Old York Historical Society staff are packing up its archives for an imminent move to Kittery, to space roughly three times as large that will allow the historical society to have its entire archives in one place instead of scattered in various buildings.
The move has a touch of strange, as York residents and visitors interested in accessing the archives will now have to cross a town line into a different municipality. The move prompted historian James Kences to mount a protest over the winter, one not lost on historical society Director Joel Lefever.
Lefever said the move was necessary, after a futile search for property in York that would suffice to hold the collection and archives, in a price range Old York could afford. Still, he said, he understands the sentiment.
“We get it. As (town manager) Steve Burns said, the town owns Nubble lighthouse, and it’s our history. The town owns the Old Gaol, and it’s our history. And we also need to take better care of our historical collections,” said Lefever. “My dream is for that to happen – a plan to not only care for the collection but to help get it back to York.”
One part of the archive will remain in York. All historical society genealogical records, some 300 volumes in all, were moved to York Public Library. Director Michelle Sampson said while staff is still inputting the volumes into the library system, they are available for anyone who wants to do genealogical work. At some point, they will be searchable on the library’s database.
The archives are expected to move sometime in early May to the OYHS facility on Shapleigh Road — the former Kittery Family Practice building OYHS bought in 2014. The building already houses the OYHS collection on the second floor, while the ground floor will be given over to the archives.
Moving the archives is the first of a two-step process to vacate OYHS’s York Street building. Renovations have been ongoing since last fall at the Elizabeth Perkins House, with staff expected to move into a wing of the building by the end of May. The York Street building was sold last year, and the new owner has allowed OYHS to remain until then.
Lefever said OYHS ran out of space for its archives — including original material like diaries, letters, family documents and the like — at its York Street building. Over years, bits and pieces of the archives were stored at various museum houses. For instance, he said, there are “hundreds of documents” at the Perkins House including books, manuscripts and photos that have never been formally processed since OYHS took ownership of the property in 1953.
“We have early things from the Sewall family — objects books, papers — that haven’t been cross-referenced,” he said. “We have a book that Judge Sewall signed in the 1670s that was not related to the other Sewall things we had. We attribute that to not having the space to really know what we have and keep track of it.”
All of the archives will come under one roof at the Kittery facility, he said. There will be a reading room and two large storage rooms for rare material that will only be available to the public on request. There are two processing areas, which Lefever said OYHS has never had before. Here, volunteers will be able to process material not yet documented, for instance, the material at the Perkins House.
“We received a collection from the Moodys of York recently,” he said. “The homestead on Cider Hill Road was sold. We received boxes of manuscripts. They’re in our care but we haven’t processed them yet. Now we will be able to that.”
The hours when the archives are available will not change. Archivist Patricia FitzGerald works two days a week, Wednesday and Thursday, and the archives are open to the public 9 a.m. to noon Thursday and by appointment. During the move, there will be some disruption to that schedule.
Lefever said one of the most common queries from people using the archives is family genealogy. That’s why when considering this move, he approached Sampson at the library about taking those files so they can be available to the public whenever the library is open. Original family documents such as diaries, bibles, letters and photographs will remain in the archives.
“Maybe all that someone needs to look up is what’s in the public library. But if they want to dig deeper, they can come here,” he said.
Sampson said staff is still processing all the volumes the library has received. For now, she suggests anyone wanting to access the records to call the library in advance so a staff person will be there to help.
One person who will not be going to Kittery is Kences. While he spent much of last winter protesting the move of the archives, he admits he was unable to garner enough town support to stop it. But he said he felt it would be unfair to the York families who placed their materials with OYHS for him to travel to Kittery. He said it’s a shame, as most material he accessed for his talks at the library and his columns for the York Weekly come directly from OYHS archives.
“But if I am strict about this, perhaps the town and the institution (OYHS) will realize they’ve miscalculated,” he said. “I’m most hurt that it cuts off the opportunity for young people in the schools in this town to access that material.”
Lefever said he and the board are working with a limited budget to conserve York’s legacy. “I hope people can appreciate we’re doing our best to care for their heritage. The last thing I wanted to see was for things to stay where they were and deteriorate.”