Many of us make frequent visits to the public library, but how many have visited a local archive?
An archive is a place in which public records or historical documents are preserved. In this two-part series on local archives, I’ll introduce you to two formal archives located in the Rochester area, both of which are integral to the preservation of local history: the archives of the and the Rochester Oral History Archive at .
The Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm houses a traditional archive of papers, newspapers, photos and other documents relating to the history of Rochester, Rochester Hills and Stoney Creek Village, as well as to the Van Hoosens and the Taylors – two early pioneer families. The collection is open to the public by appointment. Portions of the museum’s archives have been digitized and posted on the Oakland County Historical Resources website.
The Rochester Oral History Archive houses only recordings of local residents and is completely digital and available to the public free of charge on its website. The archive is managed by Cornelia A. Pokrzywa at Oakland University and contains the recorded oral histories of Rochester-area residents, older than 55 at the time of recording, who have discussed everything from local high school memories to Main Street shopping.
This week, A Patch of History interviews Pat McKay, director of interpretive services at the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm, about the museum’s archival repository.
Rochester Patch: When did the museum’s archival program begin?
Pat McKay: The museum and its archives were established in 1979, seven years after the death of Dr. Sarah Van Hoosen Jones. The initial collections were the contents of the Van Hoosen Farmhouse, which was considerable due to five generations of the families; their world travels; and papers from successful careers by the Van Hoosen women – Sarah and her aunt Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen. Once that collection was complete, the museum broadened its scope to collect the history of the community. The Rochester-Avon Historical Society had collected some items and turned over their collections to the museum after the museum was established.
Patch: What types of historical materials are housed in the museum’s archives?
McKay: The museum actively collects both archives and collections. Archival materials are usually paper items and include newspapers, maps, diaries, letters, fliers and business directories. Collections are typically three-dimensional items like furniture, tools and farm equipment.
Patch: What specific items does the museum collect for the archives, and what doesn’t it collect?
McKay: The museum collects items that are related to the Rochester/Rochester Hills community. We have a very narrow focus due to the time, effort and financial responsibility that goes with collecting items. We'll only collect items that fit our collections policy and items that we can store and financially preserve. If items cannot meet these criteria, they are turned away.
Patch: How are the archives managed and maintained?
McKay: We have a part-time staff member, Danielle Ager, who is focused on the archives and collections. This used to be a full-time position, but it has been reduced to just 20 hours per week. It is a position that has cost associated to it but does not generate any revenue, so it is under constant scrutiny to justify its value. Yet the position's value may not be known for 25 to 50 years, when we realize we saved documents that would have been lost.
Besides the salary of this position, the museum purchases acid-free boxes, file folders, tissue, etc., that are used to preserve items while they are packed away. We also purchase environmental monitoring devices, provide pest control and monitoring, electronic storage and backup of files, computers, collections management software, annual licensing, training and more.
Danielle works closely with interns from the Wayne State University Archives Administration program, Central Michigan University and Oakland University students. The museum has a backlog of material that we are diligently trying to catalog. Every item that comes into our collections has to be recorded in our collections management software system first and then filed. Sometimes items require conservation before they can be filed.
Patch: How does the museum process an archival collection?
McKay: Once we have a collection of items, they are organized into a finding guide, which allows our staff and users to find items and clearly identify what we have. During this process, papers are organized, evaluated and conserved. Metal paper clips and staples may be removed, and the collection is evaluated for bug infestations before it is made available to the public.
Patch: Are the archives open to the public?
McKay: The archives have been created to serve the public. Everything the museum has is available for public view – but only by appointment. Because archives are frequently fragile and one-of-a-kind, the museum has to provide controlled access, so use is by appointment only.
Patch: Are there rules or guidelines for visitors researching items in the archives?
McKay: We have an ethical responsibility to ensure the safety of every archival document. We do not allow ink pens, food or anything that could potentially damage an item. We also monitor backpacks and purses to prevent theft of items.
Patch: Are there future plans for the museum’s archives?
McKay: The most significant future plan for the museum is the rebuilding of the 1927 Calf Barn. The building is significantly distressed but is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Our goal is to preserve this structure while adaptively reusing it as an archival storage facility to house the , our community's 33-year congressman during the Cold War era and relative of the Taylor-Van Hoosen families.
This project would provide a long-term storage solution for the museum's archives and collections. Without this building, the museum will be forced not to collect additional items as they are offered to us, due to a lack of space to store them. In addition, if this building cannot be repaired soon, it will need to be demolished. We have raised over $180,000 toward its repair but need significantly more. Our plan is to preserve the building and endow its operation, all through private funds, so that we can ensure the preservation of our archives for the future and reduce our dependence on public tax dollars.
A public treasure
The archives of the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen farm serve as a repository for significant documents that help tell the story of our community. Without the archives and the dedication of many people willing to donate items or help manage and preserve them, these important historical resources would vanish.
Personally, I offer great thanks to the museum staff for their time, efforts and assistance with my research for A Patch of History articles. Many of the photos that accompany the articles come from the museum’s archives. They are pertinent to making history come alive for Patch readers and all who are interested in local history.
“The collections and archives at the museum drive our whole operation and really are the museum's investment in our community's future,” said McKay. “I want our residents to be excited about our archives and see the value and investment in preserving items from our community's past – whether it is a Civil War uniform or a mastodon bone.”
The museum offers a few tax-deductible ways to help preserve local history. Friends and supporters may donate funds to help maintain the museum’s operations and reduce its dependence on tax dollars.
“I want our generation's legacy to be the recognition and preservation of our community's history,” McKay noted. “Part of that recognition is understanding the cost to acquire, store, preserve and maintain archives and provide proper funding to do so. Joining the museum’s membership program is a great way to start as well as memorial gifts, IRAs, gifts of real estate, etc., to help provide a long-term funding source for the museum.
"I am so appreciative of those who have saved archival items and then have generously donated them to the museum,” she said.