Marcius Willson and use of NJ respositories

Peter Knupfer's picture

As I mentioned in a couple of posts  to h-nj two years ago, I’ve been working on a project involving a New Jersey-based textbook author, Marcius Willson (1813-1905).  My biggest challenge is finding any surviving correspondence (I’ve already surveyed material in his publishers’ records). I have traced his family history back to Ontario County, New York, and all roads still lead to New Jersey.  Last summer I visited a number of repositories and records offices in the state, including Surrogate Courts in Union and Cumberland Counties as well as local historical societies in Summit and Vineland, Newark Public Library, and the NJ Historical Society in Newark. Willson's son-in-law John Augustus Hicks served as Summit mayor and councilman in the late 19th century.  Willson was a town founder and civic leader in Vineland for forty years before his death, his family ran several businesses there, his home was sold to the state to become the NJ Home for Feeble-Minded Women (which is now the state rehab campus for the disabled), and the most likely place for his materials would be Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society.  Records of the latter indicate that his family and friends donated most of his books and some other items to the Society (Willson had served as VHAS president before he died).  VHAS kindly had interns pull and transcribe a small number of processed items (some photos, excerpts from publications, a few stray letters), but declined to check its storage areas for unprocessed items or to permit me or a hired professional to do so.  I have been told that any further discoveries will happen serendipitously in the course of other work there.  Because it is highly doubtful that any other researcher in the foreseeable future will be digging for material on Willson, my fear is that surviving material at VHAS will remain hidden, leaving large elements of his story untold.

My visit to the NJ Historical Society was, well, perplexing.  NJHS prohibits all imaging of its collections, including nonflash overhead digital photography of items in the public domain such as newspapers and manuscripts.  I find this policy incredibly outdated and counterproductive — no archive I know of prohibits the use of a digital camera to take images of documents, and many in fact encourage the practice (Historical Society of Pennsylvania was very helpful on this point.)  The Surrogate Court clerks were happy to have me use my tablet to snap images of wills and probate records, one of them generously holding pages open so that I could obtain a clear image.  When I asked about this at NJHS, the person in charge of the library that day told me just to “transcribe” any material with pencil and paper.  I had driven 1100 miles to a library open only a few hours a week.  How NJHS expects any bona fide researcher to benefit from its collections under such constraints is beyond me.

I hold out some hope that Willson material will emerge — he was Harpers best-selling text author in the 1870s and 80s and kept up a mammoth correspondence from what I can tell — so if any H-NJ readers have suggestions as to further places to look, I’d be very grateful.

Peter Knupfer, Michigan State University,

Dear Prof. Knupfer,
Good morning! I am happy to read about your travels to New Jersey and the success you achieved while researching. However, I am fully aware and sympathetic to your two observations about the lack of access to collections, especially those of NJHS. I, too, find it extremely perplexing that any organization operates this way in 2018. It is a shame that I as a genealogical lecturer, I actually discourage researchers from going to NJHS because of the level of frustration they *will* experience.

However, until the historical and genealogical community voices their displeasure, concern, feedback, etc. to the Board of Trustees, I seriously doubt that any change will be made in the foreseeable future. It is a sad case, indeed, at the inability for historians and genealogists to use the wonderful collections and items which the institution holds.

I wish you the best of success with your project and hope that you will return to NJ to conduct additional research without or with less hiccups.

Best regards,
Michelle Chubenko

Michelle Tucker Chubenko
Legacy Tree Genealogists, Inc.
Researcher | Professional Genealogist
Member, Association of Professional Genealogists (APG)

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