To the future, through the past at PCPL
The Putnam County Public Library is a treasure house of information, but tucked away in a little-known corner is the rarest treasure it has to offer.
If you come in through the new entrance off Poplar Street you’ll have to do a bit of walking to find it, but if you use the old entrance off Walnut Street you’ll walk right into it, probably without realizing it. It’s the Local History and Genealogy Department of PCPL.
“People don’t know it’s there,” archivist Tony Barger said. “They come in and there’s only one row of books. No, I have a whole packed-up, junky-looking room of just boxes and boxes of fascinating things.”
Barger, the only full-time employee, is flanked by two part-time employees, Rick Monroe and Diana Brumfield, and two volunteers, Ed Dewes and W. T. Watson. Together, these five people add to and maintain one of the more unique assets of Putnam County.
“We’re just a collection of all things Putnam County, the collective consciousness of Putnam County,” Barger said. “People think it’s the business of being sentimental, and you can. But that’s not what we’re about. It’s really about understanding how we got to where we are.
“If you couldn’t remember your childhood, that would be weird. You’d be confused. And I think that the communities that have their histories well understood are the better communities, they’re better off. Putnam County, I don’t know if we know how fortunate we are that we have an archive -- it’s unique for a library our size. You can go your whole life without having met (an archivist), but we have two in town, which I think is unique.”
Most patrons prefer to use the wealth of genealogy tools offered, including free use of ancestry.com in the library, a regularly updated obituary collection and a flickr account featuring thousands of digitized photos.
“Genealogy is our bread-and-butter,” Barger said. “My predecessors did a really good job of laying a foundation of having a lot of genealogical materials, and we’ve continued that. It’s very rare for someone to come into the archives and leave with nothing. We almost always have something for them. We have an extensive collection for such a small archive. Usually someone can leave with something between something and a lot.”
As part of its outreach, the department will also visit classrooms to share materials with students to teach them the difference between primary and secondary sources or to inspire their writing assignments.
Barger also spends his time hunting for items to add to the collection. He cautions citizens to bring in anything they think might be historically valuable before throwing it out. And if you can’t come to him, he’ll come to you.
“I actively go out and seek people to donate their items,” Barger said. “Almost our entire collection is made up of the generosity of the citizens of Putnam County. I do a historical appraisal: ‘Do I think this has enduring value?’ that’s the big job of an archivist. I try to anticipate 100 to 200 years from now, will these records be useful?
“We’re not about the past, we’re completely about the present and future. And then I arrange the collection so that it’s something you could use, and then I also have to describe the collection so you know what it is. And also we have to preserve it for posterity.”
But all of that isn’t just for posterity. Patrons are more than welcome to use the files, with Barger’s happy assistance.
“When (patrons) come in, it’s a little bit intimidating to people because they can’t just pull -- we have boxes in the back, and you can’t just go in the back and kind of peruse,” Barger said. “But people don’t know how to use the documents. It’s even intimidating to me. I want people to hold the real thing and enjoy it.
“I really do love finding information for people, or giving them what they need to do their own research, making information accessible to people. I can get off on a whole thing about how I think it’s the cornerstone for democracy, but it really pleases me to no end when I can give somebody something and they find what they’re looking for. I also love preserving history for future generations. I have a really good ability of standing in someone else’s shoes. Every day I’m touched by something personally that’s happened, like I mourn for children that have passed for 100 years, but their story still resonates with me.”
That, after all, is the point of an archive.