The Wentzville Community Historical Society is based in the small, but growing, town of Wentzville, Missouri, located on the outskirts of St. Louis. The Society was founded around 1975 when a group of town citizens began to plan for a celebration of the United States’ Bicentennial. As they focused on highlighting their history for this national event, they also concluded that they should be preserving their towns history in general. Their mission became “To collect and preserve information pertaining to historical events of Wentzville and surrounding areas; to assume responsibility for proper recognition and preservation of various historical landmarks, relics, souvenirs, and Missouriana, to do suitable honor to those hardy pioneers of this area who laid the foundation of our present happiness by arranging celebrations and meetings in their memory; to engender rightful pride in our rich history; and to establish and maintain a museum, library, and archives.” In the first few years, the founding members were quite active and enthusiastic. They participated in research, wrote articles for the local newspaper and even made the great achievement of helping put the town’s old garment factory on the historical buildings list. However, as time passed, these members became less active with the society, which in effect, began to struggle. And yet! The society persevered and continued to build their collections!
With an undying passion for the town’s history, the society gained holding space across multiple buildings and obtained a caboose train to create a small museum. Their holdings are stored in the town’s senior center’s basement, a storage building, a local organization that offered 3 lateral file cabinets and the caboose museum. As their materials are scattered and their only space is a room at the senior center, it is hard to provide users with access to the archives. However, they do host some events and fundraisers to increase awareness of their historical materials. For example, their caboose museum displays various photos and items and are changed out every so often. The Society holds four general membership meetings each year and brings in guest speakers. At the town’s festival, Wentzville Days, the Society hosts a beer booth and keeps their museum open for any passing interested locals. They use this event as their main fundraiser and to attract potential users and lovers of the town. In addition, they have also participated in events like the town’s Fall Festival and have been known to hold quilt shows to display some of their archival textiles and sell baked goodies. Lois Kessler, President of the Wentzville Community Historical Society since March, will help see their first Cemetery Tour, highlighting various significant or interesting members of the town, take place on the 27th of October and hopes to implement Trivia nights. The Society continues to increase their fundraising ventures and have reached out to local business and organizations to sponsor various activities.
Despite the Society having less than optimal space, there are more than 100 members! As many of these members are elderly and the Society is a purely volunteer organization, there are only a core group of approximately ten to twenty regular volunteers available to work on various projects. However, because it is volunteer work, the amount of people depends on the individual project and it sometimes takes the right people with the right skills to work in an archive.
Between limited space, manpower and a wall between patrons and the collections, the Society does not see themselves as having a specific user base. They have recently contracted for the creation of a website, something now seen as vital for the presence of an archive; and their main hope is to link their PastPerfect database with the website to offer easy and general access to what this small group has to offer. Ms. Kessler believes that these new technological assets will offer the chance for genealogical and personal research to flourish, as well as offer the opportunity to local middle and high school students to interact with primary sources. Furthermore, because Wentzville is considered the fastest growing community in Missouri, the Society hopes to build relationships with new residents and foster an interest in their new home town. They have started an online social media presence with their Facebook page (followed by a little over 2,700 people!), but Ms. Kessler feels that it could be beneficial to also develop a Twitter and Instagram feed to appeal to the younger generations. Lastly, after some fallout between members and the Society in previous years, Ms. Kessler is working to bring back any alienated members and improve relations between the Society and it’s faithful following.
As Ms. Kessler only began her Presidency in March 2018 and the archives is a bit disorganized, she is still learning about the holdings of the Wentzville Community Historical Society. However, she listed an overview of some of the physical materials that the Society maintains. For objects, the Society possess uniforms and clothing, furniture, farm implements, bedding, an old sewing machine (as the town housed a garment factory for about forty years), and tobacco stencils. The tobacco stencils illustrate the town’s pre-Civil War tobacco driven economy for men of the Wentzville area started the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company. Moreover, the Society possesses books and ledgers from old stores, old newspapers, newspaper clippings, photographs, old year books, and possibly some old maps.
Likewise, on the digital spectrum, the Wentzville Community Historical Society’s digital holdings are small and under-preserved, as many small institutions find themselves. But the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem, and Ms. Kessler was very truthful in saying that their digital holdings were “not managed very well.” Currently, the Society has between 1000 and 2000 digital images. Many of these images contain evidence of the Wentzville Community Club’s homecoming festival, which included a Queen Contest, kids parade, baby contest and a parade. The Society also has other scanned photographs of early businessmen and photographs of a cyclone that hit a nearby town of Gilmore (that has since been incorporated into the Wentzville community) in 1915. Because many of the original photographs were purchased at auctions, there is very little identification. They are stored on two laptops and a jump drive, but some of the images are only stored on one of the laptops.
Again, a limited volunteer staff, poor facilities, and a limited budget (the Society’s budget is purely from donations and fundraisers) prevents the Society from creating access and preservation care for these digital objects. According to the National Digital Stewardship Alliance’s (NDSA) Levels of Digital Preservation, there are some small steps that the Society could take to improve the longevity of their digital assets and prevent an accidental, but catastrophic, disaster. The most concerning is that the materials do not seem to have duplicates and are only stored in one location. Because of the volunteer status of the Society, fixity checks were probably never a thought, but to be fair, a lot of institutions don’t always think of fixity checks. It is unclear at the time who has access to these images, but since the images are not particularly open to users at this point, access is most likely restricted to Ms. Kessler and volunteers she deems qualified to have authority over the images. The Society’s use of Past Perfect offers some homage to providing metadata for the images, but how complete this metadata is remains unclear. A good first step here would be to create and maintain an inventory. Currently, the Society has an inventory of about 900 photos; however, Ms. Kessler has scanned another 1500 photos without creating an inventory and there are more photographs scattered throughout the collections. Lastly, as the images are scans, there is probably a limited amount of file formats, which would be great! Overall, the Wentzville Community Historical Society has a lot of digital preservation issues to address, but luckily seem to have a determined and open president and volunteer group to get this work done.
Looking to the Future
Currently, the Society’s digital holdings contain images from their community. Photos that are only stored on a single laptop were from members who allowed the Society to scan their photographs, but not retain the originals as they recognized that the archives needed some more organization. In the future, the Society would like to scan all the photographs they have and load them into their PastPerfect system. They would also like to take images of their objects and upload them into the database as well. By adding these physical photographs to their online database (which will be linked to their new website), they will have the opportunity to offer their members access, and limited access to the general public, to their holdings despite the lack of a physical space. They also hope to pair with the local library to increase awareness of their holdings. Also, with talk of a new multi-generational building for the town, the Society hopes to alleviate their space issue by obtaining a spot there or a better location in the senior center.
Furthermore, the Society would like to extend their digital collections to include videos of older residents in their communities to preserve their memories. This addition of oral histories would provide an even deeper level of history that one cannot always find in physical objects. At this time though, they do not have the funds or volunteers dedicated to such a project. However, Ms. Kessler believes that with a solid work plan and specific benchmarks, there could be a core volunteer group ready to donate more hours to the Society. Besides manpower, the Society would also like to apply for a grant but are unsure of what they should be asking for other than a good scanner. Similar to finding people, a solid agenda and workflow plan could benefit the Society’s future digital goals and the community overall.