that every book in the collection (save those piled with the old newspapers on the upper floor of the stacks) was now filed in call number order.

The Society’s paper and bound items gradually assumed some order, but the massive collection of artifacts lay crammed together in the room that had been designed for meetings.  Some had been more or less properly stored, the work of the Society’s dedicated volunteers, but most items just sat on the floor or on temporary shelving.  There was barely a path to get through them.  I also had to be VERY careful not to touch the silk flag of the 151st Pennsylvania Regiment of Volunteers, which had sat draped around its pole since shortly after the Civil War.  One wrong move, and it might have crumbled before my eyes.

The reason for all of this was obvious: lack of income.  Everyone knew this, so the Society’s Executive Committee threw nickels around like they were manhole covers.  Alice Smith, the bedrock of the Society for decades, used to call us “paid volunteers,” and I can testify to the truth of that.  Early in my time there I visited the historical societies of both Chester and Bucks Counties, looking for context about the task ahead.  I discovered that the Chester County Society’s yearly budget deficit (more spent than collected) alone was greater than the entire year’s budget for the Montgomery County Society. 

Such a lack of funding meant an even greater reliance on volunteers for an organization that prided itself in its volunteer staff.  The entire executive committee and Board of Directors were, of course, unpaid, and put in countless hours trying to keep our head above the water.  Our staff of volunteers did most of the work, as is usual in such organizations.

In this account of things during the years of stagnation, I must also point to the single most important thing that the Society accomplished during those latter years:  obtaining ownership of Montgomery Cemetery.  Few today remember how close the cemetery came to becoming part of yet another townhouse development.  We fought against that proposal, then managed to secure ownership, thus saving a treasure of Montgomery County history.

But when it came to a historical society’s primary task, caring for items made fragile by age, enthusiasm, dedication, and hours invested by volunteers could not compensate for the lack of trained staff to properly catalog, care for, and interpret items in the Society’s collections.  The lack of trained staff was due to, of course, lack of money.  The end result was a sustained period of stagnation, just getting by.

But that was then, and, as I like to say, this is now, and things have changed.  I don’t know when the period of stagnation began, but I can date the point at which the inertia of motion replaced the inertia of rest.  I’d like to think that I had a small part in it, but the event that made the difference was the election of Ella Aderman as President of the Society.  She was, as I understand it, the first Society President to have actually trained in historic preservation.  The era of well-meaning amateurs was ending.  The path toward today was not smooth; such journeys never are.  The Society’s recent past is strewn with departures and hard feelings, but the end result simply cannot be denied.

Today, the Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania seems to have been reborn.  Every member of its staff is a trained professional, for the first time in the Society’s history.  Items in the collection are getting the proper treatment, and the meeting room is back in service for community outreach.  Genealogy is still important, but the subjects you could learn about from the Society’s speakers and events are quite broad.  In March, 2018 alone, you can learn how to maximize your use of Ancestry.com in a class offered by a professional genealogist, or you can attend a workshop about the now-lost art of letter writing, featuring some of the exquisite examples from the HSMC collections, and even try your hand at writing in the old manner.  Or, of course, you could do both.

The above are just two of the offerings this month; the Society puts on talks and workshops every month.  There will be the annual Memorial Day celebration at Montgomery Cemetery, and so much more this year.  The Society’s quarterly newsletter the “Acorn,” is a constant source of new information discovered by the Society staff, and shared with members.

How did the HSMC accomplish this?  I have no idea, but the example it has set should cause some people to talk to them, because new money didn’t resurrect the Society; it was a cooperative effort under an established and adhered-to program.  There could be some lessons here.

The Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania still faces challenges, make no mistake about it.  That’s where you county residents can help (even without spending money), and the Society will in turn help you.  If you are proud of your town, your township, your church, your ethnicity, or any other local connection, you can help write their history, and see that it is preserved.  I’ll write about this opportunity next month.  In the meanwhile, stop by and check out the Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.  It’s worth the visit.