Profile Q&A with Tawny Ryan Nelb

Tawny Ryan Nelb of Midland is an award winning archivist. In 2021, Nelb received 
the “History Hero” Award from the Historical Society of Michigan for her “extraordinary dedication to community service and contributions to Michigan history.” She’s also served as past president of that organization. 

Nelb is the owner and president of Nelb Archival Consulting, Inc, located in Midland.  Her clients have 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. 
Nelb has written over 50 articles and five books on historical records preservation and local history topics. She also delivers several lectures a year on these topics.

In this Profile Q & A, Nelb shares some of her thoughts during Women’s History Month.

 Q: Please tell a story about a woman or women in Midland’s history that a lot of light hasn’t been shed on them in the past?

A: I brought this out in the “Voices” exhibit (Extraordinary Women of Midland County, debuted in 2011)...When you think about women’s groups. These were groups that were very, very popular and came to being, many in the 19th century and early in the 20th century before women had the vote.  These organizations were how women learned to become leaders.  They were able to discuss current events of the day. Most of them required them to get up in front of others and research some topic and give a presentation. They learned how to do research, do critical thinking and come together and present it, speak in front of others, gaining confidence.  These women’s groups were really, really important to women’s history, especially before we got the vote…women didn’t go to college either…

In 1908, Michigan changed the constitution that women could vote on issues that impacted their finances, so bond issues…and a couple of other things they could vote on. They couldn’t get the women of Midland to vote, wouldn’t do it. There was this sort of anti-suffragists thing going on because in England those suffragists were being very un-lady-like, getting themselves arrested, and chained to fences, and, oh, my goodness. This did not go over well. And so, women wouldn’t vote.  So, finally, in 1913, there was a bond issue. Midland had horrible water, all of our water was right out of the river. They wanted to drill some wells and have a bond issue. The paper kept saying, “Okay women,  you can register to vote, you can vote.” And sure enough, the women of the Monday Club, which was Midland’s oldest women’s club…it doesn't exist anymore, it died about maybe five or six years ago but started in 1895, as the Bayview Circle, and quickly became the Monday Club. (They) obviously had been talking about this issue, and that day 14 women voted for the very first time, the first women ever voting in Midland, you can go to that date and look it up in the paper, the sub-heading says, “14 Women Voted.” Nine of those 14 women were from the Monday Club. And then two weeks later, there was another vote for I think it was the school board, 60 women voted! So those women that stood up for the first time, they broke the dike because most of them were higher society women, like Grace Dow for example, and Minnie Ball. I wrote an article about this in the paper (Midland Daily News), you can search.
Nelb co-authored "Architectural Records: Managing Design and Construction Records."
Q: What is an archivist?

A: There are different kinds of archivists but basically 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. There are people who are just family archivists, that’s a pretty rare thing.  These days, because of the changes in technology, there are a lot of  people who are just digital archivists, they only deal with digital materials. That’s not me (laughs), but that is certainly an area of tremendous growth in the field of archives. 

Q:  Why did you choose this career? 

A: I went to the University of Notre Dame, in one of those early classes of women. One of the areas that really interested me was history. I had been living in France for a year as a sophomore and came back and was realizing that I really didn’t know that much about my own country. I knew what they taught me in high school..but I really needed to spend more time learning about my own country as I spoke very defensively about it when I was in France, because this was the ‘70’s, we were still in the Vietnam War...I got involved in American studies at the University of Notre Dame, and with people who were just tremendous mentors for me and one of them was the archivist for the university. I worked with her not in the archives but doing research, worked with other faculty at Notre Dame doing research and just fell in love with it.
"To me, what I do every day is a Nancy Drew moment..."
My first job out of college as my husband was finishing his PhD at the University of Iowa was the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, so in the middle of nowhere Iowa, population 300.  It was certainly one of the earlier presidential libraries. I got that job not because I had some fancy Notre Dame degree but because I had worked every summer in offices, I knew how to work with people..I worked in the museum and a little bit in the archives... When my husband finished his PhD and when we went east, I started volunteering at Yale in the archives, just loved doing that work. Eventually I got a part-time job there, a full-time job there, the lowest level job you can possibly get in the archives and I learned more in those three years…that job impacted my entire life because Yale was a really big place for archives. They had 25 staff and 25 student workers. They were setting the stage for a lot of archival practices around the whole nation… 

So, in 1986, I decided it was time for me to go out on my own because I had three kids and I was paying out all my salary in day care.  In fact, it was costing me money to work…At that time in my career, I was a specialist in architectural records because that had been my main work.  I kind of hung out that shingle but over time took on lots of different things and stuck with architectural records and design records and ended up writing the manual; I was the co-author of the manual that’s used around the whole United States to process and preserve architectural records. But subsequent to that time, I do everything now, I do very little with architectural records. 

First of all, I love a challenge, I have to have a challenge. Because I've been self-employed since ‘86, I’ve had as many as eight clients at once, and that of itself, is a challenge, but it’s not brain surgery... I always have to make sure I have at least one job that is challenging to where I don’t know the answer, I don’t know what to do, I’m going to have to figure it out...I’ve done some really interesting things that I had to figure it from scratch and in the process learned lots of new things…

I love that sense, I was a big reader of “Nancy Drew” when I was a kid. To me, what I do every day is a Nancy Drew moment.. because I’ll do research not just as an archivist, but I’m also a historian, I love going down that rabbit hole. I can go into a zone and for six or eight hours, not even move, just doing research into whatever the topic is and then pulling all that information together and arranging it in my brain and start writing it so that I can actually tell the story of what I found. And that’s very satisfying to me. 

In the next edition of Catalyst, we’ll continue our conversation with Tawny Nelb, including a question about what steps you can take to preserve your own family’s history.

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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."