Grant awarded for preservation of Agnes Flood archives

Parker Dorsey, News Editor

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Wilkes University recently received a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the conservation and digitization of 1972 Agnes Flood related material. The project seeks to highlight the efforts of the Wilkes community regarding the Agnes Flood.

The $4,839.85 grant includes money for supplies and outsourcing digitization to Backstage Works and Media Preserve, LLC. This work is expected to be completed in summer 2021 and will be used to showcase exhibits for the 50th anniversary of the flood in June 2022.

This project will be overseen by Suzanna Calev, archivist and public services librarian in the Farley Library. The project will digitize 378 photographic negatives, one audiotape of Richard Nixon’s visit to Wilkes College campus in 1972, as well as one film reel of Francis J. Michelini’s 1970 Wilkes presidential inauguration. The material was collected from the Michelini estate.

“To preserve material long-term, you need archival boxes and acid-free folders,” said Calev. “A lot of this cost can get expensive, so I really wanted to preserve [Michelini’s] materials and really give it justice.”

Calev is the first officially trained archivist and public services librarian at Wilkes University. She applied for the grant in order to help research on the flood’s devastation as well as the Northeastern Pennsylvania community’s recovery efforts. This research will be used by those studying disaster planning in urban communities. Emphasis will be placed on Max Rosenn, United States Circuit Judge and his efforts in assisting rebuild the Wilkes-Barre community following the flood.

“In general, this region has a lot of hidden, uncovered history. I really want to make it more accessible, and have people take pride in this area,” said Calev.

In the report, “After Agnes: A Report on Flood Recovery Assistance” by Harry E. Whipkey, state archivist of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, numerous well-documented reports were published that explained the efforts of state officials and local organizations to preserve historical material and prevent communities’ economies from collapsing in the wake of the flood.

Governor Milton J. Shapp directed the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to move swiftly into the little “Florences” of the state, in reference to the relatively recent 1966 Arno River flood in Florence, Italy. If necessary, it was to call upon the National Guard to work with it in saving valuable books, archives, manuscripts and museum items.

“The commission was prompt in taking steps to survey the damage to historical societies, historic sites and properties, and in giving major attention to the salvage and rehabilitation of important historical and museum collections which might be threatened with destruction,” according to the report.

For instance, at the Wyoming Historical and Geological Society in Wilkes-Barre, there was considerable fear that the society’s headquarters located at 69 South Franklin St. would be badly damaged. The building, which had suffered a great deal from the less severe flood of 1936, was located just a few blocks from the Susquehanna River.

The society’s holdings included some 20,000 books and manuscript collections of great significance for the history of northeastern Pennsylvania and their loss would be a major blow to Pennsylvania history.

During the flood, muddy water completely filled the basement of the headquarters building and rose to a height of approximately one inch above the flooring of the first floor. The problem was that the basement housed a sizable portion of the organization’s library and archival holdings.

Thinking back to the experiences of 1936, the society’s officers: Ralph Hazeltine, former society director and Harrison Smith, its president, had acted quickly and moved a considerable number of manuscripts and published works to safety. Most were taken to the upper floors of the headquarters building.

Before everything could be moved, however, more than 300 cubic feet of papers and books were engulfed in the basement of the society’s headquarters. Damage to the society’s building, furnishings and collections were placed at more than $90,000.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission is the state governmental agency responsible for the collection, conservation and interpretation of Pennsylvania’s historic heritage.

The Wilkes University Archives was founded in 2005 by Harold Cox, professor emeritus and university historian, and is dedicated to providing access to historical collections that highlight Wilkes history and the northeastern Pennsylvania region.

The materials are located in the Harold Cox Archives Room on the third floor of the Farley Library.