Thursday, July 2, 2020

SCHS Reopening: Changes to Library Operations

As NYS enters Phase IV of New York Forward, SCHS is excited to once again welcome visitors and researchers to our sites! Beginning Monday, July 6, the doors of our Library, Museum, and the Mabee Farm Historic Site will be open. However, as we prioritize our community's health and safety, and follow NYS guidelines, we have a few changes to our operating policies. All visits to our sites must be scheduled in advance.

Photo of bilboard nex to a road. Bilboard reads "Schenectady Lights and Hauls the World. Population 100,000. Welcome"
We're excited to welcome you back to our sites!

This post details the changes to library operations that will be in effect for the foreseeable future. Please contact the librarian if you have any questions.

Research Appointments
  • Researchers must contact the librarian at least one day in advance to schedule an appointment to visit the library. Contact the librarian at or 518-374-0263 x3
  • When scheduling an appointment, please specify which materials you plan to view and the desired length of the appointment.
  • SCHS members may visit the library for free as a benefit of their membership; non-members pay $6 per person, per visit to use the library.
  • Admission must be paid in advance. Please visit to purchase admission tickets.
  • Appointments will be available Monday-Friday, 9am-12pm and 1pm-5pm, and Saturday, 10am-2pm. No research appointments will be scheduled from 12-1pm Monday-Friday.
Visiting the Library
  • Everyone using the library will be required to wear masks that cover their noses and mouths at all times.
  • Researchers should bring their own masks.
  • Everyone using the library must maintain 6 ft. social distancing whenever possible.
  • The number of people in the library at any time will be limited to comply with NYS guidelines on capacity.
  • Signs will be posted around the lobby and library to remind visitors and researchers of the current protocols.
  • Researchers are encouraged to bring their own laptops and devices. Use of the library's computers will be restricted to library staff and volunteers.
  • The library staff will sanitize commonly touched surfaces, including shared work-spaces, frequently throughout the day.
Access to Materials
  • Researchers must specify which materials they plan to use during their research appointment. Peruse the Collections & Catalog page for finding aids, guides, indexes, and descriptions of materials in the library collections
  • All materials will be retrieved by library staff and volunteers.
  • Materials will be quarantined for up to 72 hours after use, in accordance with current expert recommendations.
Handling Materials
  • Researchers should wash their hands before entering the library. Frequent handwashing is encouraged.
  • Use of hand sanitizer will not be allowed while handling materials. Studies have shown that hand sanitizer can damage historic materials.
  • Researchers must not reshelve or refile any materials. Library staff will move materials to quarantine areas after use.
Visit the Research Resources page on the SCHS website for more information such as library services, research room rules, and fee payment options.

Photo of a library volunteer waving her hands in excitement while sitting at a desk with a computer.
We look forward to working with you again!

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

GE Engineer Catches the Spanish Influenza, in 1918

Photo of West Dollar Island, Lake George, circa 1910
West Dollar Island, circa 1910. Photo from John Apperson's collection, provided by Ellen Apperson Brown.

This post was written by guest writer, Ellen Apperson Brown.

In the Apperson family, we’ve passed down a story about our Uncle John who came down with the dreaded influenza, went to the hospital, but decided to leave after just a few days. He hated being cooped up, and figured, if he had to die, it wouldn’t be in a hospital!  As the story goes, he sneaked past the nurses, caught a streetcar home, collected his camping gear, and headed into the north woods, as far from civilization as possible. 

I have just completed a project, transcribing more than a thousand of my great uncle’s letters and other documents, and arranging them in chronological order, so it is easy to look back to the documents from 1918, and see what he was doing in that year.

In 1918, John Apperson worked as an engineer at General Electric, second in charge of GE's Power and Mining Department. He also was responsible for protecting and preserving about fifty islands at Lake George. In August, one of Apperson's friends from G.E., Robert H. Doherty, wrote a tribute to Apperson, comparing him to the valiant knights in King Arthur's Court and listing all their accomplishments in removing squatters, rip-rapping island shores, making a survey of all the islands, and cleaning them up, ready to have the state start welcoming overnight campers.

Within a month, however, the vigorous, enthusiastic engineer (age 40) was caught up short by the so-called Spanish influenza. His friends, probably overriding his objections, called an ambulance, and he was taken away to Ellis Hospital. According to a receipt, found in a trunk of old letters, he was admitted on September 25th, and stayed until September 30th, with fees that covered nursing care and ambulance, making a total of $36.00.

One interesting document, from September 21st, is letter from the management at G.E., stating: “You are a highly trained and specialized engineer who cannot be replaced at the present moment.” Having already reached the age of forty, he probably wasn’t thinking about enlisting. He knew full well that he was doing important work in the Power and Mining Engineering Department.

On October 2nd, there is a letter from a friend, Jim Cawley, saying he was sorry to have missed Apperson during his visit to Schenectady, and that he had heard John was sick. Then, a week or two later, Jim wrote again, saying he had come back to Schenectady, couldn’t see him, but enjoyed being put up at the Mohawk Club. These clues still left a big gap in my knowledge. What was Jim Cawley doing in Schenectady? Where was John? At Lake George? Staying with a friend? 

Well, a little further research suggests that his destination must indeed have been Lake George, although it is uncertain where exactly he camped – whether on Dollar Island or perhaps on Commissioner’s Island. I wonder if he had he strength to paddle over in his canoe, or whether he had to catch a ride. 

Jim Cawley had made friends with Apperson a few years earlier, having heard about him through his club, the American Canoe Association. By 1918, Jim was an officer of the ACA, and heard about Apperson’s projects, rip-rapping shores and generally protecting the islands of Lake George. He wanted to write an article for an A.C.A. publication, using Apperson’s photos. He wrote: 

Dear Apperson:
As I told you when I saw you last on Phantom Island, I would drop in to see you on the day that I hit Schenectady. But unfortunately I was unable to get in touch with you. I spent three hours with the Advertising Department and called your department, but found that you were home ill. After I left the plant I looked up your name in the telephone directory, but failed to find it; so was unable to have a talk with you.

I do not know when I will get to Schenectady again, but I should like to have a talk with you regarding the article on the work that has been done on the Islands. In other words, to come right out with it, I want to borrow some of your excellent photographs to tone up the article, to make up for my lack of ability to write. Perhaps some time when you do have time, you could get together what you think I would need and let me know, but I think that within a month or so I may get around your way again and I shall certainly look you up, as I will have more time than I had on my last trip.

Hoping to see you sometime again – and asking you to give my kindest regards to Mr. Rushmore, I am

Yours for the Fourth Liberty Loan,
James S. Cawley 

Warwick S. Carpenter, the Secretary of the Conservation Commission, had also become one of Apperson’s (nick-named Appy) closest friends and allies. Carpenter was responsible for editing and publishing issues of The Conservationist, and when he came to Schenectady in October, he was hoping to get Appy’s permission to run some of his photographs in an upcoming article about Lake George. Not being able to reach him, Carpenter sent this letter:

Dear Apperson:
At the request of Mr. Houghton I am enclosing herewith two prints of some very excellent collections of tin cans.
I have been trying to get over to see you ever since one evening when I called at Mr. Rushmore’s house and found that you had retired. Every minute of my time has been taken up or I would have made another attempt. 

Hoping that you are getting along all right now and with kindest regards, I am

Sincerely yours
Warwick S. Carpenter (October 17, 1918)

Returning to work in late October, Apperson was swamped by all the work he’d missed. Apperson wrote several thank you letters to Jay Taylor, the State Forester at Lake George, and to his wife, thanking them for their hospitality during his illness, thus establishing that he had, indeed, fled to Lake George to rest and recuperate after his illness. Surprisingly, he refers to the possibility that Taylor himself may have come down with the flu:

Dear Taylor:
My work has piled up during my absence and it seems necessary for me to stay here this week-end. I hope your sickness is not serious and if I can do anything to assist you or send you anything please let us know.

My progress is still rather slow but I am nevertheless making progress.

With best regards to you and your family, I remain

Very truly yours,
J. S. Apperson (October 31, 1918)

On November 8th, he wrote again:
I do hope you have recovered and all members of your Tongue Mountain Village are well. You are no doubt pleased with the war news. However, the celebration was somewhat premature. I will agree with you now that your boy should be back in a short time.

In my letter last week I think I failed to again express my appreciation of the good attention you and Mrs. Taylor gave me during my sickness, and I can assure you that I cannot forget this kind attention, which I never before needed.

And on November 14, he wrote to Mrs. Taylor, saying:

I have your note of the 11th and I am glad to find that Jay is much better. I am sorry to hear that you have deserted your village, but probably it was the wisest thing to do….

Again allow me to thank you for the very kind attention, which you and Jay gave me during my illness.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Resources for Preserving Digital Family Archives

Today, everyone creates and uses digital content. If you use a computer to write a novel or organize a spreadsheet, take photos or videos with a digital camera or phone, post status updates on Facebook or Twitter, send emails, or share photos with Instagram and Snapchat, you are creating digital content. 

Digital content is generally cheap to create and store, but difficult and expensive to preserve. Physical books and letters can survive untouched and ignored for hundreds of years, but ebooks and emails created 10 years ago may already be unusable and unrecoverable. In the SCHS collection, we have documents from the 1670s that still educate, inform, and inspire our community, but the files stored on floppy disks from the 1970s may never be seen again. In addition to the factors that cause physical deterioration (e.g. light, heat, water), digital files are susceptible to accidental deletion, obsolescence, and data corruption. Digital preservation is an on-going process that must be actively and regularly managed. 


One key distinction you should understand is the difference between digitization and digital preservation. Digitization is the process of turning the content contained in an analog item into a digital item. Scanning photos and documents, converting VHS tapes into DVDs, and photographing scrapbook pages are all forms of digitization. Digitization is a useful tool in preserving your physical materials. Digital copies of analog materials can be shared widely and accessed frequently which protects the analog original from damage from handling. For composite materials like scrapbooks, digitization captures details about the original artifact that are lost as the item deteriorates. Magnetic media like audio cassettes and VHS tapes have short lifespans and must be converted into a new format to preserve the content. Digitization is often the easiest method for preserving content.

The files that created through the process of digitization become part of your digital collection. You will likely preserve the original physical item in your collection, but that isn't always possible (e.g. newsprint and magnetic media). Taking steps to preserve the digital copy particularly important when the original items can not be preserved. The guidelines and resources in this post will help you preserve your digital collection, whether the files are born digital or created through digitization.

Resources for more information on digitizing your personal/family archive:

Basic rules for digital preservation
  • Identify what is in your digital collection, both the types of content and the file formats. You don't need to list every single file, but you should make notes that describe the different categories and give an idea of the size of the collection. Content means categories like photos, diaries, school records, taxes, research, and home videos of the kids. File formats can include PDF, JPG (or JPEG), TIFF, and MP3. There are many file formats and some of them are no longer used by currently available software, so you should note those formats in particular.
  • Identify and document where your digital collection is stored. Do you have hard drives, CDs, DVDs, or floppy disks? Are you able to access all of these storage formats (e.g. does your computer have a disk or floppy drive)? Many computer manufacturers stopped including disk drives or charge extra for them, but you may be able to purchase disk or floppy drives that plug into your computer's USB ports. Make notes about which storage formats you can't access because you lack the necessary hardware.
  • Consolidate your digital collection. Are your files stored across many devices like your computer, phone, camera, storage formats, and online platforms like email or Facebook? Move your files into one central location. Consolidation gives you a clearer picture of the size and complexity of your collection, makes it easier to back up your materials, and prevents accidental duplication. Social media and other websites should have instructions on how to download your content and save it to your computer.
  • Back up your digital collection. The recommended practice is the "3-2-1 rule"  -- save 3 copies of each file, save your collection on at least 2 types of storage devices, and store at least 1 of those storage devices in a separate location. Storage devices include computers, hard drives, and cloud storage. For example, if you save your digital collection on your computer and an external hard drive, store your external hard drive at a friend's house or safety deposit box. Cloud storage counts as a separate location as well as a storage device, so if you save your collection to your computer and a cloud service, you will be following the 3-2-1 rule. 
  • Check your files regularly. Make sure you can open them and the contents are unchanged. Check your files after each back up to be sure your storage devices are working properly, and check them at least once a year. You don't need to open every single file; you can spot check your collection by checking a sample of important files or a handful of each file type. Files that won't open (due to damage or corruption) can be replaced by one of the back-up copies. This is the purpose of saving 3 copies.
  • Use file names that describe the contents in a way that's meaningful and concise. Be consistent and descriptive. Avoid using spaces and special characters (e.g. ! @ $ , . #); use underscores (_) and dashes (-) to separate words and numbers if necessary.
  • Create folders (also called directories) that help you find files quickly and easily. Your file system shouldn't be complex with lots of folders-within-folders, but it does need to be clear to you and easy to use. 
  • Plan to upgrade your storage devices every 5-7 years. This seems to match the lifespan of most hard drives and the frequency of hardware development. 

Further resources

Friday, May 29, 2020

Preservation Team - Marietta

Preserving our historic collections is a key component of SCHS's mission, so as part of our Preservation Month celebration, we wanted to shine a light the members of our staff who work directly with caring for our collections and historic buildings.

Marietta Carr is the Librarian & Archivist in the Grems-Doolittle Library. 

Photo of Marietta Carr, in front of the house at Mabee Farm
Marietta Carr, Librarian & Archivist

How is preservation part of your job? What are some of the tasks or activities that you do regularly?
A significant part of my job is ensuring that the information contained in the library's historic materials is available for current and future researchers. The simplest preservation actions in the library are practicing safe handling and moving materials into archival folders, sleeves, and boxes. Activities like digitization and writing finding aids and indexes help to preserve the library's collections by reducing the amount of handling necessary for use and recording the material's intellectual properties. No matter what I'm doing in the library, I try to keep preservation in mind.  

What led you to a career in preservation?
I've always loved museums and libraries. As a kid, I made 'exhibits' with my toys and wrote card catalogs for my books. In college, I majored in history and worked in my college's archives. That was my first experience with all of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into research, exhibits, and programs. I found that I was super excited to spend days in the vault, processing collections and writing descriptions. At one of my internships, I spent weeks prepping a large collection of railroad maps for a digitization project. Some of these maps were fragile, and some were over 6 feet long and hard to maneuver. It was a tiring project because I had to be exceptionally careful and meticulous when working with them. The joy and satisfaction I felt during that project proved that I was on the right track for my career.

What excites you about historic preservation?
I'm excited by the idea of joining the long line of caretakers who have ensured historic materials live on for generations. Historic preservation helps connect the past and the future; in some cases, by literally giving us something to hold on to that shows us where we came from. It's exciting to see the materials in use and the way researchers, students, and the public interact with the content. A sense of shared history helps build and sustain relationships in communities. I've seen people be inspired, shocked, fascinated, and moved to tears when they have the opportunity to handle original materials. I'm grateful when I can be part of that experience and part of building that sense of shared history.

What worries you about historic preservation?
I'm worried about the digital dark ages. A significant amount of historical materials created today (and for the last 40 years, at least) only exists digitally. Materials like photos, maps, games, emails, videos, and websites are created digitally, used digitally, stored digitally, and left to expire in their digital formats. Digital preservation tools and methods are starting to catch up, but software, hardware, and file formats are developed, adopted, and replaced at a pace that exceeds the preservation community's resources and ability to adapt. The sheer volume of information that is created and stored digitally is overwhelming to think about. Many tools and platforms are proprietary which is a barrier to preservation. Digital preservation also requires more resources like funding and staff time than most physical preservation. It's a significant challenge that will affect all of us, even if all we're doing is trying to save the photos our family members email to us.

A cartoon of two men talking to each other. One sits in a car, asking "What street is this?" The other stands next to the road and answers, "Watt Street."
A detail from Barstow's 1931 Pictorial Map of Schenectady

What is your favorite historic artifact or building?
I think I find a new favorite almost every day! Maps and scrapbooks are my favorite types of materials. I also love cartoons, so I'm a fan of the 1931 Pictorial Map of Schenectady, N.Y. and Union College by J.D. Barstow. With its humor, color, and level of detail, it's truly a work of art. 

What’s been your favorite preservation project to work on?
I haven't worked on a particular, discreet preservation project at SCHS yet; I've been carrying on the work that the previous librarians started with rehousing, digitizing, and describing the collection. Last week, SCHS received a large collection of materials from the Mohawk Club which were stored in the attic of the Stockade Inn. The collection includes large books like ledgers, annual reports, visitor registers which all reeked of smoke and mustiness. I used a baking soda treatment process to remove as much of the odors as possible, so these materials can join the collection without stinking up the whole library! At a previous job, I spent some time building custom housing for rare books. Trying to figure how the best way to stabilize, house, and store a fragile or oddly-shaped book is like solving a puzzle. The process can be extremely frustrating and fiddly, but it's so satisfying when it's done.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for how our members of our community can support preservation or preserve their own collections/buildings?
Talk about preservation and the organizations that work to preserve the community's history with your family, friends, neighbors, and government representatives! Supporting these organizations as volunteers and members is crucial and appreciated, but being vocal about your support can have a huge impact on our ability carry out our preservation missions. Preservation projects are more successful when community members spread awareness, and encourage support from local and state governments. When you hear about a preservation project in your area, share it with someone!

When you are preserving your own collections, I suggest you remember the adage: "Don't let perfect be the enemy of good." It may feel like everything must be done a certain 'right' way or that anything less is a waste, but realistically, preservation costs significant time and money. We're all trying to do the best we can with the resources we have available to us. Every little bit helps: whether that's changing out the art on your walls so that some pieces get a break to rest in a cool, dark place; backing up your digital files once a month; moving your family photos from a deteriorating album into archival folders; or storing your personal archives in a cool, dark, dry closet instead of the attic or basement. Something relatively small that makes it easier to find something (e.g. labeling your boxes or writing notes about how your collection is organized) can have a big impact on the lifespan of your materials.

Photo of Marietta arranging large books on a table in the SCHS library.
Sorting items from the Mohawk Club collection after the deodorizing treatment.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Preservation Team - Suzy

Preserving our historic collections is a key component of SCHS's mission, so as part of our Preservation Month celebration, we wanted to share some thoughts from the members of our staff who work directly with caring for our collections and historic buildings.

Susanna Fout is the Exhibitions & Collections Manager.

Susanna Fout, Exhibitions & Collections Manager
How is preservation part of your job? What are some of the tasks or activities that you do regularly?
As Collections Manager, a lot of what I do can be described in terms of preventative conservation: monitoring environmental conditions, inspecting and recording object conditions, practicing safe handling techniques, implementing safe storage and exhibition practices. But there’s another aspect of preservation that is often overlooked- and that is preserving an object’s intellectual properties. By that I mean, preserving its story. The who, what, where, and when of an object is just as important as the physical object itself. When new information is learned about an artifact, we record that information and attach it to the object record so that it is easily accessible to future staff, researchers, etc. With incoming donations, this often means gleaning that information from the donor. It's more than just recording “this object belonged to so-and-so, and they lived in Scotia.” It is understanding what that object meant to the individual, or what it says about the time and place, or community.

What led you to a career in preservation?
My love of history began at a very early age, but I never imagined that interest would turn into a museum profession. I was a history major in college and like most students, I wasn’t sure where that degree would lead. I just figured that eventually I would become a teacher. It didn’t take long to realize that teaching wasn’t my strong suit. Luckily, around the same time I had started a work-study for an anthropology professor, digitizing field notes, photographs, and research from a study he had conducted in the Caribbean. I loved organizing, digitizing, and protecting these materials in a way that preserved them but also made them more easily accessible to others. This led to other internships, volunteer work, more academic study, and eventually a career.

What excites you about historic preservation?
The ability to protect our cultural heritage for future generations and sharing that heritage with others is at the heart of why I love historic preservation. But what REALLY excites me is how this field is constantly changing, not only in terms of the technology and methods we use to physically preserve or share our collections, but also in terms of what we determine to be historically significant. We are constantly reevaluating, broadening, and deepening our understanding of material culture to be more inclusive, creating a more diverse narrative that includes all members of our communities. This is especially important for an institution such as SCHS, which has historically focused on collecting objects belonging to the more privileged members of our community. I am excited to be a part of an organization that is striving to be more inclusive - after all Schenectady is, and always has been, a diverse community, a unique blend between the urban and the rural. Our collections should- and will- reflect that.

Finding a home for this refrigerator in the Mabee Farm artifact storage area

 What worries you about historic preservation?
Resources. More specifically, a lack of them. Like many other small-mid sized institutions, we struggle with having the necessary resources to maintain certain types of collections. We have to be more selective in what we collect, and sometimes even turn down donations, simply because we don’t have the space to house certain artifacts, the staff needed to support certain projects, or the budget necessary to conserve damaged artifacts. There are a number of grants and programs available to help alleviate these concerns, but it is still a daily struggle and a worry that is always in the back of my mind.

What is your favorite historic artifact or building?
It's so hard to choose, since there are so many! I will give one personal favorite, and then my favorite at SCHS.

I am obsessed with illuminated manuscripts. It's actually why I chose to pursue a masters degree in Medieval Studies. Manuscripts have this wonderful dual nature as both a written text and a physical object- they are a bottomless repository of cultural heritage. The production of books, their text, the social and economic implications of their use, the artwork- all of it is fascinating to me. My obsession with medieval manuscripts is what led from an interest in working at libraries and archives, to working in a museum with material culture.

In my role at SCHS, my job is both preservation and interpretation. Because of that, I would say that one of my favorite artifacts at SCHS is Loppa, the taxidermy macaw from the Nicholaus restaurant. I talk a lot about how artifacts can tell stories, and Loppa is a perfect example of this. On a surface level, there’s this quirky story about a beloved pet bird that was a bit of a trouble maker, who was then taxidermied and became a mascot of sorts for the restaurant. Pull those layers back a bit and we have larger stories about immigration, the “canal days” and the Golden Era of Schenectady, business and industry, a changing urban landscape- there’s just so much history we can unpack from this one artifact. Also, he’s just kind of creepy and really cool! From a preservation standpoint, Loppa is a bit of a challenge. Taxidermy- especially old taxidermy- can be volatile and dangerous because of the chemicals used. Preservation and conservation of these objects is difficult and expensive.

Loppa is currently on display in our exhibit “Changing Downtown” at the SCHS museum (32 Washington Ave). Since we aren't open to the public right now, you can view a virtual version of this exhibit at - Loppa’s story is included! You can view some of our other digital exhibits by visiting

What’s been your favorite preservation project to work on?
At SCHS my favorite project has been the reorganization of our storage area in the Franchere Education Center at Mabee Farm. A few springs ago, we relocated all of our artifacts which were being stored in outbuildings around the farm, into our temperature controlled storage. Of course, this meant an absolute nightmare in terms of space, accessibility, and control. We all thought there was no way we could fit these items - some of which are really large, heavy equipment- into our storage areas. I’m a bit of a “neat freak” and I like solving problems, so I had a lot of fun coming up with out of the box storage solutions. A lot of preservation work is a series of small baby steps, conducted over long periods of time, that improve the overall health of the collection. Rarely do we get that big “ahhh” moment where we can see significant change. This was a project where I could physically see progress being made, which was very satisfactory and I am pretty proud of what I was able to complete. Plus, I just really like organizing.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for how our members of our community can support preservation or preserve their own collections/buildings?
One of the biggest ways you can support preservation efforts is by donating your time. When I talk about all the work we have accomplished, none of those projects would have been completed if it wasn’t for the help of our volunteers and interns. Preservation projects are time consuming and having that extra help is crucial.

If you’re looking for advice on how to care for your own collections at home, one of the first things to do is consider their surroundings. You can slow the rate of deterioration dramatically just by taking an object out of an unstable environment. Different objects require different methods of care depending on what the object is made of, but generally speaking, organic materials do not do well in damp or overly dry/hot environments. Unfinished basements, garages, and attics are not good places to store your collections, and when possible, you should avoid using acidic cardboard boxes or wooden trunks/furniture as storage containers. Light is also very damaging to textiles, furniture, and paintings, so avoid displaying these items in direct sun or artificial light. The Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute is a great resource for guidelines to follow when preserving personal collections:

Suzy co-curated the exhibition "Handcrafted: The Folk and Their Art"

Monday, May 18, 2020

Preservation Team - Mike

Preserving our historic collections is a key component of SCHS's mission, so as part of our Preservation Month celebration, we wanted to share some thoughts from the members of our staff who work directly with caring for our collections and historic buildings.

Mike Diana started at SCHS as a volunteer and intern, worked as a program assistant, and now serves as the Education & Programs Manager.

Mike Diana sharing Schenectady's history with our community

How is preservation part of your job? What are some of the tasks or activities that you do regularly?
While preservation isn't the focus of my job, our relatively small team is always prepared to take on different roles. Much of what I've done with historic preservation relates to the very physical work of cleaning historic structures and rehousing artifacts large and small. With nowhere else for them to go, artifacts were often stashed in sub-optimal locations for years on end. Fortunately, our society now has adequate storage space for everything in our collection but moving it all to our collections space has been a project years in the making. 

What led you to a career in preservation?
My experience as a volunteer and intern at the SCHS was my introduction to preservation. I started with simple collections work and learned the basics of Past Perfect software. I also assisted with a very large project of cleaning out a historic house the SCHS owned on Schermerhorn Road. It had been accumulating junk for years and essentially had to be stripped down to its bare bones. It was dusty, heavy work in dark, dank hallways. Carpets were cut up and tossed out second floor windows into an open dumpster below. It was certainly a novel experience for me.

Do you have any concerns about historic preservation?
The hardest thing about historic preservation is the inevitable truth that not all old objects or buildings can be preserved. Prior to any preservation work comes the initial decisions of whether or not something is worth being saved in the first place or, just as important, can your organization really take responsibility for it. Fortunately, that's rarely my decision to make but I would probably err on the side of taking on too much.

Photographing artifacts for our exhibits and catalog

What is your favorite historic artifact or building?
One of my favorite historic structures is the Widow Jane Mine in Rosendale, NY. The town was built around a cement mining operation and the hills above the Roundout Creek are criss-crossed by old lime kilns and hidden cave entrances. The Widow Jane Mine is just a small part of this historic industrial landscape but it's open and safe for the public. It's an impressive cavern supported by rows of massive limestone pillars left behind by the mine engineers. Much of it has flooded with groundwater making a for a surreal echo chamber of light and sound. Apparently they have concerts there, but I prefer to go just to enjoy the atmosphere of this slumbering place.

What has been your favorite preservation project to work on?
In April of 2018 we had a class of Historic Preservation students from Cornell come to the Mabee Farm to help us with various projects. My team was responsible for cleaning the Inn. The building itself was essentially shuttered by the family in the early 20th century and left as a rough storage place and while the first floor had been restored, the second floor had been untouched. We removed a lot of remarkable artifacts from up there that had been buried in layers of dust. One that stood out was an old oilcloth, probably two centuries old, with it's blue geometric pattern still visible.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for how our members of our community can support preservation or preserve their own collections/buildings?
Only so many old buildings can be designated historic landmarks and saved simply for that reason. In any town or city, there simply isn't the resources or the communal will to support more than a few such projects. But I still think preserving historic architecture is vital to a community's identity. To that end, I would encourage members of the community to go out of their way to patronize business housed in older buildings. There are more than enough mini-malls and prefab chain enterprises wherever you may find yourself. If we don't consciously give new purposes to old buildings, they'll soon be vacant, decrepit and destroyed in that order.

Rediscovering a rare 1700s door: a dirty job, but important preservation work!

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Preservation Team - Hannah

Preserving our historic collections is a key component of SCHS's mission, so as part of our Preservation Month celebration, we wanted to share some thoughts from the members of our staff who work directly with caring for our collections and historic buildings.

Hannah Miller started at SCHS as an intern, worked as a program assistant, and served as the Interim Librarian.

Hannah Miller

What led you to a career in preservation?
I started in preservation by accident. In college I thought I wanted to be a museum curator, so I decided to major in history. I went to Goucher College and they encourage all history majors to try the historic preservation minor. I started taking classes my sophomore year and decided that it was the career path that I would follow. I always had a fascination with house museums and architectural history. Preservation was the combination I didn’t know I was looking for until it was introduced to me. I think historic preservation is a practical implementation of history into everyday life. I wanted a career where I could engage with history but also engage with communities. Preservation fulfilled both of those roles for me.

What excites you about historic preservation?
Historic Preservation excites me because it has so many uses. Preservation has economic, environmental, and community benefits, along with its obvious historic benefits. Preservation affects everyone whether or not they realize it. Most people have interest in one of the areas that preservation benefits, even if they specifically disagree with another. I think it’s exciting to discuss preservation with different people and find out what different aspects excite them about it and what preservation means to them.

What worries you about historic preservation?
What worries me about preservation is connected to what excites me. Preservation has something for everyone, but I don’t think that everyone knows that. Generally speaking I think there is an idea that preservation is only about preserving old buildings for the sake of history and museums. While that may be true in some cases, it is not exclusively true. I don’t think everyone realizes the great environmental impact preservation can have because so many people think it is more environmentally friendly to tear down a historic building to create a more energy efficient buildings. But the waste that creates is massive and it has a very negative impact on the environment when the existing structure can often be used in an environmentally friendly manner. The same can be said about the economics of preservation. People see preservation as costly and don’t realize the real economic impact of historic neighborhoods, which can be great for communities.

Working on a project at Mabee Farm

What is your favorite historic artifact or building?
I have many favorite historic buildings. I get asked this question all the time and I can’t choose one, but will try to limit my list. I have a great fondness for Rosecliff in Newport Rhode Island, which is one of the buildings I looked into for my Master’s Thesis. Notre Dame Cathedral has also always fascinated me, I think its story going from great medieval cathedral to almost falling apart from neglect to great tourist attraction to its tragic fire says a lot about the history of preservation and its value.  Of course the Mabee Farm is also a special place to me. Having spent so much time there I believe it taught me a lot about preservation and how to run successful historic sites.

What’s been your favorite preservation project to work on?
My favorite preservation projects to work on have been about advocating for preservation. Preservation as a career can mean so many different things. I have leaned towards development and advocacy. I don’t consider myself a traditional preservationist in the sense that I always want to find new ways to encourage people to interact with preservation. Any project where I can discuss preservation with new people and get them interested in the field is always my favorite.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for how our members of our community can support preservation or preserve their own collections/buildings?
The best way to preserve your own houses is to research everything you do to a historic house before the work is done. Often mistakes are made in historic homes by using materials that are not compatible with your structure and in the long term will cause more damage. So do your research first and your house will be happy for another 100 years! There are a lot of great organizations in this area that specialize in preservation. The best way to support those organizations and the communities that they support is to use their resources and share them with others. By doing this we can grow support for preserving communities in our area, which gives it the great charm that it is known for. Preservation can only succeed with the support of its community, the best way to keep preservation going is to show people how preservation can be great for them and their community.

Thank you to Hannah for sharing her passion for preservation with SCHS!