Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Putting history in its place

Archivist spent a year cataloging, organizing Lee collection for public viewing

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Tom Fedor⁄The Gazette
Historical Society of Frederick County archivist Elizabeth Conn spent a year preparing pieces in the William O. Lee Jr. collection for permanent preservation.
It took nearly a year to meticulously organize and catalog the 16 boxes of items in the William O. Lee Jr. Collection at the Frederick County Archives and Research Center on East Church Street, part of the Historical Society of Frederick County.

Once the center got the collection in late 2006, a college intern began sorting through more than 1,000 materials that Lee collected during his lifetime.

The bulk of 2007 was spent arranging the collection into series — including African-American history, athletics, schools and churches — ensuring each item had its place. The person responsible for that work was Elizabeth Conn, the society’s archivist.

Conn spent hundreds of hours ensuring that Lee’s prized possessions were preserved for presentation in a manner of which he would be proud. ‘‘I spent months and months on the collection and in doing it, I got to know and better understand why Mr. Lee thought the way he did, why he felt things were important and what was meaningful to him,” Conn said.

Conn, 31, earned her master’s degree in museum science at Texas Tech University and has used those skills at the Historical Society for the last two years. She prepared items in the Lee collection, for long-term preservation. All photos were entered into a computer by ‘‘preservation scanning.”

The Gazette recently sat with Conn to discuss her experiences with the collection, readying it for public view.

What were your thoughts as you worked to organize items in the Lee Collection?

Conn: It really opened my mind and viewpoint to a lot of the history of Frederick County that is not as explored. I think Mr. Lee was extremely diligent in collecting items he thought would be meaningful not just to him, but to [all] African-Americans in Frederick County, to offer a broader understanding of everyone in Frederick County society.

What about the collection stands out to you?

Conn: I think the most fascinating part is probably the first series [of items] regarding African-American history. During segregation, black residents took the lead to create their own societies, cultural organizations and it was interesting to see their world at that time. You think how awful [segregation was] but at the same time, you think about the fact that [blacks] did what they had to do to live and thrive and I was impressed by that. We have not seen a lot of that history until now.

What do you think the public has to gain by having the collection available for viewing?

Conn: I think, obviously, that you get a greater understanding of African-American history in Frederick County, but you also gain more of an understanding about William O. Lee Jr. and how he lived his life. You get to understand a man who was honestly interested in creating and preserving something for the public good. Obviously, Mr. Lee lived his life doing good ... but he also created this collection that conveys the same idea.

What piece did you find the most intriguing?

Conn: I think all of the photographs — over 600 of them — are my favorite parts of the collection, but the one that most intrigues me is a charcoal or chalk drawing of a gentleman. There is no information to go with it, no signature, nothing.

What is the collection’s value?

Conn: We never look at things monetarily, as the value to our organization is historical. The importance of the collection ... is in what it provides for research and a better understanding of local history. In that sense, it is priceless and unique, as there is nothing to really compare it to.