"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Saturday, June 30, 2007

Preserving John Brown’s Letters

One of the most important archives for the study of John Brown and the Brown family in Ohio is the Hudson Library and Historical Society (HL&HS) in Hudson, Ohio. Hudson was Brown’s hometown after his family migrated there from Connecticut in 1805. Brown kept close connections with family members in Hudson throughout his life, and the HL&HS contains the most extensive collection of materials on the Brown family, as well as a vast and often overlooked collection on Brown materials. This collection is largely attributable to the research of the late Rev. Clarence S. Gee, a Congregational minister who became interested in the Browns in the 1920s when serving in the pastorate in Hudson. As a biographical researcher of Brown’s life, working in HL&HS has been one of my favorite experiences, and I recommend it as a “must” for anyone with serious intentions of studying John Brown. This article from the Cleveland, Ohio, Plain Dealer, reveals some of the concerns that archives like the Hudson Library and Historical Society face in preserving their precious collections. (You can visit the website of the HL&HS here)--LD

Hudson Public Library and Historical Society owns an important collection of journals and letters that belonged to abolitionist John Brown, including a letter he wrote just before he was executed. Historians from all over the country study the documents.

Cleveland Public Library has scores of old Cleveland City Directories, volumes that predate telephone books, that are packed with information about people who once lived here. At least once a day, someone visits the library to see one of the directories for genealogical studies and other research.

Leaders from both places were in Washington, D.C., this week as part of an invitation-only summit meeting aimed at helping libraries and museums save such treasures from time and the elements.

Heritage Preservation, a nonprofit group dedicated to conservation, invited representatives of 250 institutions nationwide to the conference held at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to talk about what it calls the crisis of poor storage, poor curating, bugs, moisture, sunlight and deteriorating conditions.

In 2005, Heritage Preservation and the Institute of Museum of Library Services published "A Public Trust at Risk," a report on the state of historical collections across the country. Among findings: 65 percent of collecting institutions have had items damaged because of improper storage.

Jill Collins, an event spokeswoman, said small-town institutions are of particular concern. "What a lot of people forget about is that in small towns, it's the library that becomes a repository for the history of the community," Collins said. "It is critical and pivotal to that community."

Hudson's John Brown collection - and executive director Leslie Pollot's interest in preservation issues - put that institution on the guest list, Collins said. Earlier this week, Pollot said she was excited about the summit and hoped to hear about what has worked at other places.

"Our budget is $2.65 million, but the majority of our dollars go to the public library end of things," Pollot said. She gave her institution "maybe a B-minus" for its preservation efforts, adding "and I'm happy it's a B-minus. I guess we're not as bad off as some institutions."

The John Brown documents are kept in a vault, reasonably well protected, but they become more vulnerable over time even with gentle handling by researchers.

Copying documents to digital files and film are two common preservation methods. Both are costly, but they can be crucial to preserving old and brittle objects. Part of the conference was devoted to helping institutions find ways to raise money for such projects.

Ann Olszewski, preservation librarian at Cleveland Public Library, said technology has advanced preservation methods. A machine called an ultrasonic welder can encase maps in clear polyester, extending their lives indefinitely, she said.

Even low-tech solutions, such as bathing brittle paper in water to restore moisture to fibers, can go a long way toward preserving items.

Olszewski said this year's budget includes $20,000 for custom boxes that provide protection from dust and light; $55,000 for moving documents to microfilm, digital files or creating paper facsimiles; and $100,000 for physical conservation done by outside sources. She said that sounds like a lot of money, but it goes quickly.

Last year, for instance, an 1884 Cleveland City Directory was disassembled so that each page could be washed and encapsulated in a protective covering, then re-bound. The cost: $7,220.

"But now that book is preserved for all time," she said. "It'll be usable by the public for hundreds and hundreds of years."

ksandstrom@plaind.com, 216-999-4810

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