Organizations find ways to rescue historical record

As information sharing becomes ever-more digital, historians worldwide are contending with the problem of how to preserve the historical record. That problem is no less pressing than in Jacksonville as print newspapers and photographs and their negatives are threatened with the Dumpster.

In November, The Resident published a story about longtime San Marco photographer Curt Coenen and his attempt to preserve old photo negatives of the City from the 1940s through the 1970s, which was a period of intense growth for the area. The negatives were passed to him from another photographer who no longer wanted the cumbersome collection. He’s kept it about 40 years and at 3,000 negatives and counting, Coenen is still trying to scan and digitize the photos by himself.

“I’m still in the process of cataloging and doing that sort of thing,” Coenen said in mid-December. “Right now, it is just a matter of keeping it organized. They are available if someone wants to take a deeper dive into it.”

Meanwhile, earlier in 2019, Gatehouse Media purchased the Florida Times-Union (T-U) and donated its extensive archive of print news stories, photographs and negatives to the Jacksonville Historical Society (JHS) and the Jacksonville Public Library after the paper was moved to a smaller space in the Wells Fargo building downtown. JHS Executive Director Alan Bliss said the archives dated back at to the 1920s and occupied at least 3,500 feet after being condensed and were too expensive for the T-U to house. Now, Bliss is trying to raise funds to renovate and expand the Casket Company Building in order to archive and digitize the society’s collections. He said the first phase would cost about $300,000, and he’s been offered a challenge grant by the Delores Barr Weaver Foundation of $50,000, which means her foundation will match up to that amount. The grant was in honor of his predecessor, former Historical Society Executive Director Emily Lisska.

Bliss said the story archives, the photo library and the photo negatives used to be a major resource for the T-U staff, but the metropolitan daily has, like many newspapers, continued to shed staff.

“There used to be six librarians there, and then there was one, and then there was no one curating it,” he recalled. In the end, JHS and the Public Library split the collection, with the photos and negatives going to the Historical Society and the textual copy going to the library. Bliss described the collective trove as “many shelves of manila file folders that were organized to the peculiar protocol of a newsroom. It is not a conventional protocol that any archive would use.

“That was a big rescue. It was a surprise,” Bliss said. “Both of us (the Historical Society and library) determined we would keep it from going to the Dumpster or taken out of Jacksonville. I know there was some out-of-town interest in it.”

The photos are now housed at the Society, and the Jacksonville Public Library now houses the printed stories.

Laura Minor, manager of special collections at the Public Library, said her department’s role is to preserve the city’s history so it can be available for generations to come. The materials are now available in her department, the fourth floor of the main library downtown. Many of the files have been digitized and are available at Careful consideration was given to which organization would house which materials.

“The Historical Society as a preservation organization was best suited to take the negatives as these are the kinds of things that aren’t regularly accessed, but preserved for when someone needs them,” she explained. “They also are better equipped to turn negatives into photos. The library – while it also preserves local history – is all about providing ready access to information and had an available climate-controlled area available to the public. The library does currently have the 1979-2002 portion of the negatives for viewing and is working on a plan to digitize all the archives. If this hadn’t worked out, we would have found a way to preserve this extremely valuable collection, but we thank Alan for making this happen!”

Paul Bourcier, Museum of Science and History curator is part of a local History Consortium task force trying to develop an overall plan for protecting the collective local record. The consortium is a loose affiliation of several local organizations working together to drive preservation, awareness and tourism. He said the task force was trying to find a way that member organizations could work together toward a common goal, one that included acquiring, preserving, sharing, and sometimes disposing of collection material.

“We feel that, through such a collaborative approach, we can identify areas worthy of preservation, eliminate unnecessary duplication, and make better use of limited resources.  It’s not advisable for any one of our organizations to chart a course for future collecting without knowing what our colleagues are doing,” ` said. “It’s taking time, but I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

In the meantime, residents with a piece of the historical record to donate are encouraged to contact the library downtown on Laura Street.

“No matter how small or large, people can contact us about donating pieces of Jacksonville history to the library,” said Chris Boivin, library assistant director of community relations and marketing. “We’re always looking to expand our collection of yearbooks, photographs, documents, books, recordings and other materials that complete the timeline of our city. If anyone has collections or tips on collections of local history that need a home, call Special Collections at 904-630-2409, or contact us through our website, or stop by.”

By Jennifer Edwards
Resident Community News

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