Altoona Area Public Library intern Joshua McConnell held up a 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet during a March 27 board of trustees meeting, describing how the wedge-shaped pictographs represent one of the earliest known writing systems that even predates hieroglyphs.
He found it, he said, while archiving items in a storage room. Much of what he uncovered had been piled in boxes or hidden away in filing cabinets. Some of it hadn’t been touched in 20 to 30 years, he said.
Along a wall, McConnell displayed some of his finds, including old photographs of Cricket Field, historical documents about Horseshoe Curve and Ivyside Park and a 5-peso bill from the World War II-era Philippines.
The bill was particularly fascinating for some board members; “The Japanese Government” is printed across the top in English, with Japanese characters visible underneath the words “five pesos.”
McConnell explained the Philippines was, at that time, an American territory that had been invaded by Japan and whose government began issuing fiat currency.
He said finding items like this and being able to read about some of the donors makes it feel like he’s rediscovered his hometown all over again.
More than busy work
Executive Director Jennifer Knisely said in the nearly 20 years she’s been with the library, McConnell is the first intern who has dealt with its historical documents.
It’s been wonderful seeing all the history McConnell was able to uncover, she said, since much of it probably had been stored away when the library’s location changed – from the Roosevelt Junior High School, to the Pennsylvania Mechanics Library and then to its current location.
“They were busy unpacking the library” and maybe forgot about other items, she said.
Before McConnell began his internship in January, he said, he was unsure how was going to spend the 240 hours required by his public history master’s degree program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He said he feared at first that he might end up doing busy work.
But within the first few hours, he found a Crocker’s Dictionary of Arts and Sciences from 1764 stored inside a metal box, the key to which he also just happened to stumble upon.
Library board President Barbara Kooman said the Crocker’s dictionary was one of the most impressive finds.
The dictionary is special, she said. Now when it comes time to create an encyclopedia, it’s easy to organize and “it’s the a’s and [then] the b’s” but before Google existed, a group of people would have had to work to obtain entries from contemporary experts in medicine, the arts or science.
“They would compile all of the knowledge of the day in that Crocker’s book,” she said.
She and Knisely went through it, Kooman said, and they were amazed to see old maps of the United States with parts left blank.
“It stopped a third of the way through the country,” she said, and the rest was labeled “unknown.”
“We know so much about the world today. It’s amazing,” she said, “the books that were filled with incomplete information.”
McConnell said as he continues his work, he views the items as threads of history that he gets to keep pulling at to find out more.
There is a personal connection, he said, to the people who loved the items so much they wanted them to be preserved forever in a library in the hope that someday maybe someone like him would find a use for them.
He said it was lucky that people who looked after the items knew enough to not throw anything away, but he added he sometimes laughs to himself when he comes across an item labeled with a donor’s name it and a note to a director or library administrator saying, “What will we do with this?”
“And I’ll think to myself, ‘nothing!'” he said.
From old newspapers to a stereoscope – which shows its viewer a left- and right-eye image as a three-dimensional one – McConnell said he’s learned so many things about the library and Altoona that he didn’t expect.
He has one more filing cabinet to go through before he can begin the next step of fully cataloging everything and creating aids to find them, but said he still finds something interesting almost daily.
The latest discovery was a ladies magazine from 1870, whose editor was Sarah Josepha Hale, author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Knisely said now that McConnell has gone through most of the items, the next step is to create a display area so the public has a chance to see what he’s found.
“It would be a shame to keep them hidden away in a filing cabinet,” she said.
Knisely said McConnell is working on a proposal for a rotating display system so everything is accessible but secured.
People often think of a library as bringing information and technology to its community, she said, but another important role is to serve as a “steward of the past.” No other institution can keep and protect public history, she said.
Kooman said she’s hoping a whole new group of people now will be attracted to the library, and the trustees owe a great deal to McConnell “combining his love of history with the needs of the library” and being motivated enough to dig into the boxes and through the brown wrappings.
McConnell said there’s some personal satisfaction to the work as well. He’s happy he’s doing a good job, he said, and is looking forward to the second half of his internship.
“I’m really doing something important,” he said.
Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.