Saving history piece by piece

Published 9:29 pm Saturday, March 17, 2018

There are many fascinating ways to look at the history of Hampton Roads, and many of those are maintained by people like Jessica Ritchie.

Ritchie is the head of special collections and university archives at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. She spoke to nearly a dozen Suffolk citizens and members of the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society on Wednesday at the Phillips-Dawson House on Bank Street.

Ritchie spoke about her work as an archivist as part of the free Afternoon Conversations Speaker Series in conjunction with Suffolk Public Library. She oversaw 114,000 volumes as head librarian for three years at Norfolk’s Chrysler Museum of Art before coming to ODU in 2015.

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“I have a very soft spot in my heart for historical tomes,” she said.

The college’s Special Collections and University Archives preserve collections and records of historical importance. These include diaries, letters, photographs and other media that date back several centuries.

Patrons interested in Virginia, military and African-American history can access the library’s digital collections or visit the Special Collections Reading Room for first-hand looks at valuable materials.

“Our job is to acquire things, preserve things and make sure people can access these things,” Ritchie said. “These repositories ensure that these records will be available for family members and researchers for generations to come.”

She also explained the finer points of keeping historical documents in good condition. When keeping precious collections out of damp spaces where mildew is a concern, the ideal temperature is between 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Acid-free file folders are crucial when trying to keep old photographs valuable.

She also stressed handling every piece of history carefully.

“You don’t want to spill anything on Thomas Jefferson’s birth certificate,” she joked.

The University Archives at ODU is always looking for new additions to its collections, particularly stories from history’s marginalized groups, Ritchie said. The audience was encouraged to donate anything potentially interesting to local churches, universities, libraries or historical societies to make them available to researchers and locals alike.

Lisa Cross said she has old letters, pictures and even an old flute that belonged to her mother-in-law’s family.

“Her great-aunt’s family took it on the Oregon Trail and played it around the campfire,” Cross said.

Zuni resident Kevin Farrar described bags of newspapers he got when he was a teenager. They date to back to the beginnings of World War II.

“I’ve got more old papers than I do tools,” Farrar said.

He said he found the Ritchie’s tips enlightening and plans to go home to clean up the papers and donate them to a local collection.

“I knew I wasn’t doing it right, and she gave me some good ideas,” he said. “It’s a shame to have this old stuff and just let it go away.”

The next Afternoon Conversation will be April 11 and will cover the Battle of Great Bridge with speakers from the Waterways History Foundation. Call 539-2781 for more information.