by Robert L. Killion
To preserve, share and celebrate the stories of the Peoria area. That is the mission of the Peoria Historical Society. To that end PHS has been collecting for 80 years and inherited items from groups that had been collecting for 95 years before that. PHS has the two historic houses, Pettengill-Morron House and the Judge John C. Flanagan house, as well as over 1000 linear feet of research material on deposit at Bradley University Special Collections. Items are also on display at the Peoria Riverfront Museum and the Wheels O’ Time museum and are provided for special exhibits from time to time. These resources are open to the public and help PHS to meet our mission. Our Trolley tours, lecture series, and special events all help in this endeavor. However, like most museums the vast majority of our material is in storage and our records have, until 2008, primarily been paper copies. As staff and volunteers who have done the processing and storage of the collection have changed over the years institutional knowledge of what we have is contained in these paper files. Our research material it is organized by subject headings so we have had a process of locating material to share and for researchers to locate what they needed. However, no way existed to locate items short of going through the material under that subject heading. It was even more of a problem for objects in storage as they are stored in boxes and their files are arranged by Accession numbers. This means that there was no easy way to locate something unless you had an idea when it was donated or had handled the item. There was no way of looking for something by subject or keyword. This all changed when PHS acquired the PastPerfect software package. We now process new items directly into the database and print a hard copy. We also have been busily entering the old records into the system so that they can be located by keyword searches. Even more important, though the database is a work in progress, it is accessible to the public online. http://www.peoriahistoricalsociety.org/!/collections . This has led to some exciting discoveries. Items newly entered into the database are found by Genealogist researching their family, students researching a project, historians, writers, collectors, companies, etc. Not only is information found but images of people, places, events are as well. PHS then receives an excited email asking for copies of photographs or information that no one knew even existed. PHS and Special Collection staff then go looking for specific items rather than just having to look through several vertical files to see if we have something related to the research request. Information is shared. Often images are digitized and printed for use in publications, decorations on walls of businesses, and as gifts. We then utilize the image and information to update the record. Locations and condition reports are also updated. The cycle repeats. More records are entered and made accessible, the records are updated as they are requested. Items will also be updated as inventories are done in the future after all records are entered.
PHS holds some fantastic items many of which are on display at the houses or at our office. So much great material though has been carefully stored away with the knowledge of their existence locked away in paper records. They have waited to be “rediscovered” for years. One such object came to light recently while we were looking for items for a Veterans Day display at the Peoria Riverfront Museum. While looking through the flags for some WWII service flags I knew existed from unpacking them from old storage boxes and putting them on shelving I came across a flag that had been packed carefully away in 1968. As the object ID number was 1968.69.1 (Donated in 1968, 69th accession for the year, first item in the accession) I knew we were up to entering 1969 Accessions into the database so I was able to quickly look up the item. It had this description: Election flag of 1844: Clay & Frelinghuysen. Printed design, blue field; contains 26 stars circling figure of Henry Clay. Along with measurements, a condition report, and the donor Edward E. Keas. This must have been all they knew about the flag in 1968. With a world of resources at our fingertips researching many things is much easier now. I quickly established it was a political flag from the Whig party presidential platform in 1844 and that it is an extremely rare piece. This was the great statesman (Lawyer, Senator, Representative, Secretary of State) Henry Clay’s 3rd and last run at the Presidency. His running mate Theodore Frelinghuysen also had a long and diverse career, attorney, US Senator, Mayor of Newark, Chancellor of New York University and President of Rutgers College. It was a historic election. The Democrats had failed to nominate their incumbent President, John Tyler, nor former president Martin Van Buren as expected, and instead chose James Polk as their candidate. In addition Joseph Smith the founder of the Mormon Church was the third candidate. The primary contention between the parties was the annexation of the Republic of Texas and the addition of the Oregon territory as a state. Polk ran on a strong westward expansion theme while Clay came out against expansion and instead ran on the establishment of a national currency and protection of American industry and agriculture through tariffs. The political cartoons were vicious and in the end the popular vote was very close, with Polk winning by only 38,181, but he gathered 170 electoral votes to Clay's 105.
So here we had a great item that had been carefully stored and properly documented at the time of its donation that was unknown to anyone currently involved at PHS. It was impossible to find in the paper records except if you already had its object ID number. Now it is findable in the database and online through a keyword search and has a picture. It now can be located for display or for research purposes quickly and easily. How many more great items will come to light as the old records are entered? We have no idea but we do know that as items are put in the database they are much more accessible to the public and that we get almost immediate reactions after every upload of new data. We also know that as we put items into the database not only the material more accessible but more historically valuable because we are finding we have items donated at different times that relate to each other making our body of knowledge much more meaningful. What are YOU interested in? Go the collection and research your family, your hobbies, history that interests you is in our collection and is becoming more and more accessible every day. If you do not find anything it does not mean PHS does not have related material just that it is not been entered into the database yet. Check back often or contact me and we can see what we can locate the old fashioned way that is not in the database yet. http://www.peoriahistoricalsociety.org/!/collections