On the Record

On the record ... with Sue Breese

County historian Sue Breese maintains the Joiner History Room.
County historian Sue Breese maintains the Joiner History Room.

One of the most popular features of the MidWeek is the weekly “Looking Back” column, tidbits of news from the Sycamore True Republican’s issues from 125, 100, 75, and 50 years earlier.

Almost 100 years of that newspaper’s archives was recently put online through a joint effort of the Joiner History Room in Sycamore, the University of Illinois library, and Shaw Publishing, which owns the MidWeek.

“How great is that? I don’t think a day goes by that we don’t hear from somebody about how they use it,” said Sue Breese, director of the Joiner History Room and DeKalb County historian.

Breese became director of the history room earlier this year after her predecessor, Phyllis Kelley, passed away. In 1979, Kelley was given the task of cataloging and indexing the contents of over 50 years’ worth of documents and memorabilia that had been stored in the basement of the DeKalb County courthouse by Earl and Ralph Joiner, the father-and-son team who served as consecutive county clerks from 1926-1976.

Kelley was named the county’s first historian in 1989 and she established the Joiner History Room, which was originally in the basement of the courthouse but is now housed in the Sycamore Public Library.

Breese began as a visitor to the history room, then became a volunteer. Kelley began preparing her to take over the role of historian.

“She had kind of groomed me for that for a number of years,” Breese recalled. “That’s part of the job – to find somebody to replace you because we are just temporary caretakers for this information, so it’s important to have someone who knows what’s going on, and could step in at any time to take over.”

In addition to newspaper archives, the Joiner History Room houses other collections, including historic maps, cemetery records, church histories, city directories, Civil War regimental rosters of DeKalb County units, county and township histories, census records, family files and genealogies, obituaries and historic photographs.

Breese sat down with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg to reflect upon the role the Joiner History Room has had in documenting the county’s history, and what role technology will have in preserving that history for generations to come.

MidWeek: What can you tell me about the history of the Joiner Room?
Sue Breese: It started with the Joiners and their passion for the history of the county. They would put boxes away of papers and things because they were hoping in the future that there would be a history room where all of this information could be shared. Once they had quite a bit of things, Phyllis Kelley was hired to sort through and organize it, and that was kind of the beginning of the Joiner History Room.

MW: When did you come on board?
SB: I had worked for DeKalb Ag for 30 years, and then Monsanto took over and eliminated our department in 2004. I knew my time at Monsanto was coming to an end so I decided to take a little time to get caught up on my family’s genealogy, and I knew I wanted to come here. I was done at Monsanto in December (2003) and I started here the third of January (2004). It’s addicting. I just got hooked on everything.

MW: What can you tell me about the collections here?
SB: We are an archive, as opposed to a museum. We are a research facility, not a place you can come in to tour and see displays and that kind of stuff. If you are researching anything and everything, not just genealogy, but old photos of anything and everything related to DeKalb County. …You never know what’s going to walk through the door that you’ll be researching, which makes it really interesting.

MW: Are you planning to digitize materials in the history room?
SB: All of these are newspapers, about 100 years of the Sycamore True Republican, and those are digitized. We worked with the University of Illinois to put them online. You can either search by keyword or your can browse an issue by date to see the entire paper so if something happened on a certain date, you can go right to that paper.

MW: What else have you digitized?
SB: We also worked with Dr. Drew VandeCreek (director of digital initiatives at Northern Illinois University libraries) at NIU a few years ago… Those boxes of photos have all been scanned by Drew and his group. They were in for about three summers scanning photos. Those are available online through Northern’s “Taming of the Wild Prairie” program.

MW: Are the people in those photographs identified?
SB: They are, as best we can. A lot of the photos are town buildings and things like that.

MW: My family has roots that go way back in DeKalb County and I love browsing those old papers.
SB: Well what we also have here, because we are also the county archives, are a lot of the original papers from when the county was founded. You, like my family, go way back in the county. I can go to some of these papers and see the signatures of my great-great grandfather who signed the letters of incorporation for Hinckley when they were organizing that village. …I could go on and on and on about what we’ve got, and still after doing this all this time, I still get excited when I find something about somebody I know, even if it’s not a relative. I think it’s exciting to hold a piece of history in your hand. How many people get to do that? How many people get to touch the document that was touched by an ancestor who’s gone well before me?

MW: Have you kept the history room’s hours the same since you became the director?
SB: We have. We are volunteers here, so we are only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but we do take special requests for other times for things like school classes or a family group. Last summer, the Beard family visited and we opened just for them. It was a blast ... we had about 30 people in here.

MW: What role does technology have in the history room’s operations?
SB: I think it’s really important for us to keep up with technology. We have two computers, we have scanners. …We have a policy that nothing leaves here so we want to make sure we can reproduce what we need to with really good quality. ...We have a Facebook page and a web page. The most important thing, I think, is to do what the kids are doing technology-wise to keep up with them and get them engaged with what we’re doing.

MW: I don’t think I realized you had a Facebook page.
SB: You definitely want to check that out! We want that to get out to schools. We want kids to check that out at least once a week and we want to engage people. We just set up our page a couple months ago.

MW: The demand for digital information never ceases.
SB: We are actually in the process of digitizing our obituary files. We have about 50,000 obituaries. We are working on digitizing that, but that’s a project that will take a while.

MW: If someone walks in wanting to do some family research, how do you get them started?
SB: We have family files that we have already started, so the first thing we do is look to see if we have already started something. If they already have started their research, we might ask if we could have a copy of their research. …We do a lot of research on the Internet too. …We would also look at our obituary files – we get a lot of information from our obituary files. And from there, there are several different areas we could go.

MW: Are there professional researchers who could do research for people who don’t have the resources to do research on their own?
SB: I think the great thing about the Joiner Room is that we do have volunteer researchers, and the only thing they charge for is if you need a copy of something so the actual research – the time that we spend researching – we don’t charge for.

MW: Is everyone here a volunteer?
SB: With the economy and everything they have cut back on wages, so we truly are all volunteers, but we have a great group of volunteers who are really dedicated to this place.

MW: What were you working on before Phyllis passed away? Are there any pet projects that you have been able to dedicate more time to?
SB: At the time of her death was when the Beard family came in. She had been working on researching the Beard family for a number of years. Phyllis was not able to come that day, but she knew they had been here so we took pictures, and took them right over to her after the family left. …We were also working on a new logo at that time, which is the one we are using now.

MW: Is it mostly people wanting to do family research who come through the door?
SB: It’s a little bit of everything. It’s probably 50/50, people doing genealogy and other research like researching a home or some other research project.

MW: What kind of information is in your tuberculosis files?
SB: It’s a great subject for kids to do research papers on. It was back far enough that people have forgotten what people went through – that it was a major disease and that people died from it, and that people were quarantined because of it.

MW: I notice you have church histories listed among your materials. Don’t most churches maintain their own records?
SB: A lot of them keep their own records, but we’re happy to accept anything they want to give to us. A few year’s ago when St. John’s church in Sycamore burned down, of course they lost their history and they lost everything they had and we were able to reproduce what we had for them, so they were able to start their archive up again. It never hurts to have that information in two places for that exact reason. That’s one thing we try to emphasize – that the history’s no good if it’s sitting in a box somewhere where nobody has access to it.

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