For the Love of History (and Heritage): One Volunteer’s Struggle to Preserve the Past

By Jeannine Berroteran

I have worked and volunteered in different sizes and types of libraries, each with a different mission (or purpose) and different demographics, but one characteristic seems to link all of these different libraries: the struggle to preserve the past.  While the reasons for this may vary, from scant financial resources to few people, paid or unpaid, willing or able to perform the difficult, tedious tasks that are standard of archival/preservation work, what I have come to discover is that not only is there a large backlog of materials that still needs to be preserved but (this is especially true with public libraries) some libraries do not have the money in the budget to pay anyone to perform archival/preservation activities so, while it does not surprise me that less than 5% of all public libraries have paid archival staff, I still found this discovery to be very alarming.

I did not learn this statistic until after I wrapped up a very arduous, painstaking 15-month effort to copy, label, and arrange (in chronological order) photographs and articles pertaining to 11 years (between 1917 and 1948) of the St. Paul (MN) Winter Carnival into three 3-ringed binders to be made available for viewing to the public.  Some of the obstacles I faced as a public library volunteer included everything from repeated email requests for the amount of archival supplies necessary going ignored to subtle comments (some were sometimes not-so-subtle) about the length of time it was taking to complete this project.  While I enjoyed doing this assignment (and I would do something like this again if requested to do so), I would like to reiterate that I was a volunteer and my time was limited and, while archival and preservation supplies are expensive, it is also important for those in charge to make sure the volunteer has the adequate amount of supplies necessary to complete the task.  I would also like to point out that, while those who have the skills to digitize the originals are crucial in making rare and fragile materials more widely available, I must say that the field of librarianship tends to forget to equally recognize and value those who, on their own time, are willing to perform the long, tedious task of copying, labeling, and arranging the hard copies into a book or file.  In my case, it was the librarians who ought to have known how difficult it is to keep up with the tasks related to archival and special collections librarianship and they should appreciate the help they can get from those willing to lend their skills and expertise.

Jeannine Berroteran is a freelance researcher and a public library volunteer.  Her previous experience in librarianship, both paid and volunteer work, covers everything from reference and circulation services to collection development and preservation.  She continues to maintain her interests in both public and academic librarianship by sharing her experiences and learning about the most recent developments in both areas of librarianship.