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Historical collection to be moved to Pawtucket Library

June 18, 2012

PAWTUCKET — It won't be quite the way she wanted it, but plans are underway to move Betty Johnson's vast Pawtucket history collection out of the basement of her Fruit Street house and into a safer and more secure location at the Pawtucket Public Library.
Johnson, who died in 2010, had spent decades amassing a treasure trove of old photographs, maps, signs, records and other documents that chronicle the history of her native city. An ardent history buff, she turned the house she had lived in for most of her life, the 1828 Spaulding House at 30 Fruit St., and all of its contents over to the city along with the research collection in order to create the Elizabeth J. Johnson Pawtucket History Research Center.
While it had been her dream to keep the history collection stored at the Spaulding House and to have the research center operate from there, the funds that she had bequeathed did not allow for this to be done properly. As such, the board of trustees for the Pawtucket Research History Center have asked the city for permission to lease a portion of the Pawtucket Public Library building to house the collection.
On Wednesday night, the City Council will be asked to approve a five-year lease at a rate of $900 a year between the city and the Pawtucket History Research Center for 1,236 square feet of space in the basement of the Sayles Library building at 13 Summer St.
Pawtucket Library Director Susan Reed has written a letter to the council indicating the library's backing of the plan. She wrote that the library has been providing research assistance and support to the Center since 2007, and thinks that moving the collection to the library will make it easier for the library staff to provide assistance to researchers. She added that the collection will be in a safer location at the library.
Dennis Stark, the president of the Pawtucket History Research Center, said the board had been trying to find ways to adhere to Johnson's wishes despite limited finances. He said that $24,000 in grant money has been obtained that will pay for the move of the materials as well as painting and refurbishment of the basement space. If the council approves the lease, which is recommended by the City Council's Properties Committee, the work will begin this summer to relocate the research collection.
Stark noted that the library has been providing two part-time research assistants to work on the collection. However, he said it was often impractical for the employees to have to travel back and forth between the Fruit Street house and the library whenever someone had a request for information or material. The collection will now be much more accessible to members of the public.
Additionally, Stark said that since the basement of the Spaulding House on Fruit Street can sometimes get damp, the collection will be better preserved at the library, which also has modern fire alarm and burglar alarm systems. “I believe this is very good for her dream as well as the members of the community,” Stark stated.
As an upcoming project, Stark said the board is trying to raise money to hire someone to re-catalog all of the items in the research collection so they can be accessed through the Internet. He noted that Johnson hadn't liked the standard Dewey Decimal system used by libraries and had invented her own catalog system to keep track of the items in her collection. Yet, someone unfamiliar with the collection would have difficulty locating an item. When the collection is re-cataloged according to a standard basis, it will be put on the Internet and will then be available to a national and international audience, he said.
As to Johnson's house, Stark said that the Preservation Society of Pawtucket has agreed to assume ownership of the Fruit Street cottage and its contents, which include period furnishings and decorative arts, and will maintain it as a historical location as she had envisioned. It will be open at least five times a year to the public, which is the minimum requirement for a non-profit organization, and available at other times upon request, he said.
Stark said that another project in the works is the publication of a book of the many Pawtucket Times columns on the city's history that Johnson co-wrote for 11 years with fellow historian, preservationist and city native James L. Wheaton. Noting the popularity of the columns, titled “Our Times and Before” with local readers, Stark said, “We think this would make a great coffee table book.”


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