Russell hands over history room reins
After more than 30 years of supervising the Wilton Library History Room, Carol Russell has decided to hand the reins over to Julie Hughes and Nick Foster.
“After 35 years of volunteering regularly in the history room, I have decided it is too difficult for this old body to get there on a regular basis, so I’m phasing out,” Russell told The Bulletin.
When the Wilton Historical Society decided to renovate in 1980, the library offered to house the society’s archival collection. This was a good move, Russell previously told The Bulletin, because it provided the public with better access.
The archives were moved in boxes to “an empty little room” in the library, said Russell, who was recruited to organize the materials for a small sum on a part-time basis for six months.
“I came two days a week and started through the boxes,” she said. After she finished organizing them, Russell offered to stay on as a volunteer to supervise the archives.
As part of her “phasing out,” Russell said, Hughes and Foster have each agreed to serve as archivists in the history room at least once a week.
Although she still has a few projects she wants to complete so the archives are left “in good condition” for Hughes and Foster to maintain and assist patrons in their research, Russell said, she trusts that she is leaving the history room in good hands.
“They both are extremely capable,” said Russell, adding that she and her husband, town historian Bob Russell, will still be “around and willing to assist.”
Hughes, who can be found in the history room on Wednesdays from 11 to 4, has been volunteering in the history room on a weekly basis for about a year.
Last August, she stopped by the history room, looking for information on a house she and her husband had been renting in Wilton. That’s when she met Russell, who asked Hughes about her background.
“When I told her I was an historian, she said the history room was always looking for volunteers, so I started out as a volunteer,” said Hughes, who has a Ph.D. in South Asian history from the University of Texas.
Like Foster, Hughes helps patrons find “whatever they’re looking for” in the history room — “whether it’s an ancestor’s burial location, or an old folk recipe for cough syrup,” she said.
Hughes said she also processes “old letters and other items that come into the history room as donations” and also creates and maintains the history room’s online finding aids, available through the Connecticut Archives Online at library.wcsu.edu/cao.
Hughes said she loves “the challenge of trying to find the exact right document or the exact right photograph to answer someone’s questions and help them feel more connected to their family or local history.”
“The best part is seeing how much those answers can mean to our patrons, especially to those researching family history,” she said. “Every day in the history room feels like a treasure hunt.”
Although she and her husband recently bought a home in Newtown, Hughes said, she still spends “a lot of time” in Wilton.
In addition to volunteering in the history room, Hughes serves on the Wilton Historical Society’s Collections Committee and has also been “researching and helping develop exhibition content for the Raymond-Ambler house at Ambler Farm.”
Foster is the Wilton Historical Society’s collections and membership coordinator and has been working in the history room since August 2016. He can typically be found in the history room on Fridays from 1 to 4.
In the history room, Foster said, his primary responsibility is to “keep track of and care for items from the historical society’s permanent collection that are stored there.”
“I’m currently in the process of running a complete inventory of all the items that have been accessioned into the permanent collection by the society so that we can keep track of their location, as well as make sure the objects themselves are in good condition,” he said.
Objects like photographs and papers from the 18th and 19th centuries can “deteriorate very quickly if not stored and cared for properly,” said Foster, so it’s his job to “ensure that they are being handled appropriately.”
“The secondary, but still vital, responsibility I have at the history room is to conduct research — both for the society's own projects, as well as for visitors and researchers,” he said.
Foster said his favorite part about working in the history room is finding “fun and interesting bits of history.”
“It seems like just in the course of looking for something else, you stumble into photos or documents that you didn’t expect to find, and in doing so, I’ve been trying to get them more involved in projects here at the society — either in an exhibit or simply sharing it on our social media accounts,” he said.
“Any time I can get to explore some lesser-known part of the past — especially if it’s somewhat odd or humorous in some way — is really enjoyable.”
Foster said the history room is “such a great wealth of information about Wilton” and encourages people to “stop in and explore.”
Click here to learn more about the Wilton Library History Room.