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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 31, 2007

Preserve the magic of original texts
in a place where everyone can see them

Illustration by Forest Byrd

I remember sitting in the Wellesley College Library some thirty-odd years ago and holding, in my hands, a letter that Robert Browning had penned to his beloved Elizabeth Barrett. His strong passion was conveyed in a fine, fastidious hand, on oh-so-thin paper folded meticulously into a tiny rectangle.

I had walked into the Rare Book Room through the very door, its mail slot still in place, that the letter had once passed through. Looking at the words on that page was different than reading them, as I already had, printed in a book or, as I might now, on a computer screen.

I felt a connection to the words and their author. Borrowing from Barrett, I would say they stirred me to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach.

Later, when I studied at Oxford, and walked up the worn stone steps of the Bodleian Library, I was happy to leave my pens behind — pencils only were allowed — to peruse documents older than the founding of my nation.

Words embody ideas but they also exist in a physical form. And preserving them so they can be experienced in their original state is important.

Journalism, said Phil Graham, the former Washington Post editor, is a first rough draft of history. Sometimes, small newspapers, like The Enterprise, provide the only written history of a place, the only record of what happened to who and of what shaped a community.

Not a week goes by that I don’t get at least one request for information from our archives. This week, I heard from a midwesterner with roots here, looking for particulars of 19th-Century family history. Another request was for information on a tornado that took the top off the historic Van Aernam barn on Brandle Road. Still another was for news we had covered a decade ago on problems in the Guilderland Police Department.

We now archive our staff-written stories on our website, but that only reaches back a few years. And we are grateful to the New York State Newspaper Project for microfilming many of our historic papers. The film is available at both the Altamont Museum and the Guilderland Public Library.

But the real treasure trove is in the attic of our Victorian news office at 123 Maple Avenue. In the same wainscoted room where the Knights of the Macabees once met are stacked over 120 years of local history. The recent years of tabloid pages are neatly tied in string by Wanda Gardner. Newspapers from our earliest years, when the broadsheet was really broad, are bound in leather volumes.

We used to leaf through these each week to compile our "Back In Time" column. It was thrilling to turn the pages that were printed on the grand old letter press that still resides in our cellar. You could feel its rumble on Maple Avenue when the news was rolling off the press. Young printer’s devils, like Jim Gardner who is now our publisher, would race down the stairs with pages of locked type, set in hot lead. Gardner can still read upside down and backwards.

We’ve stopped turning the old pages, though, because they have become brittle with age, some of them crumbling at our touch.

So we were pleased last week to learn of the recovery mission launched by the archivists at the Voorheesville Public Library.

The library would like to create a regional documentary research center, Director Gail Sacco told our reporter, Jo E. Prout. "This is the dream," she said. "We’re at the very beginning of the dream."

Archivists Gretchen Koerpel and Jim Corsara are approaching nearby towns to gauge their interest in the project, and to view and inventory those towns’ records. The library has a small grant to start the work and we hope more funds will be forthcoming. We urge the towns we cover to support the project.

Too many records, like ours, are stored in places that are cold in the winter and hot in the summer, conditions which, as Sacco put it, are "disastrous to wood-pulp-based paper," which came into use in the early 19th Century.

Working together, she said, the library could store originals properly, digitalize copies, and make the information available to researchers outside the Capital Region.

"It’s taking those valuable historical documents at risk," said Koerpel. "Some are where they could catch fire. We’re taking them from an unsafe environment and putting them in a very secure and environmentally sound place."

Those working with records protect them from light, use acid-free gloves, and make copies of the originals so people can see the records without damaging them, said Sacco.

Best of all, the records, stored in a central location at the library, would be accessible. "Everybody needs to use this material, and they just can’t get to it," said Koerpel.

While a library like the Bodleian is expected to preserve the important documents in a nation’s history and provide a place where scholars can learn from them, local history is often neglected. Documents languish, forgotten in dusty storerooms. Sometimes they crumble and perish and their words are forever lost.

Our region has a long and rich history. A project like this would gather the far-flung pieces together in one safe place, preserving them for future generations and enriching us all.

"There’s something about the original that’s quite magical," said Sacco.

She is right. Let’s make the dream come true.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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