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New York Times: Jersey City's Library Is a Land of the Lost

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Posted by GE TNJ on November 19, 2004 at 18:41:01:

Jersey City's Library Is a Land of the Lost
Moves Are Made to Catalog a Rich Archive

New York Times
New Jersey Section
November 14, 2004


There's treasure in them there stacks: On a recent Saturday at the main branch of the Jersey City Public Library, volunteers discovered 17th-century books, rare and valuable maps, a forgotten file about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and a saddle of undetermined vintage and origin. Melissa Holloway, below, a former city councilwoman, coordinated the work by about 50 people.

HOW bad are things at the main branch of the Jersey City Public Library?

Well, for starters, there was the rare and valuable map of the city, dating from 1841, that was found rolled up in a crumbling, browning mess, crushed under a stack of books and junk on a table. Then there were the dozens of uncatalogued blue-prints of the now-demolished Roosevelt Stadium, where the first black man in Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson, once played: the plans had been consigned to oblivion in a dark corner of the stacks. In the attic, hundreds of books and archives, files and bound copies of 19th-century newspapers lay under a blanket of dust and soot. Finally, there was a thick police report and photographs from the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, found in a file cabinet marked "Empty."

"Look at this mess," said Melissa Holloway, waving her hand toward the helter and the skelter here on Jersey Avenue.

"It's the ultimate disgrace."

Ms. Holloway, a 43-year-old former city councilwoman, has taken up the cause of righting what she sees as the sorry state of one of the state's largest archives. It all began last summer. Ms. Holloway, who is black, was researching information on her family, who were slave-owners from South Carolina. As she sought information that could not be found, and talked more and more with the head of the library's New Jersey Room, the more she became convinced that something needed to be done.

So on a recent Saturday, about 50 volunteers from near and far came to help rediscover Jersey City's lost history. While workers sifted through the books and catalogued maps, students from St. Peter's College put on dust masks and scuttled around a filthy and cramped attic, under beams and fans and heating pipes, recovering 1800's-era bound volumes of The New York Herald, World and Sun. They found hundreds of state books and student records dating from the mid-1800's up to 1940. A horse saddle of unknown vintage sat on a heating pipe.

"They have stuff here stored by the duct system," quipped Michele Dupey, the library's public information officer.

One of the oldest items found was a book from 1641 with the somewhat unwieldy title "The Second Volume of the Ecclesiasticall History Containing the Acts and Monuments of Martyrs Within the Perfections Stirred up by Roman Prelates in the Church." That book's antiquity was outdone last week when a librarian found a Dutch Bible from 1632.

Some volunteers traveled far. "In August, my sister and I came on our yearly genealogical hunt," said Jackie Wisner, an internist from Maryland who grew up in Jersey City. "We ventured up to the Jersey Room and I was just horrified."

She said she later wrote to the head of the Jersey Room, Cynthia Harris, who has since led efforts to clean up the collection.

One of those who see need for improvement is Robert W. Craig, the principal historic preservation spec.ialist at the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office, who said that in the course of writing a paper a few years ago he had asked the library whether it had a copy of a rare map by L. F. Douglass. Library workers said they did not. Only two others are known to exist, one in Newark and the other in Washington, at the Library of Congress. "This map was certainly one of the best maps of Jersey City and Hoboken published up to that time," Mr.
Craig said in a recent interview, "and it ushered in an entire generation of maps that I call the large-scale local maps."

When the map was found a few weeks ago, during the cleanup, he was stunned. "There were several other maps of that character," he said. "The library has a wealth of important maps of Jersey City and Hoboken and the rest of the county that need to be carefully inventoried and catalogued, and a start was made on that and there's much more that needs to be done. And if the money can be found, I would urge the library to get the services of a map curator."

There are those, however, who are not particularly thrilled by Ms. Holloway's crusade. Some in the city have privately grumbled that the cousin of the late mayor, Glenn D. Cunningham, and supporter of Louis M. Manzo, a mayoral candidate, had organized the effort to score political points.

But Ms. Holloway insists that it;s the ephemera that she cares about: "They are priceless items, and they should be cared for properly. There is not enough love for these objects in this library."

Mofalc O. Meinga, president of the library's board of trustees, put it this way: "The main concern of everyone is that it's not done for political reasons. I've talked to her and mentioned it to her, and she said there isn't." And he Said he was glad someone had taken the initiative. "She did bring light to an area we weren't aware of," he said, but later added of the system's $7 million annual price tag: "People have to realize we're an asset in knowledge but a liability as an expense."

Simply put, millions of dollars would need to be spent to properly keep an conserve much of the collection, and it is money that the eternally cash-strapped city would have a tough time allocating.

Even so, as she stood amid a jumbled stack of newspapers and crumbling books, Ms. Holloway said that it would be easy to raise money and interest donors to give to the library, if only the word was put out.

That remains to be seen. Valley National Bank donated $2,500 toward conservation efforts, and roughly $16,000 has been donated to another fund for capital improvements to the library - a modest amount.

"If I could I have some rich people donate and say, 'Priscilla, here's a million,' I'd be happy," said Priscilla Gardner, the library's director. She said that some $14 million would be needed to make the library right.

In an e-mail message to staffers last weeek she warned of job cuts to narrow a $175,000 budget deficit. "Remember, in the final analysis, unless we can balance the budget," she wrote, "layoffs are still a possibility."

There is still much work to be done, acknowledge many, including Ms. Holloway.

"Don't get me started on the rare book collection," she said. "They're sitting in the basement. On the floor. With the window 0pen!"

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