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Keeper of Memories

Rare grasp of local history helps research librarian offer unique service to public

September 18, 2011
The Journal

By Kremena Spengler

Staff Writer

NEW ULM - Darla Gebhard is one of those few people who can be described as keepers of a community's memory.

Article Photos

Staff photo by Kremena Spengler

Brown County Historical Society Research Librarian Darla Gebhard is pictured at her desk at the Brown County Research Library. Also pictured is volunteer Anne Earl.

The longest serving Brown County Historical Society employee, Gebhard, the BCHS museum's research librarian, marks her 30th anniversary at the museum this year.

She is something of a living record - her career with the BCHS mirrors most of the organization's milestones.

Gebhard has worked with six out of the museum's eight directors (plus an interim director), at both museum locations.

She has performed most jobs in a museum: from bookkeeping and office management to cataloging collections and helping build an exhibit...

Her love affair with the museum started in 1976, when Gebhard joined the Brown County Historical Society, purchasing a life membership for $5 - "the best purchase I ever made," she says.

As a result, she started volunteering at the museum, then located at the old city library.

At first, she came in on weekends, to help with cataloging collections. She did some typing for the curator as well.

These efforts led to her employment as a museum aide, or research assistant, in 1981.

The museum relocated to its current location in the former New Ulm post office building in 1984, which led to gradually expanding operations.

The old museum was confined to one small office and two galleries. Museum employees shared the office with genealogical research and other historical files.

The relocation led to departmentalization, with separate offices, research library and three exhibit floors.

The old museum was served by four people; the new museum at one time had as many as seven or eight employees. (The museum is currently cutting employee and operation hours, in reflection of shrinking government budgets.)

When the museum moved, Gebhard's position shifted toward managing the archives. But she also helped install exhibits, did book-keeping (payroll, bills), helped in programming and created and conducted tours, some of which still enjoy very high popularity today. The tours include gallery tours, a Katie Gropper tour, an immensely popular cemetery walk. Gebhard even did some grant writing.

The office management part of the job gradually broke off, with the expanding focus on the research aspect.

While some 500 "researches" had been conducted at the old museum per year, the corresponding number at the current museum can be three times as high.

The new museum takes a departmentalized census of the types of visits; the old museum recorded overall visits, and did not count by department.

The archives alone now record between 800 and 1,400 visits per year (higher on special event or anniversary years). Museum overall visits range between 7,000 and 14,000.

Gebhard's present job has two main components: helping people with research and cataloging collections.

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The key part - which she describes as most gratifying - is serving the people coming in, or corresponding with her, on matters of genealogical or historical research. She helps them face-to-face, or via e-mail or snail mail.

Those who work with her say she is uniquely suited to this position.

Some point to her "encyclopedic brain" - the kind of mind that naturally holds in facts and figures.

"It's frustrating she knows so much more than you," jokes Anne Earl, a volunteer who helps out in the archives.

("She lives her entire life around Brown County and Junior Pioneer history - it's her personal history," Earl also said.)

"She is one of the best curators of collections I've ever worked with," says museum Director Bob Burgess.

"All that knowledge of minute detail, and where exactly to find it. I pinch-hit in the archives on occasion, so I know what it takes. ... It's easier when she does it, and patrons are very appreciative of that."

People notice the immediacy of personal interaction, the hands-on-approach.

Unlike a big museum - where you fill out a request and wait - here, the librarian can just run into the back room and bring out a file, plus extra information.

"To hang on to that kind of information, and dispense it, is not hard for me," acknowledges Gebhard.

She is gratified when a person comes in, trying to find out the "impossible" - and she is able to find it!

Sometimes, searches touch upon personal, emotionally-charged history.

She has helped bring closure on a topic, or connect people who did not know of each other's existence.

Once, she helped an adopted daughter locate her birth mother just in time to attend the funeral; another time, she helped a woman find her siblings.

These are "riveting moments," says Gebhard.

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Another piece of the job is taking care of the archives - collecting and cataloging data.

(At larger museums, customer service is generally independent of cataloging, but not here.)

The Brown County Museum has some of the largest archives among museums of this type in the state: more than 5,500 family files, more than 3,000 business files, plus books, microfilm, tapes, photos, references books, historical atlases, tax records books, bound newspapers, boxes of material donated by estates.

All are electronically indexed (but not all are electronically available).

Sometimes it's a race against the clock: "not enough time to file everything that needs filed."

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Gebhard does the research that goes into local exhibits: gathering information, selecting photos, helping with design.

She is currently working on a new exhibit for the third floor. Unchanged significantly since 1984, it is being revamped on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

Characteristically, Gebhard is building the "Faces" portion to the exhibit: with a focus on some 1,000 persons who lived in Brown County and the surrounding area according to a 1860 census.

A touch screen will display these "Faces," with a biography of each person.

It will allow searches based on a variety of terms ("name," "casualties," "militia," geographic criteria, etc.).

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Gebhard notes that her job as research librarian is a labor of love.

As others who work for a non-profit or in the public sector will tell you, you don't do it because of the high salary, or the great benefits, she says.

You have to love what you do - you have to not want to be anywhere else.

She remembers her fascination with a Minnesota history course in seventh grade; a love that never ended.

New Ulm and Brown County have the kind of history that's interesting, that draws attention, the kind of history that's a researcher's dream, she says. "Just think of the U.S. - Dakota War, World War I and the anti-war sentiment, the Turnverein, Wanda Gag ..."

"It's the kind of history that puts you in touch with interesting people who happen to be interested in the same thing as yourself - what's not to like?"

"I could easily continue doing this past retirement, as a volunteer."

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"I have been a historical society director, and I have researched at many of Minnesota's county historical societies," says Dan Hoisington, a Roseville-based consultant, publisher and author of history books.

"The Brown County Historical Society has one of the finest collections of any similar institution in the state. It started with Fred Johnson, back in the 1930s, who diligently collected letters, photographs and artifacts from the county's second generation - the sons and daughters of the first settlers. Just wonderful stuff! This collection was entrusted to other fine local historians, people like Leota Kellett and Paul Klammer. The Brown County Historical Society was more than just a job for them. They listened to people's stories, helped them with research, and often talked them into donating precious family photographs and letters to the historical society.

"It is a heavy responsibility, then, following in their footsteps, but Darla has continued that legacy. She doesn't have any graduate degrees in archival studies, but she helps out when a family descendant drops by and wants to find out more, listens to their often rambling stories, and as a result, the collections have grown during her years here. One only has to look at the number of books that thank Darla in their acknowledgments.

"I appreciate her knowledge. When I bought a pair of glasses off ebay from Schleuder's (so I could see the world through New Ulm-colored glasses), she talked about the optometrist as if she had been there the day before. Of course, the store had closed fifty years earlier. She's a little like the boy in the movie 'The Sixth Sense' who says, 'I see dead people.' Of course, it's not all the distant past when you hear her tell stories about Polka Days.

"I hope computer technology advances enough so that the historical society can plug a couple electrodes in her brain when she departs this world, and not lose that storehouse of knowledge."

 
 

 

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