Research in a Historic Library

Research in a historic library

Fifty years ago I was starting my summer vacation, already looking forward to my junior year in high school. Certainly, I was completely unaware how the start of school would impact the rest of my life. On the first day of the 1969-1970 school calendar, I met a man who would eventually be the love of my life. But when did school start that year? It sounds like an easy question to answer. It is not. I scanned my own memory and asked my 90-year-old mother, whose memory is incredible. We both believed school had started early, before Labor Day, sometime during my high school years, but we couldn’t be sure when. Then I remembered my genealogical research in a historic library. Perhaps it might hold the key to answer my question.

Posing the Question multiple ways

Next, I posted on a group page on Facebook looking for the answer.

“Call the high school and ask for the principal. They’ll know.”
“Ask the school board. They keep that information.”
“My birthday is August 27th and I remember we started school early before Labor Day and it ruined my birthday.”

I pursued talking to the school board, contacting Community Relations first. They were very helpful, but didn’t keep that type of information. They thought the high school might help me. Once again, each person I spoke with was very willing to help, but they just didn’t have the information.

One Closed Door Opens Another

It occurred to me that the Polk County History Center in Bartow, the county seat, might help, providing an opportunity to pursue research in a historic library.  I called and was switched to the Historical and Genealogical Library on the second floor.

“This is your lucky day!” Dorinda Morrison-Garrard, Senior Library Assistant, responded to my question. “We have minutes from school board meetings that someone painstakingly digitized for us. Let me transfer you to Preston in that section.”

Hearing those words, it seemed the clouds parted and a stream of light shone on me alone. That’s a little over-dramatic, but I did feel excited about the prospect of Preston calling me back with the actual date. I explained I was headed a little farther south to visit a friend in hospice, and I would swing by afterward, the last hour they were open. Preston explained he wasn’t sure exactly which years were in the collection. He would research and call me if he found the answer I was seeking.

The Lure of Historic Libraries

He didn’t call back, but I had promised to stop by. Since I love libraries, especially research in a historic library, I plugged in the address on my iPhone Google Maps app and set off for Bartow.

There’s something about old Southern Government Courthouse buildings that call me to them. The original county courthouse in Bartow where the History Center is located is one of them. Sitting in the car, parked right by the building, I look up the steps to the columns surrounding the tall wooden double doors. There is a skip in my step as I head to the side entrance. The receptionist is away from her station, but I remember Dorinda reminded me they are on the second floor. I see a map of the building layout and pick one up, just in case. I was really looking for the bathrooms, but anticipation sends me upstairs.

As I step out of the elevator, the Historical and Genealogical Library is just to my left. It’s familiar to me from looking up property maps with my grandparents’ names showing not only the property where I grew up, but the original property where my father spent his earliest years, less than a mile from my current home.

The Excitement of the Hunt is Contagious

Dorinda meets me at the entrance, knowing I’m the person who called. She is as excited as I am.

“We have the Lakeland Ledger right here on the microfilm reader. I think this will help your research.”

Ah, microfilm! I spent many hours at these machines before the Internet exploded, offering up multiple ways to explore historical fact-finding missions on my 5 year hunt for my ancestors back in the 1980’s. Dorinda gives me some pointers on using the reader, but the article I seek is on the screen, “School Opening Pretty Normal”. I had forgotten about the desegregation countywide in 1969. Haines City schools were on the pilot program, which started a few years earlier. The newspaper date was Wednesday, September 3, 1969 and the article referred to opening day on Tuesday. Mystery solved. My husband and I can celebrate meeting fifty years ago this coming September 2nd. And I have a verified date for my memoir. You know I couldn’t stop there. That was too easy. And I’m in a History and Genealogical Library!

The Final Step in My Research

At least three people believe we started school before Labor Day. Therefore, I thank Dorinda and then ask if she could retrieve microfilm from the last week of August in 1970. She’s delighted to help me and quickly brings back the requested spool. Dorinda demonstrates how to thread the microfilm reader and I’m off. I quickly scan the article titles, trying hard to not be distracted by all the interesting information; Erma Bombeck’s daily column, articles that have my hometown of Dundee in the title, familiar names that pop out on the page. The spool is quickly filling on the take-up reel. Then I see it. There is an advertisement for buying school supplies early, with the words, “School starts on August 31st”. It isn’t a solid piece of reporting, but worth investigating.

Quickly, I Google ‘calendar august 1970’ and there it is. Labor Day falls on September 7th, with a full week of school running from Monday, August 31st through Friday, September 4th. Verified. My greatest desire at that moment is to continue looking at microfilm or wander through the stacks. I ask where the bathroom is instead. That’s how exciting it is for me to perform research. It is more important than physical need. It gives me joy.

Pulling out my iPhone calendar as I walk to the bathroom door, I scan, looking for an empty day in the coming weeks, when I can return to more research in a historic library.

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