Curator of the Washington Co. Free Library's Western Maryland room gets organized for renovated building

June 11, 2011|By KATE S. ALEXANDER |
  • Elizabeth Howe, a reference librarian archivist, unpacks a box of rare books Tuesday at Washington County Free Library temporary downtown location.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

As work continues to complete a new and expanded Washington County Free Library building, the curator and archivist of the library's Western Maryland Room are making the most of their time.

"By the way things are going, we will have much of the room's materials archived and catalogued by the time we move again," said John Frye, curator of the popular room.

"I'm very thankful for this time to organize the collection," said Elizabeth Howe, archivist for the room.

Relegated to the back corner of the old Susquehanna Bank building on West Washington Street, the room — or rooms, for the next few months anyway — brims with books and cabinets and archival boxes of "verticals," or unbound documents, that make up the collection. Volumes that could not fit in the small space are in storage.

Moving to the temporary location has given library staff members a chance to prepare the Western Maryland Collection for the move back to Potomac Street into the renovated library when it is completed in 2012.

David Hanlin, library development coordinator, said the physical size of the room will double in the new library.

The collection also will expand, the added space allowing staff to better organize the collection and put select items on display, Hanlin said.

Once it moves again, the room will be renamed the John Clinton Frye room, in honor of its curator, who has worked with the collection for 43 years.

While the library waits to move the collection again, Frye said it continues to grow even at the temporary location. A few weeks ago, a mass of local postcards was donated to the collection, he said.

At more than 10,000 bound volumes and 1,200 unbound verticals, the collection is exponentially larger than when Frye started at the library in 1968, he said.

In the '60s, the room was called the Maryland Room, he said.

As it grew, Frye said the library narrowed its focus to Western Maryland and neighboring counties in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Today, it is the premier collection of local history, especially history of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Washington County, with about one-third of it containing genealogical data.

But not just any historical item donated to the library is added to the collection, Frye said.

"There are criteria," he said.

A book or document must have been written about the area, printed in the area or written by an author who lives in the area, he said.

Materials donated to the collection also must be some form of a document, he said. Other historical items can be donated to the Washington County Historical Society, and art can be donated to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.

Treasuries of local history, such as the Western Maryland Collection, are popping up in small communities across the country as interest in the past grows, Frye said.

Although Frye does not know what is spurring that interest, he said he is aware that is on the rise through his work in the room.

Even as other communities begin to preserve their histories, Howe said people still remark on the quality and quantity of the collection in the Western Maryland Room.

Whether they are there to look through the collection's vast genealogical data, old newspapers, books by local authors or to research a doctoral dissertation, she said people frequently comment that the collection exceeded their expectations.

It is not surprising that researchers from all over the world use the collection, Howe said.

"You never know what might be used," Frye said. "When I started in the room in 1968, I never, ever, in my wildest dreams, could have imagined that someone in Japan or Australia would be able to use our collection."

Now that portions of the collection are online at the Western Maryland Regional Library's historical website,, it is accessible across the globe.

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