The ALA Annual 2019 conference scheduler billed the event as “Preservation in Action – Volunteers Wanted!” Each year this popular program brings together experienced archives workers with enthusiastic volunteers (no experience required) during a day-long project to help preserve local cultural heritage before the ALA Annual Conference. When I saw that the day would include training on care and handling, as well as hands-on rehousing activities, I knew I had to sign up. I was an early conference registrant, so I didn’t think the event would have filled up, but “SOLD OUT!” popped up on my screen. Luckily for me, a space opened up, and I was thrilled to roll up my sleeves.
The all-day session was hosted by folks from District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL) Special Collections, who brought carts full of materials to be rehoused from older, tight storage into more appropriate containers for ease of access and longevity. While the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the library’s central branch, undergoes renovation, its special collections are being housed in an interim location at the old National Geographic offices. An old brick building that includes the magazine’s former printing offices, the setting gave an air of history in itself.
Within the library’s collection, these booklets, pamphlets, reports and more had been cataloged and stored together as single units. We were encouraged to take time to explore the material as we worked. I was given a bundle of reports from the Washington, DC Home for Incurables. Untying the string that held 10 or more years of annual reports generated so many questions. Who was considered an “incurable”? What factors contributed to the changing diseases that afflicted residents through the years? Why did the facility change locations? What might it have been like to work there? I couldn’t help but imagine the stories behind the numbers.
Other documents covered a wide variety of local Washington, DC history, from government reports to records of sightseeing companies that led tours of many of the buildings we still seek out in our visits today.
I work as history room librarian in the Sonoma County Public Library System at the Petaluma branch. I was attracted to Preservation in Action because I knew that the experienced librarians and caretakers of these special collections would impart new knowledge that I could use in my daily work. I also loved the idea of volunteering to help. Rehousing — moving materials into appropriate folders, boxes, or other containers — is a time-consuming task and requires attention to detail. Holding a “processing party” is an excellent way to get work accomplished while networking, teaching, and learning the processes involved. Participants came from all walks of library life: students, retired library staff, special collections library staff, public librarians, and school librarians. All came with an eagerness to help and experience a different venue within the library world. We knew that we were helping to meet a need while having fun and meeting others.
During lunch we had the opportunity to ask questions of DC Public Library staff and others who attended. Thanks to expert advice shared during lunch discussions, I am now implementing some new practices with my collection. The hosts also set aside a special time for us to meet with them to ask questions and get a mini-lesson in preservation. We got an excellent handout to take back with us answering some of the more basic questions about archiving and preserving materials. Examples of a few tools of the trade with information on where to purchase them and how to use them rounded out our day.
We worked steadily until lunch, then upon return continued working until we used up all the materials that had been purchased for the material. We ended early and returned to register for the full conference knowing that we had left our individual marks — a new call number and a new “house” for each item — that will be used for years to come.