By Carol Vaughn — Saving Eastern Shore history has become a focus of community support for the new regional library being built in Parksley.
Hiring the library system’s first archivist plays a large role in preserving that history.
Archivist Christopher Pote, 45, started work in May in anticipation of the library’s move from Accomac to Parksley.
Archivists typically handle mainly unpublished materials, including items such as photographs, letters, manuscripts, and other historic documents, while librarians typically work with published materials.
“I have the good fortune of picking up the dusty, dirty boxes from somebody’s attic or basement and seeing what’s in them — looking for the lost correspondence from the 1800s or the family photographs, trying to preserve and make available for future researchers this much more personal, unique material,” Pote said, adding that, by definition, archival materials are unique.
“I’m always looking for who’s got that treasure trove in their attic,” he said.
“It’s really bringing order to chaos,” Pote said of an archivist’s work.
A large area of the new library building will be dedicated to the Eastern Shore of Virginia Heritage Center, which includes a climate-controlled archives room with a monitoring system; a materials processing room; a research room open to the public (which will be called the Eastern Shore Room, as in the existing library); a lecture hall; and the Memory Lab, where members of the public will be able to transfer their media (such as old videotapes, photographs, and the like) to an updated format in order to preserve them. The center will occupy 7,600 square feet of the $5 million, 20,110 square-foot library.
“The Heritage Center is an amalgamation of what is currently the Eastern Shore Room … which is largely a published reference collection, and then the archival material, which is in the back (of the existing library), which is unpublished material,” Pote said.
Pote’s duties include managing the Heritage Center and its staff, preparing and preserving materials for use, and organizing public programs.
“I want to make the Heritage Center a repository of record, in Virginia if not the country,” he said.
The long-term goal is to have several additional employees in the Heritage Center, he said, adding, “In order to do all this work, we need more than one person doing it.”
An endowment to fund the archivist position got a major boost with a bequest from the estate of local historian, author, and Methodist minister, the Rev. Kirk Mariner, who died in 2017.
Mariner also left his extensive collection of Eastern Shore history items to the library.
Pote earned a Masters in Library Science, with a focus in archives, from Catholic University. He worked for the past 17 years as archivist at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va.
“It has been a whirlwind because we have several things going on,” including planning for the upcoming move, along with becoming familiar with the library’s local history collection, Pote said about his first month on the job.
“What I’m diving into right now is really the history of the Eastern Shore. I’ve created a list for myself of seven, eight, nine, ten books that I can just read and get a good history of the Shore itself,” Pote said.
This week, he was tackling Nora Miller Turman’s “Eastern Shore of Virginia: 1603-1964.”
Those books, along with perusing the library’s larger genealogical collections, will help Pote become familiar with local family and place names so that once he starts to look at personal papers and private collections, he will better be able to place them in their historic context.
Planning for moving the historic items to the new building is a complex process.
“First, you have to know what you have,” Pote said. That means inventorying the materials, knowing the number of boxes in each collection, and making sure the contents of each box are safe to transport, among other tasks.
The archives staff themselves will take care of preparing those materials for the move, whereas other library books and items will be moved by a company hired for the task.
“The good thing is, being so new in the position and knowing not what’s in these collections, a move like this is forcing me to dive into the collection. It’s forcing me to open boxes and touch each box. … So it’s really going to allow me to dive in and get a good sense of what we have. … It will also allow me to do a good preservation assessement,” Pote said.
Among highlights of the library’s archives are the Mariner collection and the Frances Latimer collection, now being stored in off-site locations due to lack of space.
In the past, the library had to turn away other donations of archival materials due to space limitations.
The new building will have space for those materials and more to come in the future, keeping items key to local history here on the Shore.
Of Mariner, Pote said, “He was writing about the Shore constantly and he was preserving everything he found, diligently; so, as an archivist, for someone to have kept such extensive organization for his records makes my job really easy.”
Mariner left “file cabinets full of what I would call subject files,” which Pote said he and library director Cara Burton have discussed using as the basis for the Heritage Center subject files “because they’re so comprehensive, why reinvent the wheel.”
“Anybody doing research on the Shore would need to go through Mariner’s papers at some point,” Pote said.
Latimer’s collection includes oral history, sketches, photographs, and more.
Pote and another staff member recently made a trip to the offsite storage facility to search for an item in the collection to help answer someone’s question.
“We were able to open boxes and actually pull out family pictures and sketches … And that’s when you really get to know a family,” Pote said, adding, “That’s what’s great about being an archivist. You may know nothing about someone, but then you start to process their papers or their family’s papers and the next thing you know you are an expert and you are intimately involved with this person, which is really interesting, especially if the person is no longer around.”
Among Pote’s long-term goals is to make the materials under his care keyword searchable for researchers anywhere in the world.
One thing Pote has learned already in his brief time on the Shore is that “the Shore’s a small place. … Everybody knows everybody.”
In turn, “everybody seems to be invested in the history. Every meeting I go to, every function I go to, people are just so enthusiastic about the project, about my hire, which is flattering,” Pote said, adding, “To have community buy-in like that is really going to make my job easy.”
History, according to Pote, doesn’t belong to any one person.
“We’re doing this for the community. The point is for the community to really take ownership of their history.”