Collecting Stories Explored at Chicago History Museum

“Documenting the undocumented,” as keynote speaker Peter T. Alter put it, was at the core of the 9th Annual Meeting of the Polish American Librarians Association April 27 at the Chicago History Museum. Some 35 librarians and historians gathered to discuss “Collecting Our Stories,” the conference theme. While history largely records the deeds and misdeeds of kings and conquerors, saints and sinners, in the age of the omission or misrepresentation of Polish cultural history is one of the primary concerns of Polish American organizations in the USA and around the world.

PALA President and emcee Ewa Barczyk called the meeting “a dynamic and interactive day of sharing our immigrant stories and learning about new initiatives to collect them.” She noted, “We know how important it is to collect and preserve our stories among Polonia ‘family,’ but one of the important questions we addressed today is why Polish histories should matter to anyone who is not Polish.”

Keynoter Peter Alter set the stage for the meeting by demonstrating how the Chicago History Museum handles the multiple ethnic histories of a diverse metropolis like Chicago. He talked about the museum’s Polonia Project and the Studs Terkel Center for Oral History. (His presentation is available online.)

PALA attendees on tour in the Chicago History Museum.

Alter also participated in a panel discussion and question-and-answer session during which panelists Małgorzata Kot of the Polish Museum of America, Ania Mueller representing the Polish American Historical Association, and Daniel Pogorzelski of the Forgotten Chicago blog talked about their work and the professional challenges that historians everywhere face. Mueller spoke about the “Objects that Speak” project in which stories are created around a particular object and the concept of provenance. Pogorzelski characterized his colleagues as “champions of the overlooked” and emphasized the importance of collecting and preserving ephemera.

Professionals in attendance concurred that collection policies must be established in order to handle the influx of materials that donors would like libraries and museums to preserve. The major challenge is to rally the resources required to process and preserve such materials. Is it better to accept such gifts and stick them unprocessed in a basement or decline them and place the onus on the donor? Lively but inconclusive debate ensued.

Attendees enjoyed a Polish luncheon catered by the Montrose Deli and a tour of the museum led by Alter and emphasizing Chicago Polonia. Over lunch, attendees shared stories and experiences, prompted by an exercise designed to encourage oral history.

PALA members view a Polish immigrant trunk at the Chicago History Museum.

PALA Treasurer Bernadetta Koryciarz and Secretary Paulina Poplawska reported on the past year’s activities, with emphasis on the bylaws changes that eliminated annual membership renewals in favor of one-time joining. Barczyk noted that PALA has officially applied for affiliation with the American Library Association, and a decision is expected in June.