Friday, August 2, 2013

Meeting Doc Pete

As a Penn State faculty member, I am blessed to have millions of digitized primary sources at my fingertips. For instance, from my laptop at home I can easily access a complete online backfile of the New York Times to 1851; hundreds of 19th century magazines within the American Periodicals Series; and even an online collection of Civil War letters and diaries. So recently, when I was a graduate student in Harrisburg's American Studies program, it's no surprise that many in my cohort defaulted to their keyboards. Even "older" students like me who predate the World Wide Web have transitioned to using computers first, and paper next, when doing historical research.

Thus my visit to the Schuylkill County Historical Society exercised skills I haven't used in a while. Located within an old school on North Centre Street in Pottsville, the Society's building has retained the high ceiling, "cloak room," chalkboards, and highly polished wooden floor of a century-old classroom.

Schuylkill County Historical Society Library
The library doesn't have an online public access catalog of the kind that I often use. The organization scheme isn't Dewey or Library of Congress. Instead, call numbers beginning with "CW" point to Civil War material and "M" numbers indicate mining books. Those who wish to search the collection must thumb through a battered, red binder labeled "Library Contents." In this environment, computer skills are useless, but meticulous note taking, thoroughness, and time-management skills are invaluable.

Although I was able to locate a lot of items  on my own, I discovered that if you want to find any/everything, a chat with Peter "Doc Pete" Yasenchak, the SCHS Director, is a sine qua non. At 84 years old, this Korean War veteran and retired school guidance counselor not only knows where to find books, memorabilia, and photos, but he has often lived through the history documented in them. Whatever your topic, he can immediately suggest related people, organizations, places, and events, thus providing infinite angles of approach for your research. Most importantly, he has a limitless interest in his community, and in people who want to understand it better.
Doc wasn't around when I first arrived because he was attending the funeral of a member of his church. But immediately upon meeting me, he swept me into a warm hug. He sat down to see what materials I'd already used and slapped my shoulder approvingly when my research skills impressed him. While I don't think he is professionally trained in running a library, his formal education in counseling and his sunny personality have served him just as well, if not better. For in terms of service-orientation he would definitely put many members of my own tribe to shame.

There were a few items I simply couldn't find, especially old city ordinances, maps, and photographs. Doc pulled off his glasses, nibbled their frame, pacing through a map in his mind. After a few moments, he pulled a flashlight from his pocket and pointed the beam at a low, dusty shelf. "Right there." Then he proceeded to help other customers, answer the phone, and basically keep all of us productive for the rest of the afternoon.

As helpful and jolly as Doc was, something he said haunts me, though. One of the times he returned to my table, he apologized for arriving late. I told him I was sorry about the funeral, and that I was very thankful to have ANY assistance from him. After all, within a few moments he'd found those damn law books that I failed to see despite crawling all over the stacks! Doc smiled, tapped this temple and said, "yes, it's all in my head." Then he paused thoughtfully and said with a touch of urgency, "and I don't have anyone to pass it on to." Perhaps this comment was born of an emotional experience earlier in the day, burying a friend who was a decade younger than he is. But having worked in archives earlier in my career, and being a heavy user of them now, I might guess what else he could have meant. In my experience, many volunteers who "love history" don't enjoy learning the ins and outs of finicky library organization schemes. And although everyone at SCHS was kind to me, my experiences at other repositories informs me that volunteers sometimes weary of being at the beck and call of researchers with weird topics like mine.

My visit at Schuylkill County Historical Society was a reminder that even in 2013, there are many resources that aren't available -- are in fact, completely invisible -- online. And the most important ones are people like Doc Pete who not only know where the facts are buried, but are personally dedicated to helping people uncover them.   

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