obituaries

“When we make the past personal, history comes alive”: Interview with Jessica Hilburn, Executive Director of Benson Memorial Library, Titusville, Pennsylvania

Today we are speaking with Jessica Hilburn, of Benson Memorial Library, about Titusville’s Heritage Connection, collective memory, and how cataloging death can breathe new life into local history.

(Archivoz) Tell us a little about the Heritage Connection website: who coordinates it, and what is its relationship to Benson Memorial Library and its collections?

(JH) The Heritage Connection came about through conversations between Justin Hoenke, the library’s former director, and Titusville Historical Society member and library science professor Rhonda Clark. We wanted to find a better way to drive traffic to our heritage, genealogy, and history resources. Benson’s collections make up the lion’s share of what is currently available on the website. We have a large, diverse collection of materials suitable for genealogical and historical research about Titusville and its people. Drake Well’s collections focus more on the oil industry, since the first commercial oil well was drilled in Titusville in 1859, and Benson Memorial Library fills in the social historical context.

I designed the website, which went live on June 24, 2019, and created the first featured exhibit, “Cederquist Family.” I also coordinate all new uploads. Members send me their documents or photos and associated metadata and I publish them online. The library and historical society are both administrators on the site. When researchers alert me that they are coming into the area, I now direct them toward the Heritage Connection as the best place to see each organization’s resources, and to learn who to contact for more information.

(Archivoz) You appear to be making an effort to encourage and allow for contributions by private individuals. Is this a regular source of material?

(JH) We are! That is an aspect of the project we are really excited about. Our first exhibit, the Cederquist Exhibit, consists primarily of privately owned materials belonging to a family that immigrated to Titusville from Sweden in 1869 and subsequently spread across the United States. They return here often for reunions and, over time, I have befriended many members via the library. They agreed to have their family and photos featured on the site with commentary provided by the family and library jointly. Allowing private individuals to contribute photos and memories opens up the site as a true community platform and I hope this feature continues in the future.

(Archivoz) Why is it important to include the entire community in local history projects? What ways have you found to do that?

(JH) I think it is crucial for the local community to have a stake in large projects like this one. Local history is our history: our collective past, our collective memory, our collective culture. Bringing in community voices, perspectives, and memories adds value to any local history project. In addition, including the entire community gives members a vested interest in the success and future of these types of programs and projects. The library, in particular, is not an island. We are a community center and a nucleus for community involvement. That should absolutely extend to our local history work.

I try to encourage community participation and comments whenever possible. My “local history at the library” website, NWPA Stories, shares all its posts via social media, and people are encouraged to contribute how they personally connect with the topic. I also am very present both in person at the library and online to help people with any local history questions or requests they may have. It has really established us as the point of contact for local history information.

(Archivoz) What is your intended audience? Do you find that local history captures mainly local interest, or are you attempting/have you been able to reach a wider audience? How do you go about making the local more broadly appealing?

(JH) My intended audience changes depending on the platform. With the stories on the website, I target both the local community and people who have moved away but are still interested in reminiscing. Collective remembering benefits greatly from technology like Facebook and other social media sites. My target audience for the Heritage Connection, on the other hand, is anyone who has anything from a serious to a fleeting interest in Titusville, its people, and its history. The list of resources may appeal more to the serious researcher or genealogist whereas the featured exhibits are oriented more toward general interest.

Local history captures a great deal of homegrown interest, but the more I have been able to tie local events to the national zeitgeist, the broader interest I’ve been able to garner on our channels. For example, in January I wrote about the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. The focus was its impact on Titusville within the wider context of global epidemic. That article created widespread interest and attention. I partially credit the topic (it’s so interesting!) and partially credit the story’s universal relevance.

Particularly with the local history stories, I have broadened the idea of local more into regional. When I pull from nearby communities, readership and interest swells accordingly. Then, those people keep coming back for more.

(Archivoz) Why obituaries? How many have you collected/entered? What is your vision for a completed project? The spreadsheet says it is a living document; do you plan on updating with current obituaries?

(JH) At Benson Memorial, we have been compiling obituaries on index cards at for decades. When I arrived in 2015, we created a database on Google Sheets where all the data could be viewed and searched digitally. We chose this medium because we run on Google at the library and this free, easy tool is simple for both staff to utilize and patrons to navigate. We painstakingly transcribed all of the cards into the database over the next four years and continue to update it daily with new obituaries. As of today (September 19, 2019), we have indexed almost 18,400 Titusville obituaries from 1865 to the present, admittedly with some gaps. The database can be viewed here.

Obituaries are a treasure trove of information about those who have passed. Especially in genealogical research, an obituary helps the researcher create a road map for the various avenues they want to explore: birth and death dates and places, family members, relationships, marriages, interment, and so on. The obituary index gives genealogy-seekers the keys to the car; they just have to decide where to drive it.

My vision for the completed project is an index that includes every death notice from The Titusville Herald from its inception in 1865 to the present day. We still need to tackle the bigger project of going through each issue to fill in the gaps. 150+ years is a lot of obituaries, but I hope we get there one day!

(Archivoz) Why are local history projects important? Are there things they can capture that more generalized historical research cannot?

(JH) Local history puts names and faces to seemingly untouchable historical events. So often, history feels distant or abstract; something you know is important yet cannot quite wrap your mind around or put a finger on. By placing events in context with real people, recognizable names, and personal stories, we allow people to connect with what those events mean to their lives. Make the past personal—that is my tagline at this point in my career and I stand by it. When we make the past personal, history comes alive.


Header image: Benson Memorial Library, The Rotograph Company, 1905 (Used with permission from Benson Memorial Library, Cressman Postcard Collection #141).
Additional images: 1) Scene at Mystic Park, Cohn & Oakleaf, Titusville, PA, 1908 (Used with permission from Benson Memorial Library, Cressman Postcard Collection #97); 2) Benson Memorial Library, Cohn & Oakleaf, Titusville, PA, 1909 (Used with permission from Benson Memorial Library, Cressman Postcard Collection #143).