Reflections

Post by Jack Bednar

Meet #TeamTrentoniana

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/

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Visiting a multi-heritage city from a one-heritage country

Post by Hollie Bishop

Meet #TeamTrentoniana

My name is Hollie, I am a 25 year old graduate from Northern Ireland and I am the newest intern with the Trentoniana Department. I received my undergraduate master’s degree with honours in English and History from the University of Dundee in 2017, before completing my postgraduate master’s in Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at Ulster University in Belfast a year later. When I was looking at places to complete an internship and gain experience in my field I stumbled upon the J1 visa program hosted by USIT & CIEE, which allows recent graduates to gain experience in their field of study whilst immersing themselves in local culture in the United States.

I joined the Trentoniana Department in late December of 2019 and since joining the team I have helped on a few different projects. However, the majority of my time has been focused on creating a finding aid for the full collection of the Trenton Rotary Club. The collection includes photographs, letters, attendance records and audio/visual interviews, amongst other items. I have also helped to properly store our art collection, curate a Black History Month display and try my best to help patrons best utilise our collection in their research projects. One thing I have noticed, and so greatly appreciate, in my short time with the Trentoniana team is how willing the archivist is to delegate tasks and allow the entire team roll up our sleeves and have a go at something new.

I chose to come to America for an internship because, whilst Ireland is wonderful, it lacks the unique diversity the United States offer. My degree is based on the importance of curating local history which is inclusive of the entire community and their individual heritages. Ireland, generally speaking in many areas, encompasses only one heritage and one culture, however that is beginning to change as immigration increases and new traditions are woven into communities. American museums and archival facilities such as Trentoniana, in my opinion, have perfected the ability to curate an exhibition or collection that is inclusive and celebratory of any differences within the community. Based on this belief, I felt America was the perfect environment to build the foundations of my knowledge before shaping my career back in Ireland, so that I am better equipped for the diversification of culture in years to come.

As expected, I have had the opportunity to experience new cultures, heritage sites and national holidays and witness how communities celebrate them. The current global pandemic has put a slight halt on my experience, but it is exciting to witness history in the making and see how communities and nations are coming together to support each other amidst this disaster. It is also giving me plenty of time to work on my transcribing skills [Hollie is working on transcribing several of our Jewish Historical Society oral histories while at home]. I am hopeful the pandemic will end before my time in America runs out so that I can continue to learn and fall in love with Trenton and its rich history.

Image: Hollie, along with Mike Anesini and Kyle Zaczek, helped pack up 60 boxes of material from The Trentonian newspaper office back in early March. These boxes were transferred to the Trentoniana Collection right before state-wide stay-at-home mandates were put into strict enforcement by the governor.

Today is the New Tomorrow

Post by Laura M. Poll

Today is when we continue things that began yesterday which will hopefully continue into tomorrow. There is no tomorrow without today – Today has a lot of pressure on it to perform! What better day than today to create a blog for Trentoniana.

The Trentoniana Collection was created at the Trenton Free Public Library on May 7, 1906 in order to preserve the history of the city and the collective memory of its residents. For 114 years, countless librarians, historians and volunteers worked diligently to collect and preserve these items to be made accessible to the public. Our current staff, affectionately known as #TeamTrentoniana continues this important work. You’ll learn about them and their projects here on this blog over the next months.

History isn’t something that happened before we were born – we are living it now! Today is a perfect example of witnessing history – today is what the people in our distant tomorrows will be wanting to know about as they face their own moment in history. It is our responsibility to them to start a journal, write a poem, draw a picture, shoot a photograph, and have it ready for when they need it. Do it today because tomorrow will be very different once it has passed and we’ve had the luxury of yesterday to change our perspective. Be sure to take the short survey we created to collect the feelings being experienced today.

As is most of the world at this crucial point in time, we’re all hunkered down in our homes and unable to have you come visit in person. Until we can welcome you back, we can be followed on several social media platforms, most as @trentoniana1906. See the links on the bottom right corner. We also have several portals where you can listen to oral histories, view some of the films in our collection, and try to identify faces in hundreds of photographs. Check them out; you’ve got the time now – time enough at last.

Our blog here is just one more way to connect with the public and share our collection. And of course, we have our website that can be visited, too.

Before we get started, let me introduce the archivist (me!). I was hired as Trentoniana’s first ever archivist (hopefully not last!) in September 2015. Before that, I spent nearly 15 years at a county historical society – local history is my passion. State historian John Cunningham said it best: “Everything that happened in America could be highlighted with New Jersey examples.” A Jersey Girl through and through, I come from the East Side of the state – the Shore, if you will – and knew little of the West Side story. Over the past 5 years, I’ve become fascinated and enamored with its history. Hopefully that enthusiasm at learning a new fact will transfer to others – even if you’ve become jaded by your hometown there are always cool little things to find out. The good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful all make up every city’s history, not just Trenton’s.

We welcome you to take a peek behind the door and into the stacks.

 

Image credit: The Twilight Zone. “Time Enough at Last” (1959).