You know how it is. You hear a story about where you live and you think, “Hey – that’s pretty interesting,” and you tell someone else. Eventually the story comes back to you and you think, ‘Wait – that’s not what my aunt/neighbor/friend told me.” You resolve to find out what really happened with your house/block/region. Truth. Wow. A very big idea that probably involves History. Primary documents. Maps. Plans. Books. Wi-fi.
One of the places you can find all these things and answers about building and neighborhood history is the library at the Architectural Heritage Center. Named after Rejuvenation, its founding donor from when the Center opened in 2005, the library contains a wealth of architectural and local history resources. Staff, members, and scholars use the library for program creation, to research for the media, to help neighborhoods document their past and preserve their future, and more. Cataloging goes on and on, and there are literally thousands of research documents already available. And yes, there is wi-fi, so you can research on-line at the same time.
This Saturday’s library open house from 10 am to 3 pm is a great time to learn more. Staff and volunteers will be on hand to help answer your house history questions, and show you our recently-completed seismic upgrade measures. Items from the collection that are not normally on display will be available for viewing and you can see some things that are just cool whether you need them for a research project or not.
Two short courses on preserving personal archives will be offered at 11 am and 1 pm by Richard Engeman, historian, archivist, and author.
History is powerful. Recent news reports about rebels in Mali attacking Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba library, a repository of unique and rare manuscripts dating as far back as the early 1200s, remind us to take care of our own libraries. Why would retreating rebels take time under fire to destroy a collection of documents? Because they know that culture and history are powerful forces and the destruction of them is a punch to the heart and soul of a people. Why did Stalin order photographs altered to remove the images of those he had killed? Because he knew that by manipulating the physical record, he could exercise control over not only his own time, but the historical interpretation of it. The historical record is influenced by who manages the story line and the documents that support it. As Churchill wrote, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”
In the world of our own library here at the AHC, our members and staff are careful stewards of what was collected by founders Jerry Bosco and Ben Milligan, and given to us later by other thoughtful donors. Our repository of history doesn’t date as far back as Ahmed Baba’s, but we have many unique and rare items of local import and usefulness to share and preserve.
And there’s the ongoing query and challenge. What do we save, and how do we pay for saving it? What will best tell the story of our own time and what do we infer from the past by what items people “back then” felt were important enough to save, or saved randomly? What resources are most useful for architectural history researchers now, and how do we predict which ones will be of most import in the future? One solution today is to make digital versions that can be accessed online from anywhere, and the AHC has done some of that. But, that process, too, costs money, and we must balance the accounting books as well as the importance of the research books. In a digital era, there is still worth in preserving the originals, while at the same time making wise decisions about what best belongs online.
As a Facebook meme tells us, a certain subset of people, including me, still regret the destruction of the great library of Alexandria. In our time, we must not take the libraries in our lives for granted. Use them, support them financially, donate documents to them, and tell other people why they are important. For all of us here, and, yes, for the world.
Fiction is great and stories are powerful ways to transfer culture and teach people about life and how to live it with meaning and understanding. However, primary documents set the story straight when we need culture to be history, instead of folklore.
Come see us on Saturday. Truth can be stranger than fiction. Find out.
Written by Holly Chamberlain, Deputy Director, Bosco-Milligan Foundation/Architectural Heritage Center