Bridging the divide: Elburn’s past and present meet
by Lynn Meredith
ELBURN—Over 10 years ago, the Elburn Town and Country Public Library Director Mary Lynn Alms and other library staff sorted through piles of boxes filled with papers and assorted historical items that were stored in a back room at the Elburn and Countryside Community Center. The materials had been put away when the Elburn Historical Society disbanded in the mid-1980s.
“We were surprised that there was so much great stuff,” Alms said. “We thought it was a good idea to someday take over the conservation and care of the collection. We had been thinking about it a lot.”
Two years ago, using money designated in an Elburn resident’s will for historical preservation, the library decided to hire the services of a professional archivist. Enter Laura Cosgrove Lorenzana, a consulting archivist with Kenamore and Klinkow of Wilmette, Ill. Her job is to make sense out of the existing materials in order to make them accessible to anyone who would like to research the history of Elburn.
“We organize, arrange, describe and make accessible the materials in a collection,” Cosgrove Lorenzana said. “Our job when we go in is to assess what’s in the collection, determine a set of parameters and decide how long it will take to process.”
Much of what is in the Elburn collection came from Bee Johnson, a member of the original historical society started in the 1970s. The oldest piece is from 1794: a Sadie Washington reception program that came from someone’s family history prior to settling in this area.
“If (Johnson) had not taken action, (we would not have this collection). The vast majority of what’s here was owned by Bee—90 percent,” Cosgrove Lorenzana said. “Her house was like a museum. Her intent was to capture the history of Elburn. She made meticulous lists.”
Her lists included transcribing the entire 1860 census and ensuring that people in photographs were identified.
While the library staff oversees the archival project, they do not have the specialized training to handle sensitive historical documents. The amount of material to process can be daunting, according to Alms.
“You can get lost in the collection for several hours. We’re interested, but we’re not experts,” she said. “You could give me all the time in the world, and I couldn’t organize the collection.”
Archivists like Cosgrove Lorenzana, who studied under the head archivist at the University of Illinois Chicago library, are trained in conservation and preservation of materials that might easily be damaged in untrained hands. She applies her professional judgment to decide whether or not to wear gloves and whether the public can handle the materials. Also, she organizes the materials into banker’s boxes, titling the collection and creating a hierarchy that will aid researchers who want to find particular information. Unlike a library that deals in books about subjects, an archive has primary materials such as two-dimensional objects like programs, documents, photos and other originals, as well as three-dimensional objects like tools and embroidered art work.
“We are a repository of information for researchers in the manner that a library provides books for people to read. An archive is a repository of primary documentation,” she said.
She explained that an archivist does not produce research out of the material that’s there. An archive is a place for people who want particular information to go to find it. For example, students working on a research project could look through the collection to find information that is not publically available.
“We hope people will take advantage of (the processed collection),” Alms said. “It is open to the public by appointment.”
The library also hopes that people with historical materials will consider contributing them. Of most interest are primary, or original, materials, rather than newspaper clippings or newspaper photographs.
Cosgrove Lorenzana, who is a resident of North Aurora, pointed out that Elburn’s collection has more personal history than is usual in most historical societies, and that fact has caused her to become even more interested in Elburn.
“Because of my love of genealogy and my personal passion for the history of rural towns, as I started to process this collection, I have gotten more and more attached to it,” she said. “How many times have you been driving down the street and seen boxes of junk? That is our cultural heritage being thrown away. It’s not intentional; we think of it as just stuff and think maybe there’s only a personal context. But that stuff has a greater context to the village of Elburn.”
Alms agrees that articles from history are a valuable resource for genealogists, students or anybody researching the past.
“I’ve been here 30 years, and this is the most exciting thing we’ve done,” she said. “It’s a great asset to the town.”
Feb. 2, 2012 Update: On the page 5A story in the Jan. 19 edition of the Elburn Herald, “Bridging the Divide: Elburn’s past and present meet,” a pair of photo identifications were switched. The photo on the bottom right of the page, originally identified as Daniel Smith, was actually the 1934 photo of resident Arthur Andersen. The photo in the center of the page was of Daniel Smith, whose father was a Civil War veteran.
The Elburn Herald wants its news reports to be fair and accurate. If you know of an error, please contact:
Ryan Wells, Editor
123 N. Main St., Elburn, IL 60119