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Library trustee defends culling of historical volumes, despite public outcry

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  July 17, 2013 10:15 AM

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A Watertown library trustee last night defended her board's June decision to move some historical books out of the local library's history room to clear shelf space, despite the uproar it has caused among local genealogy and historical experts.

"There just isn’t enough room," said library trustee Raya Stern in a Town Hall hallway Tuesday night. “This is stuff no one looks at. Not everything in there is valuable to Watertown.”

The volumes are not directly related to Watertown's history. However, the decision has prompted a letter and email campaign by local historians, and brought nearly a dozen protesters to Tuesday's Town Council meeting to rail against the move.

Many said that even volumes not directly related to Watertown could be monumental to historians and genealogists researching in the library's history room. The historians pointed to the valuable nature of many of the volumes, including the journals John Winthrop, an early Massachusetts founder.

"This is some of most important material historically in the Commonwealth," said David L. Smith, president of the Civil War Round Table of Greater Boston. "To get rid of it is outrageous and irresponsible."

The books are being cleared to make space for the Army's Arsenal property cleanup records - which are federally mandated to be housed there - as well as new incoming historical volumes, Stern said.

"This is a federal mandate that was dumped on us," Stern said. “There are no tucked away places in the library to put the Arsenal papers. All our rooms and shelves are being used.”

The non-Watertown materials would either be moved to general shelves in the library, offered to various communities' libraries and historical societies, digitized for online use, or put in the local circulation network, Stern said.

“We’re not throwing anything away,” she said. “We’re just finding other places for them.”

Although the library has offered any of the titles to the Watertown Historical Society, board member Joyce Kelly said the organization does not have room to house the books.

"We believe the library can house both the Arsenal material and the research collection," she said, noting that the Arsenal cleanup documents could likely be digitized faster and easier than any of the research volumes.

Supporters of the historical volumes also worried that since the decision was already made at the library trustees' June 4 meeting, valuable titles could begin disappearing from the history room at any time.

"It took 150 years to put this collection together, and in another month or so, it could all be gone," said Bob Erickson, former veteran's agent for Watertown.

But Stern said the decision, while discussed in detail last month, has been in the works since last fall.

"This policy has been in the works since October," she said, adding that the board will likely uphold their decision. “They can come to our meetings. Some got all excited and now they’re overreacting.”

Stern said the library is still deciding what books to move out of the history room, and said the process is continuous and has no firm deadline.

“We’re working on this constantly,” she said.

The next Board of Library Trustees meeting is Tuesday, Aug. 6 at 7 p.m.

UPDATE - Marilynne K. Roach, president of the Historical Society of Watertown, provided
the following statement on issues raised in this story.

Having read the on-line edition of the article "Library Trustee defends culling of historical volumes despite public outcry" (on the planned removal of books supposedly unrelated to Watertown in order to store the paperwork generated by the Arsenal cleanup), I have a few comments.

Trustee Raya Stern is quoted as saying, "This is stuff no one looks at." Yet at least a dozen people attended the July 16 Town Council meeting on short notice in order to advocate for the current collection, while dozens more, locally and from as far away as Denver, sent supporting letters and e-mails. This is not "no one."

(And the Denver family is hardly the only one that has made Watertown a vacation destination specifically to consult this History collection, a decision to encourage as it fits with the the part of the on-going Watertown Comprehensive Plan to make our town more of a destination.)

"There just isn't enough room," according to Ms Stern. Yet there is visible shelf space in the History Room and no material has yet been removed. While the library is Federally mandated to keep the Arsenal cleanup paperwork, it is not required to place it in the history reference section. It is my understanding that such paperwork can be stored off-site as long as it can be made available within a reasonable amount of time to those who request access to it. Right now, the papers fill a bookcase open to the public yet out of the way near the Director's office. There are also other unoccupied shelves in the periodical section. Can the papers be digitized? Whether anyone has consulted the material I don't know.

What exactly is the Federal order about this material?

Ms. Stern wondered why no one attends the Trustees meetings. Concerned parties certainly may submit written questions to a Trustees Meeting for the public forum section. Then they will be told if they may be allowed to speak on the topic or not.

As for no one objecting to the plan before - I, for one, never imagined the Library administration would consider such a self-destructive plan, and therefore didn't know I needed to be wary of it. The Trustees approved the Library's Development Policy and the Local History Collections Policy in January 2013. These say nothing about cutting any of the History Collection. I had a conversation with Director Leone Cole about the matter in May and other concerned citizens had expressed themselves to her and to the Trustees before that. Clare Murphy (a professional appraiser of rare books and manuscripts) wrote to Ms. Cole, expressing her dismay and offering to appraise the history material at no cost, but received no answer.

We still believe that the Arsenal paperwork may be properly stored AND that the history collection be preserved - a win-win solution. Our hope is that the Board of Library Trustees, as publicly elected officials, will take the needs of their constituents into account when making such far-reaching decisions.

Marilynne K. Roach
president, Historical Society of Watertown

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