Post by Jack Bednar
The path to my time recently spent working at the Trenton Free Public Library was yet another story of 2020 throwing a wrench into the collective plans of humanity. As I write this in January of 2021, I was supposed to be coming back home from a semester of studying abroad and getting ready to finish out my undergraduate courses at The College of New Jersey in the spring, getting ready to enter another chapter of my life.
I had applied to many different positions and/or programs for the summer of 2020, hoping to get my foot in the door with some experience before my senior year. Instead, I ended up spending most of the time from when we were sent home in March to the start of the semester like the rest of us: at home, staying safe, but feeling justifiably confused and maybe slightly frustrated. I had been looking forward to having some sort of work that felt more connected to my studies and career goals, and when this was thrown to the wind I was left feeling like I had hit a sort of plateau in progress.
As the pandemic grew larger and more upending, I was finding it very difficult to seek out anything similar to my original plans while also staying safe and being responsible for my own health and that of my family. When I reached out to Laura Poll, Trentoniana archivist, this was the thought at the back of my mind louder than any other. I was made aware of the opening for this internship by one of my professors, Dr. Robert McGreevey in TCNJ’s History Department who had previously helped me with my search for internships and jobs. After working on other projects with me over the summer, he suggested this internship, in part, due to his own interest in local history and Trenton.
Much of my father’s side of the family is from the Hamilton-Trenton area, so I was intrigued by working more closely with records about the city and surrounding areas. One of the first projects I was given was an unorganized collection relating to Rider University, my father’s alma mater. While it is currently located in Lawrence Township, Rider’s origins are in the city of Trenton, and I had the opportunity to go through the library’s materials and organize them in a better way.
In the mid-1960s, Rider’s move was completed and there had been much change to the identity and mission of the institution. What I decided to do was create two separate parts reflecting these different eras of the college’s history, one for Trenton and one for Lawrence. The Trenton side featured a sort of origin history, detailing the school’s beginnings as being primarily for business education and similar paths, as well as some details on the founders and its namesake, Andrew J. Rider. More recent documents were largely centered around the construction and expansion of the current Rider campus, the move from Trenton, and the growth of the school from collegiate to university level education, such as by adding new departments and degrees. Also added were some old Rider yearbooks given to me from a family friend.
I made some mistakes along the way, such as not using pencil to write folder titles, but my first real body of work made me feel proud of myself. Having had no experience before doing something like this, I was able to better arrange the story of Rider in our collection and simultaneously indulge my interest about my father’s history. While this was one of the more straightforward projects I worked on, I felt that this was a good stepping stone to working at the library, combining some existing interests of mine with the process that I was still learning.
My second collection seemed to be a mystery when I was first introduced to it: a small folder with a certificate awarded to a Whitfield B. Case. This collection may have been the most frustrating for me, and was an important lesson in many ways. In my previous work, everything was very “tidy” and relatively straightforward in organization and in the decisions of what goes where. With Whitfield, this was not the “case” at all, and I spent many hours of my initial work trying to just understand who he was, what he did, and why the library had records of him scattered throughout the archives.
Eventually, I tracked down other records to add to this collection, including obituaries, and his main claim to fame, a company known as W.B Case Box Lunch Company or Trenton Box Lunch Company, that operated from the 1930s-1980s. Knowing this, I then tried to track down more about the company, one of many that sprung up in post-World War II urban and suburban areas, to little avail beyond its function and some scattered clippings. It is very much against my nature to leave anything seemingly unfinished, yet this was something that happens with incomplete records. As much as I wanted to fill in all the blanks and tell a complete story, I was limited by what was left behind for us to collect. It was important for me to step back and remind myself of my responsibilities and abilities, and to not push myself where there is nowhere to go. Working on this collection, I found myself asking a lot of questions and doubting myself when I could not find what I wanted to. After speaking with Laura about this, I realized that not only does this happen often but is not my fault, and that helped me realize that I have room to grow in my standards for myself. I have to do my best from what I’m given, and not stress myself over small things or trails that just lead down another rabbit hole.
My most recently completed project was another collection on the West End Neighborhood Association (W.E.N.A.), a community-organized group running from about 1985-2009 that hosted events for their area while also advocating for needs and desires to protect and revitalize their section of the city. This was a new venture compared to my previous works, which dealt with more concrete entities: people, businesses, schools, etc. The group was not tied down to a single definition or purpose, and its informality led to sometimes less than detailed records and notes. It covered themes of urban renewal, crime, development, public health, and community-police relationships, touching on many prominent issues seen still today.
Once again, I found myself being dejected from a perceived lack of sufficient knowledge, and at times felt like I would not be able to accurately represent the group with the records we had, and was very unsure how to organize everything. However, the difference between this and the previous endeavors came in how I responded. While I still consulted often with Laura, I felt more comfortable and confident in coming up with a solution on my own, and talked myself out of putting my ideas in a box. I ended up creating multiple folders for different topics, completely reorganized and realigned which documents went where, and was feeling more confident about whether to include extras or irrelevant documents (something I was so scared to pass judgment on). I viewed this as the culmination of my efforts so far, and the most confident I’ve felt since I started in September. Though I am nowhere near an experienced professional, I could see myself making decisions more decisively and quicker. I had a stronger grasp on my vision for the collection, what I could accomplish day in and out on it, and what my limitations were with the materials.
While I hope to eclipse my work on W.E.N.A. eventually, today as I write this I am very proud of it and all my other time spent at Trentoniana. I was nervous I would be out of my element, or not as smart or experienced as other interns, but I can honestly say that this has been the most welcoming experience and work space I’ve been a part of. I feel more aware of not just my own skills, but ways in which I can apply them outside of the classroom. I specifically feel more confident in organizing and arranging collections, and being able to quickly go through materials to determine a way to do this most efficiently, feeling comfortable to ask for help, and trusting my instincts when assigned a project. I felt a strong sense of independence and trust from my supervisor which I appreciated, and who encouraged me to ask questions, be confident in myself, and always kept looking for projects that would interest me.
While my time working at the library has come to an end, I hope to be able to come in at times as I finish my last semester of undergraduate courses and potentially over the summer. I’ve enjoyed becoming more accustomed to a professional environment and learning more about archival work and the inner workings of the library. Though I am still unsure as to my ultimate career path, I know that I now have another tool at my disposal for wherever my continuing education and interests will take me in the future. I have some unfinished business with a stack of papers in the back that I need to get to, and some more books I’ve been eyeing at checking out when the stress of senior year starts to ebb away.
Note: you can check out Jack’s finding aids (and others) on the Trentoniana Department’s webpages: https://trentonlib.org/trentoniana/finding-aids-to-collections/