Profile Q&A w/Tawny Ryan Nelb-Part 2

Tawny Ryan Nelb is the owner and president of Nelb Archival Consulting, Inc, located in Midland.  This graduate of Notre Dame has an extensive client list. It’s included the Michigan Historical Center, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, UCLA, Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, and she helped design the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Archives.  Nelb also makes her services available to individuals and families. 

Here’s Nelb’s definition of what she does, “An archivist is someone who manages historical records and helps people preserve those records for the legacy of their organization, whether it’s a business or a family or a faith community, or a government, whatever that group is. “

In this Profile Q & A, Nelb shares some advice.

Q:  Let’s say I’ve been designated the archivist of our family. What steps should I take?

A:  See this book (Over Zoom, Tawny holds up the book, “Creating Family Archives: A step-by-step guide for saving your memories for future generations” by Margot Note). This is a book that came out just a few years ago. It’s published by the Society of American Archivists…It’s a really great resource. She has a chapter that’s actually called “Let’s Get Started.”  What makes things archival worthy…something that impacts information about people and the historical photographs that you have. We always think of your vital records as sort of the starting point. Your birth, death, marriage records, things that document the work the person did or the organizations that the person was involved with.  You can’t save everything obviously.

The Christmas letter that gives the summary of the family, what they did during the year, family newsletters, anything like that, is always really, really important because it provides you with that summary,  and, for organizations, it’s the same thing, annual reports, newsletters, minutes of meetings, right there, that’s the beginning. Beyond that, everything else is gravy.

Nelb authored a history of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Midland.Q: (I show Tawny laminated copies of my parents’ obituaries that I keep on a shelf above my desk. She responds with this advice.)

A:  What you need to do is make a photocopy of them because you might notice that since you leave them on your desk, I can already see they are discolored. Most of the paper we have today, plain old copy paper, if I tested it, it would be alkaline paper. In the ‘90s, almost all the paper in the United States…the paper manufacturers switched to an alkaline process for paper.

Let me backup, after the Civil War, most of the paper that was made was made with wood pulp because all these people were coming into the country, they needed a lot of paper. It was post Civil War, people were coming into the country like crazy from the rest of the world. People were publishing, needed more information, more books, so they developed this  process, instead of using rags, which is what they used before, by the Civil War, they were using wood pulp…so we have..about 130 years at least of records and history that was made with some of the worst paper ever made. So, if you go into a library that has old books and you look on the floor, you will see pieces of the books, because the paper is so acidic that once it reacts with the humidity in the air, it actually creates acids, and the paper is destroyed. 
The obituary on the right was published in 2015. The newspaper has yellowed.
So, that paper that you have there, that newspaper, newspaper is one of the few papers that’s not made with an alkaline process now, and this was not done out of altruism. The paper manufacturers didn’t do this because they thought it was going to be wonderful, alkaline paper, this paper, here’s a tissue (holds up a tissue), I guarantee you, if I tested it, is alkaline, which means I don’t have to do anything to it for 500 years, except keep it in a stable environment, it’s going to last just fine. Newspaper print is still what you need to do with the obits is make a photocopy of them, put what you have in the dark so it doesn’t discolor anymore, and then I would also scan a copy… realizing you’ve created a digital file, which means you have to migrate it.  (Tawny and I agreed that’s a whole other can of worms)

Q: Why is history important?

A: This is a question we keep getting asked…People who teach history have put together what they call the “History Relevance Statement.”... If you want to look this up, it’s “history,” they think of it as, part of it is identity. People discover their place in time through stories of their families, their communities, and the nation. Depending on what’s involved, it might be stories of freedom, it might be struggle, it might be loss, it might be courage, whatever it is, that’s how people develop their values in life by what happens to them in life. 

It’s also incredibly involved for critical thinking. We have to do critical thinking, all of us, have to do critical thinking every day. We don’t think that’s what it is but we always have to evaluate information that we’re given and this is especially important now that we’re given so much conflicting information, a lot of it false, but we have to be able to judge what that means. Part of historiography is looking at the information you’re presented with and weighing it and seeing what is truth. Usually we do that, there may not be just one truth but there may be more than one truth. But we still have to be able to tell a story. 

Tawny Ryan Nelb at the construction of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Archives.For example, recently, I’ve been writing about the Tittabawassee Boom Company which is a logging operation that happened in the 19th century. I told their story about the logging business but I also had to tell the story of what happened with the native Americans when logging came in, what happened to the environment, to the river, what happened to transportation. The Tittabawassee River was destroyed by logging. Those are truths about it, but again you have to be careful to bring all those truths together in one place and critical thinking helps you develop that context of understanding. 

History’s also a foundation for really strong…and vibrant communities. I’ll give you a quote which is, “A place becomes a community when wrapped in human memory as told through family stories, travel traditions, and specific commemorations as well as discussions about our roles and responsibilities to each other in places we call home.” If you look at the newspaper for example, it is a microcosm of our history. Not every speck of it is reported but it gives you a tremendous summary of the history of our community. That’s why I’m just so respectful of the newspaper and all newspapers and what they provide to us every day. I use historical newspapers every day. I use them as one resource because they may not get everything exactly right either, because none of us get everything right, but that’s a good example where they are creating history every day by documenting. They are creating a legacy for history every day by the stories they tell and what you do with Catalyst, the same way.

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Read more articles by Ron Beacom.

Ron Beacom has served as the managing editor of Catalyst Midland since October 2020. He's also a freelance writer for the Midland Daily News and the producer/host of "Second Act: Life at 50 Plus" for WDCQ-Delta College Public Media (PBS). He's the co-producer of two WDCQ documentaries about the Tittabawassee River Disaster in 2020, "Breached! and Breached!2-The Recovery."