Bixby library catalogs a wealth of historic artifacts
VERGENNES — On the west side of the Bixby Library’s second floor, one room overflows with donated items that range from thousands of mostly Abenaki projectile points to two bass drums that once served as the backbeat of the Vergennes High School band.
In or on display cases rest military medals and muskets, documents, Confederate currency, models of Revolutionary War and War of 1812 gunboats, two stuffed birds of prey, and an entire — and highly valuable — collection of Western Native American artifacts, including beaded vests and moccasins, pottery, baskets and a feathered headdress.
The Bixby’s collection has grown steadily over the years as local farmers found cannon balls and arrowheads on their land and took them to the city’s Main Street institution, or collectors like Bill Huber, former owner of the large Native American collection, bequeathed items to the library.
And over the years, stone tools and objects sat in boxes as others were put in cases. Meanwhile Bixby boards and officials have understandably wondered how to deal with the items and lost track of just what they have as they tried to fulfill their mission of running a library.
Bixby Executive Director Jane Spencer was asked last week if the Bixby should maintain possession of all the material, or find better homes for some of the items.
“That’s a good question. It’s not one I can answer. It’s one the board has to answer. But I think there are some decisions that have to be made,” Spencer said. “When you look at our mission statement, and some of the collections we have, should we be keeping them? And if so, how can we safeguard them? How can we make them accessible? What’s the most responsible way to care for these artifacts? Are we the ones who should be doing it?”
But really, the question is premature: First, the Bixby has to learn just what it has in order to make informed decisions about its collections. This past November, the library began an effort to do just that.
“The board is looking for us to provide the information they need to be most responsible on how to care for the collection, and that could mean a variety of things,” Spencer said.
Since November, five two-person teams of volunteers have been spending roughly two hours a week apiece cataloguing the collection, starting with box after box of Native American stone artifacts.
Items have been sorted, tagged, measured, weighed and photographed, and then entered into a database created with the help of the library’s technology committee.
The project has been done under the expert guidance of Aaron Robertson, a former professional archaeologist who is now an Edward Jones financial adviser, and Eileen Corcoran, a one-time Smithsonian employee also known in the city area as the former Vergennes Opera House director.
Robertson said he and Spencer talked informally earlier last year about inventorying the Bixby collections.
“She asked me what it would take to do that,” Robertson said. “And I said having a volunteer army is what you need, but you can’t just let those people loose on all those artifacts because they could probably do more harm than good.”
Thus the project started with a series of workshops led by Robertson, who was aided by former National Geographic archaeology editor Jeanne Peters, and Corcoran to educate the volunteers on how to identify and sort the stone tools and then record the information.
Robertson said their task was made easier by one fact: “A lot of times when you are training people they have to distinguish what is an artifact and what isn’t. They don’t have to bother with that. Everything in the room is an actual artifact.”
Robertson said the volunteers — Carol Mapel, Eleanor Lanning, Alice Maurer, Al Oliver, Doug Dows, Miriam Hill, Jean Simmons and Jackie Arel round out the team — are sorting the stone artifacts into three basic categories: “unifacial,” such as stone scrapers typically used to remove meat from animal hides that were made into clothing; “bifacial,” such as projectile points, the tips of arrows, darts or spears; and “debris,” which he called the “excess of making tools.”
Once that process is accomplished — Spencer said it could take another year — and the searchable database is established, Robertson said the result could be valuable for researchers and educators. He said “the hardest part” will be done — cataloguing the “tens of thousands” of artifacts.
“Its potential for education is overwhelming,” he said. “And the first step for unlocking its potential for education is identifying what is there. Now, there is some very good scientific stuff there, but because of the fact we have very little provenance information kind of limits that, but the teaching potential is overwhelming.”
Other options for the Bixby as well as using the artifacts to create an education center are displaying them, which would mean better and possibly more expensive preservation, especially for documents, and what is known in the museum and library fields as “de-accessioning,” or giving away or selling what has been donated.
De-accessioning some of the Huber collection, which could have financial as well as cultural value, could be complicated because the Native American peoples from whom it hails could have a claim on some or all of it as well, Spencer said.
“Most of the ones where I think we would run into that challenge are from the Southwest, the Midwest, the Northwest,” she said. “We need to look and figure what this collection is and the best way to display it and make it available to people who are interested in studying it. And that’s all part of what this inventory process is working toward.”
The Bixby must also, Spencer said, balance its primary mission as a library as well as the potential costs and benefits of different approaches to some or all of its museum-like artifacts.
There is even the question, she said, of how best to use the Bixby’s 7,000-square-foot building.
“What is the best way to be using this space to serve the community? And a good deal of it is being used by documents and artifacts. Is there a better way to display them? Is there a better way to preserve them?” Spencer said. “We also have to think about the best way to be using our space. And so it all works together.”
Of one thing, Spencer is sure.
“It is amazing what some of these volunteers have done,” she said. “They come and they weigh and they measure and they record. They are absolutely so detail-oriented.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]
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