Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fourteenth Annual Capital Region Archives Dinner

The Fourteenth Annual Capital Region Archives Dinner wrapped up about half an hour ago. Almost seventy archivists, records managers, local government officials, and their significant others convened at the Franklin Terrace Ballroom in Troy, and we had a great time. I always enjoy catching up with friends who work at other repositories and getting the chance to relax and socialize with my co-workers.

The evening's main speaker, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Kennedy detailed how an assignment from his editor at the Albany Times-Union -- writing a series of feature articles on the history of Albany -- proved to be a defining moment in his creative life. He was a part-time journalist intent upon getting out of Albany and becoming a novelist, but his work on the series took him to the Albany Institute of History and Art, the Albany History Room of the Albany Public Library, and the New York State Library, and he came to realize that his hometown was an infinitely complex and fascinating subject.

Although Kennedy has made use of a wide array of archival sources, he emphasized the particular value of newspaper archives. He asserted that they provide a unique window into the events and preoccupations of the past and noted that even minor details (e.g., a fierce summer storm that took place in the late 1950s) have made their way into his work and affected the course of his narratives. Moreover, in some instances, they are the best available sources about the city's history; when investigating the death of bootlegging gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond, who met his untimely end in an Albany rooming house in 1931, he found it impossible to gain access to relevant federal and state law enforcement records.

In his wondrously titled 1983 history of the city, O Albany! Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies and Underrated Scoundrels, Kennedy described himself "as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs for the life of the soul." Tonight's talk made it plain that he uncovered many of those elements while sifting through the holdings of archives and libraries.

After Kennedy's speech, we honored two area archivists who have made substantial contributions to the community and the profession:
  • Sister Elaine Wheeler, who founded the Daughters of Charity Archives of the Northeast Province and served as a role model and inspiration for countless other archivists within the Daughters of Charity and other religious orders. Sister Elaine was in her mid-eighties when I first met her, and, like everyone else, I was deeply impressed by her boundless energy and her devotion to her order and its archives.
  • My former colleague Bob Arnold, who, among many other things, established the City of Albany and Albany County's joint archival program and headed the Government Records Services bureau at the New York State Archives. Bob's now teaching New York State history at an area college and is devoting a lot of time to lecturing and writing about archives and New York State history.

The evening ended with a surprise award to my colleague Andy Raymond, who during a 1995 breakfast meeting with Kathy Newkirk, the Bethlehem Town Clerk, and Kathy Sickler, then the Guilderland Town Clerk, first floated the idea of having a formal dinner for records professionals in the Albany area. Fourteen years later, Andy's idea is still going strong: the Archives Dinner Committee is already starting to talk about the fifteenth dinner! Kathy Newkirk, who has chaired or co-chaired the Archives Dinner since its inception, and Kathy Sickler presented him with a commemorative brass bell.

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