What was New Hampshire Fast Day? Did a tornado really destroy the navy yard? What year was Portsmouth’s first female mayor elected? Which historic homes in Portsmouth are haunted? What information do you have about the penny poet of Portsmouth? This handful of questions are just a few (and definitely fun ones) that staff has answered recently in Special Collections. While we field more questions about family genealogy and historic Portsmouth places than any other subjects, the above questions are the kind that really speak to the varied and frankly, staggering amount of resources available here. One of the resources most utilized to locate these answers are the vertical files. In my opinion, the vertical files require a mixed metaphor as the unsung workhorse of Special Collections in terms of providing access and ease in meeting PPL’s local history needs.
What exactly are the vertical files? The short answer is that they are local history files for Portsmouth and the Seacoast. The longer answer is that the vertical files are a large collection of alphabetically arranged topical file folders in chronological order. They contain compilations of: newspaper and magazine articles, brochures, photographs, postcards and other ephemera relating to people and places of Portsmouth. The collection is comprised of approximately 40 file drawers and are located in the vault of the Special Collections room at PPL. The intention of the vertical files is to offer an overview and relative timeline of published materials on each topic available. And finally their goal, is to send the researcher away with clues toward their next sources of information. So there is the standard definition. But as we wade through, add to and maintain the vertical files, it becomes immediately clear that they represent much more. They are also a living history.[i] One that has grown organically with both the library and the Portsmouth community. Because of this, the definition of what is available in the vertical files is ceaselessly evolving and we are surprised regularly by how much these folders highlight the cultural climate of Portsmouth at any given period represented within it.
So where did the PPL vertical files come from? Vertical files are not a new addition to libraries. In fact, they are an essential part of many libraries and have existed in some form at PPL since the 1910s. At the core, maintaining local history is the effort of a library to capture and make available what is valuable and useful to local memory. [ii] What makes each local history collection unique however, is the scope and scale of what a particular institution has the capability and/or chooses to maintain. The Library of Congress for example maintains extensive local history files. Their reasoning for continuing to maintain them is that “Local history is an integral part of history at the national level and serves to augment the collections on a national level by focusing on the specific rather than the general.”[iii] As such, the local history files at the Library of Congress augment and give greater context to their nationally focused collections. But what about our vertical files? As an institution focused on service to the people of Portsmouth, the scope of the PPL vertical files have a definite local bent. While there are a great many materials regarding regional and national events, additions to the files are normally limited to items deemed as having direct interest and value to the local residents.
Unlike the Library of Congress, whose local history files support their national collections, our vertical files begin at the local level and branch out to subject matter that supports our local history collections. Because the vertical files have developed over time at PPL, there is no specific starting date but the general consensus is that the Portsmouth Scrapbook Collection, which collected area news and items of interest from 1918-1949, was the beginning of the vertical files. Since that time, library staff has collected for and added to the files on a nearly weekly basis. It is important to know that the vertical files are not all comprehensive ones. While librarians diligently add articles, brochures, narratives and any factual information we find relevant and contributory to a particular file, the additions are often subject to both human error and what is available to us. Files also grow naturally based on research done by librarians for patrons and via donated materials from researchers in kind. In short, we do our best to update them with both new and historic materials as often as possible. The resulting files follow a chronology of Portsmouth life and give a glimpse of what was and is important to this community.
The best part about the vertical files are definitely the fun (and occasionally shocking) tidbits of Portsmouth history that we stumble upon. But it is the overall impression of the files, as a fluid and physical representation of a historic community’s changing culture that illustrates its value just as well as the news or events inside. One of my favorite folders over the past few months has been the very generally titled “TREE” file. Awhile back, a patron sought to date some antique tools they had stored away, one of which was an old axe. Among the articles of mast-building in that “TREE-Historic” vertical file, there was an article from 1979 on the development of the American axe beginning around 1780. It discussed how the changes from the Celtic style axe, originally brought to New Hampshire by English settlers, focused on the alteration of a tool’s shape and weight of tools based on ease of use and the materials they were used for. That article enabled the patron to date some of their own antiques and gain insight on where they could look for more information.
A few weeks later, a second patron walked in to look at a Portsmouth street map (found in our online catalog like this one) and any additional information we might have about their historic downtown home. The original vertical file of the street on which the home was situated, gave us a historic address and owner’s name, several later images from the interior and led us to other Special Collections resources, like the Portsmouth directories and several additional maps. And when the patron also remarked on how long the wide plank hardwood floors had been done in that width and style, we returned to the vertical file index and ended up again at the “TREE” file. This time it was the articles about mast and ship building in the area where we learned that the wide plank floors were indicative of area homes until the 18th century and the width began to lessen. The reason was simple. Most of the region’s larger trees had been cut in order to accommodate ship and mast building both here and in England from 1634 through about 1775 and sheer availability of remaining tree size along the Piscataqua, and later increasingly inland, necessitated the shift. This patron walked away happy and when we pulled the ‘TREE’ file again, it was to search for more current articles on specific, historic Portsmouth trees for a patron interested in the development of specific city streets.
Over the course of a couple of months, three patrons utilized one file for very different reasons and each inquiry produced varying clues and results. What was consistent was a fuller understanding of the place of a historic home, an axe and a certain beloved tree in a much broader context. For me, that’s the benefit of the vertical files. They are the definition of local history while managing also to remain relevant to an audience far larger than the Portsmouth populace alone. So whether you’re researching the historic and looking for a source like the transcript of the Smuttynose Murders or checking out Restaurant Menus and Dining Guides in the face of a rapidly-growing Portsmouth food culture, don’t forget to check out the vertical files. It has been about a century and they are still growing.
[i] Kyvig, D. E., & Marty, M. A. (1982). Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History.
[ii] The American Library Association. (2015, January 20). RUSA Guidelines for Establishing Local History Collections. Retrieved from Reference and User Services Association: http://www.ala.org/rusa/resources/guidelines
[iii] Library of Congress. (2008, November). Collections Policy Statements: Local History. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/acq/devpol/chi.pdf
Jessica Ross, Special Collections Assistant, has an MA in Public History. For questions regarding this post or recommendations for a future one, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.