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A TREASURE TROVE


Across the street from the Delaware History Museum, inside an old bank and down a steep flight of stairs, the full collection of the Delaware Historical Society Research Library holds more than 3 million records of Delaware’s past. There’s the 400-year-old medical text belonging to New Sweden’s first physician, a letter from Gen. George Washington about spying on the British, and hundreds of records from Delaware’s World War I veterans, now helping to tell a 100-year-old story across the street as part of “The First State at the Front” exhibit at the museum.

The library is treasure trove for genealogists and a playground for the historically curious. And this free resource of the Delaware Historical Society is about to become more visible on Market with a soon-to-be-launched blog. We asked Leigh D. Rifenburg, chief curator, and Brenton Grom, curator of special collections and head of Library Academic Programs, to show us some of what’s hidden on Market…

Brenton: “This block was all banks, at one time. This was the Artisan Savings Bank. We'll take you downstairs and you'll see where the rarest items in our collections are kept. It’s actually in the space that was the old bank vault. We still have the old vault door … and no, we don’t close that door.”

Leigh: “We see people from all over the country. I've dealt with people who have made this a part of their summer vacation. They may be out in Iowa, but Grandma Josephine was born in Wilmington, so this is the final piece of their genealogical research.”

Brenton: “Folks from the Delaware Genealogical Society volunteer on a monthly basis to help out with that crowd. But from there, it runs the gamut – doctoral students from UD for example. Just the other day there was an undergraduate form Yale who came down to look at Sen. William Roth's papers.”

Leigh: “We have one wonderful collection in particular that we've been recently working on, since we launched our World War I exhibition. The government produced records for every veteran who served in World War I, but it was the responsibility of the individual states to collect any additional information about their veterans. So, Delaware launched what was, at the time, a pretty progressive, grassroots campaign. The head librarian at the Wilmington Institute Free Library put out a call for people to submit as much information as they possibly could, including photos. Of the almost 10,000 Delaware men who served, about 1,200 people filled out the form, or their relatives filled it out posthumously.”

“It was a two-page, folded record, with everything from who they were to what they were doing prior to the war, but the thing that really sets these apart is that on the last page, there's a section that says ‘Remarks.’ A lot of people left this section blank, but the people who did fill it out have left us with these incredible mini-narratives. And for a lot of people, these records represent the only surviving example of a veteran's record, because many of the army records at the national archives facility in St. Louis were destroyed in a fire in the 1970s.”

Brenton: “Beyond the physical collections, we're starting a major push to have an online presence that will provide a real service to people.”

Leigh: “We’re looking to have these records conserved, because they are on incredibly thin and fragile paper that just crumbles in your hands. We're looking to do a two-part conservation process -- first digitization, to get everything indexed so people can search from home online, then physical conservation.”

Brenton: “One of the big things we're looking forward to right now is that at the end of this month, we’re launching a new curatorial blog. It’s called ‘The Vault.’

Leigh: “One of the things we've discovered is that you can take virtually any collection, no matter how local it may seem, and it can be contextualized against a backdrop of larger national, even global, issues, and that's really what we're looking to do. We're not shying away from provocative issues. And I think that's important right now.”

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