By Ulrika G. Gerth
---- — NEWBURYPORT — A group of the community’s most committed history buffs intends to raise the profile of an underground treasure trove.
The Archival Center Friends was formed earlier this year with a sole mission in mind: to put the spotlight on the Newburyport Archival Center.
Situated in a climate-controlled room in the basement of the Newburyport Public Library, the center holds the scope of local history, an ever-growing collection of everything from individual genealogies and cemetery records to city directories, valuable maps, historic photographs and more.
The 20 members of the Archival Center Friends are among the archive’s loyal followers, each with over two decades of experience in historical and genealogical research, according to Skip Motes, a member and local artist.
They decided last spring to band together to give the center a boost in response to what they felt was a lack of focus on the archives by the library management as other programs — “rightfully so,” Motes said — received attention.
“The city runs on volunteers,” Motes said. “We felt it was value added to have a group supporting the center with outreach and promotion but also help out the staff inside the room.”
The visitors log shows roughly 180 monthly visits to the center, which archivist Jessica Gill describes as a gold mine of primary source materials, accessible to the public but out of reach of the snooping eyes of hackers and online government surveillance.
“I love that what we’ve here is unique,” Gill said. “Documents are very powerful, they present the history and culture of the community and that’s very important to me.
“You can’t change primary source material.”
Mayor Donna Holaday recently handed over boxes and boxes of historic city documents containing hundreds of thousands of pages to be meticulously sorted and catalogued, Gill said.
Holaday has, according to Motes, expressed her full support for the center as part of her mission to promote Newburyport’s cultural and historical heritage.
“That’s what drives this community,” Motes said, “people seeing it as a historic site.”
Concerned there was no specific mention of the Archival Center in the fiscal 2014 budget, Motes went before the City Council earlier this year, chronicling the importance of the archives and relaying visitor statistics. (The group is not authorized to raise money for the center, instead channeling any donations via the established Friends of the Newburyport Public Library).
During the past 16 months, people representing 28 states and 52 Massachusetts towns have come to the center, totaling close to 2,500 visits.
They include the Archival Center Friends themselves, many with extended involvement in the preservation of historic Newburyport such as Linda Miller, Bill Harris, Mary Haslinger and Tom Kolterjahn.
Since the formation of the group, Motes said they have made a point of writing letters to the editor to highlight activities at the center and during a recent open house four members presented their research to a large crowd, including Holaday, who stayed for the duration of the three-hour event.
The Archival Center Friends hope Holaday’s recent appointment of Sarah White to the Library Board of Directors will further aid in their effort.
White is the business manager at the Historical Society of Old Newbury, serves on the Historical Commission, and was the chairwoman of the Local Historic District Study Committee. Motes said White’s background in technology will also come in handy in the event of technological upgrades to the center.
“We see Sarah as being the focal point driving a strategy to make the Archival Center a prominent regional center of excellence for historical research, tying in other historical collections,” Motes said.
As it turns out, the Archival Center is better off than similar venues at 15 surrounding public libraries, according to a survey by head librarian Cynthia Dadd.
“We wanted to get a sense of what other communities were doing,” Dadd said. “I’ve always thought it was so great that we’re able to have staffing, so we wanted to see how typical that was and found out it wasn’t typical at all.”
Unlike the Archival Center, which has a full-time staff for a total of five-and-a-half days a week, Dadd said other libraries often rely on reference librarians to gather material for patrons and require people to make an appointment.
The Archival Center may also see next year the first step toward digitizing the collection of microfilm, which, for example, holds the Newburyport Herald (1797-1844) and the Newburyport Daily News (1889-present). Dadd said she will explore sources to fund the initial stage of the project, estimated at $15,000-$20,000.
“Most of what we do is not upgrading material, but making people aware of what we do have,” Dadd said.
To Gill, the thrill of the job is not only the documents themselves, but the spirit of collaboration among the patrons and the volunteers.
On a recent Friday morning, Herbert Crooks, a local artist, stopped by to give one of his paintings — eggs lined up on bar stools — to genealogist Cecile Pimental, who had helped him the day before, researching ships built in Newburyport and surrounding areas.The gesture nearly made Gill speechless.
Said Gill, “We rarely get credit so for her to get a painting painted with her favorite color is ... it’s a big deal.”