‘We are all stewards’: Helping preserve New Haven community history

Jennifer Coggins, the Beinecke’s community engagement archivist, offers advice, expertise, and tools to help local residents create their own archives.
Hand of Tony Falcone pointing at a drawing of the New Haven Green.

Tony Falcone, a New Haven artist, has begun organizing his decades of work with the help of Jennifer Coggins, who leads the Beinecke’s New Haven Community Archive Support program. (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

Dr. Ann Garrett Robinson, a long-time resident of Dixwell and professor emerita at Gateway Community College, has amassed a broad and varied personal archive related to New Haven and her own advocacy and research. The first Black woman to join the faculty of Trinity College in Hartford and the first Black certified psychological examiner in the New Haven public school system, she’s undertaken numerous local and oral history projects over the years.

Now 89, she has begun to consider how best to organize and pass on her collections. Through Michael Morand, the director of community engagement at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, she learned of the New Haven Community Archive Support program, an initiative conceived of and led by Jennifer Coggins, the Beinecke’s community engagement archivist.

Coggins launched the program last year to provide advice, logistical and material support, and educational programming for people in the greater New Haven area wanting to undertake personal archival projects. She conducts both archival workshops (often at New Haven Free Public Library locations) and individual consultations. The program also provides archival supplies and access to special equipment for document preservation.

The Beinecke [program] has been extraordinarily helpful to me as I make plans for my personal, academic, and community-originated archives,” said Robinson.

Over the past several months she and Coggins have been sorting through her materials. “I have tiny things, small objects, records, photographs, and then huge things like oil paintings,” said Robinson.

It can be overwhelming and difficult to know where to start, so we help people come up with whatever strategy that works for them to preserve materials that are important to them,” said Coggins. “Our mission is supporting people in the New Haven community as they preserve materials that document their personal, family history and organizational history, and to help do that in whatever way best suits their goals.”

Jennifer Coggins, the Beinecke’s community engagement archivist
Jennifer Coggins, the Beinecke’s community engagement archivist (Photo by Allie Barton)

Robinson’s collection includes records relating to the Little Red Brick Schoolhouse Museum, located within the Prince Hall Masonic Temple on Goffe Street, which she founded in 1997 to commemorate the history of the first school for African Americans in New Haven.

Robinson also has records from her research on the life of Lucretia, the first known Black resident of New Haven. Robinson led a successful drive to have a street corner renamed in honor of Lucretia, who was enslaved by the governor of the New Haven Colony in the early 17th century.

Currently, Robinson is looking to house parts of her collections at libraries or similar institutions.

[Jennifer] is teaching me how to think about what to do, and to think in terms of the overall collection and its parts,” said Robinson. “She gives me the language and a way to think about it, but then the decisions are mine.”

Power grid of memory’

Coggins, who has worked at the Yale Library since 2019, started work on the Community Archive Support program when she joined the Beinecke’s community engagement team in 2022. The project aims to promote a more thorough, diverse, and representative record of local history.

It is also intended to help people apply the strategies and tools used in large libraries and archives to their own materials, whether that means maintaining their collection at home, in an organization within their community, or at a local library or archive. “It’s important that the historical record can be preserved within the communities that need access to it,” Coggins said. “People shouldn’t feel like the only way to preserve their history is by handing it over to a large institution.”

According to Coggins, individual archival projects are an important component in the creation of communal memory. “The materials that now inform our understanding of the past were first created and preserved by ordinary people like us, people who made choices – sometimes over hundreds of years – to keep and protect those materials and pass them on,” said Coggins. “We are all stewards of historic records, intentionally or not, and this program is here to support that work.”

At the Beinecke, we often showcase existing archives and now, thanks to Jennifer, we can better support the development of new local archives that will live long in libraries and community organizations throughout New Haven,” said Morand. “[Coggins] is a brilliant archivist, which is to say she is a magnificent connector of people to the resources they need to ensure their stories are carefully stewarded for decades and centuries to come. It is exciting to see the new energy she brings to New Haven’s extensive power grid of memory and collections.”

Tony Falcone
“I found myself at the 50-year mark in my career and it occurred to me that I should make all of this work presentable,” said Falcone. (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

The work of archiving can also allow individuals to take stock of their personal work and consider how best to present it to an audience or collector. For New Haven artist Tony Falcone, that meant sorting and cataloguing decades of work, including public murals, portraits, cityscapes, and illustrations.

I never thought I’d be doing any kind of archival conservation, but all of a sudden I found myself at the 50-year mark in my career and it occurred to me that I should make all of this work presentable, something that someone can use and benefit from,” said Falcone.

Coggins has been instrumental in helping him think through ways to organize and document his materials, Falcone says, to make them useful for approaching museums and galleries.

The program has also provided guidance and support for community members taking on projects related to New Haven history. Frank Carrano, founder of the Wooster Square Italian Immigrant Historical Association, has consulted with the program about various projects the organization is undertaking to preserve and share the history of the Wooster Square neighborhood.

The collection included a book, La colonia Italiana di New Haven, Connecticut, self-published in 1921 by Antonio Canelli and written in Italian, as a history and guide for new immigrants. Carrano’s copy was fragile. “It had been sitting in an attic, the paper was brittle,” he said. “I was reluctant to touch it too much.”

Carrano had first considered taking it to a copy center to create a digital version. “The only option they had was to go page by page under the copier, which nobody thought was a good idea for a book in such fragile condition,” he said.

A friend put him in touch with Coggins, who found a copy of Canelli’s book in the Beinecke’s own collection that was in better shape. She had it digitized using one of the library’s specialized scanners. This strategy — creating a “digital surrogate” — allows the text to be shared, while protecting the delicate original.

Carrano says the program has also been a useful resource as his organization undertakes other preservation projects, such as collecting oral testimonies from families about their immigrant ancestors. “I certainly appreciate the relationship we were able to establish,” said Carrano. “I know I can reach out to Jennifer at any time and she will respond with helpful advice.”

For Coggins, personal archives can offer a way to preserve not only exceptional moments but also the more quotidian aspects of our lives — ones that may seem extraordinary to a future reader.

Coggins is offering an introduction to personal archiving and preservation basics — “Preserving Your History: Getting Started with Your Own Archives” — at the Fair Haven branch of the New Haven Free Public Library on June 13 at 6 p.m. Members of the New Haven community may contact Coggins with questions or to request a consultation: jennifer.coggins@yale.edu.

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