Hampton University, local library working to preserve history

Contact Reporterwwright@vagazette.com
University, library working preserve documents of African-Americans in the community

Williamsburg Regional Library is working with Hampton University to preserve the documents of African-Americans in the Williamsburg community.

People can bring important documents — such as diary pages and postcards — to the library to have them scanned and digitized.

"(This idea) is coming out of a desire to preserve African-American history by preserving papers that were important to some of the people in this area," said history professor Maureen Elgersman Lee.

Melissa Simpson, Williamsburg Regional Library adult services director, said the university approached the library with the idea.

"It's definitely a new thing for us," said Barry Trott, the library's special projects director. "I can't say we've done that many digitization projects, but that's really more of (the university's) piece."

Historians collect or peruse objects from the past routinely, Elgersman Lee said, but placing a premium on documents isn't as common as you might think.

"As a society, we take less time to appreciate the value of papers," she said.

Certain types of documents are of particular interest to Elgersman Lee, who began her professorship at Hampton in 2013.

"I'm really interested in diaries from that time period, if anyone has them," she said. "We'll also accept postcards, certificates, and private documents as long as they aren't too sensitive. Papers that are too delicate or too private, I wouldn't recommend for this project."

In her grant application, Elgersman Lee detailed how important the project is in the context of keeping history alive for years to come.

"As historical sources, papers are more vulnerable to being discarded than material objects and photographs, particularly at the level of family," reads the grant request. "As a whole, African Americans have not preserved papers with the same urgency or nostalgia as material objects like family Bibles, photographs or furniture. There is an intellectual and documentary history to be told here."

It makes sense, then, that Elgersman Lee chose libraries as she took on the project, paid for by a Common Heritage Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"Hampton University reached out to us," Simpson said. "The grant from the NEH encouraged community involvement," Simpson said. "Maureen reached out to the library as a way of getting into the community. She lives in Williamsburg, I believe, so she's familiar with the community and wanted to place herself in it."

Trott said since both are educational institutions, it's important for libraries to have good relationships with their local colleges and universities.

"We've, of course, worked with the College of William and Mary a lot," she said. "We'll have people come in and speak regularly."

For Elgersman Lee, the library is a conduit through Hampton University faculty can preserve documents.

"There is a lot of history here, and we want that history to be preserved for future generations," she said.

This is an ongoing project, and people interested in participating should come to an informational meeting on March 25 at the Willliamsburg Regional Library. The meeting starts at 1 p.m.

Participants can bring in their documents on June 20 and May 3 to be digitized.

On a statewide level, the Virginia Historical Society also has a database of historic documents where people can find historical records and biographical details of the enslaved Virginians. Visit unknownnolonger.vahistorical.org for the database.

Wright can be reached by phone at 757-345-2343.

Want to know more?

Where: Williamsburg Regional Library, 515 Scotland St.

When: 1-2:30 p.m., March 25

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