When they make a new discovery about the history of Wheeling, they do a little dance.
And no, neither one of them cares if someone witnesses the celebration because the busted-out moves mean a treasure hunt has ended with finding treasure.
Sean Duffy and Erin Rothenbuehler are both employees at the Ohio County Public Library, and they have teamed up to publish www.ArchivingWheeling.org, a new online community designed to showcase the local and regional history collections of the Ohio County Public Library and its heritage partners.
According to Duffy, the mission of Archiving Wheeling is to virtually connect these collections, providing a web-based community archive to facilitate access, by researchers and the general public, to materials that document the rich history of our region.
“We’ve lost a lot, and we know that, but that’s why we are here. That’s why we have the archives,” Duffy said. “It’s all about preserving these documents and photographs and to make them accessible so people enjoy them, do research, educate, and learn.
“There’s so much we have learned, so we know there’s a lot more to learn,” he continued. “People are paying more attention to history now than when I was younger, but now that the focus on redevelopment is focused on the reuse of buildings, I think a lot more attention is being paid to the history. And that’s a good thing.”
The website features a new piece of Wheeling history each week, and the online presence is the result of library’s efforts to collect and preserve as much history as possible. It is hoped that greater public awareness of what is available will encourage people to consider donating important archival materials to the appropriate local organization so that these historically significant materials can be properly preserved, housed, and accessed locally, where they originated and where they belong.
“I started working here two years ago, and because of my background with building preservation, I was asked if I would like to work with Sean with the archives,” explained Rothenbuehler. “It was something being worked on previously, but that gentleman retired, so when we took it over, we were tasked with increasing public awareness and expanding the effort.
“That’s when we came up with Archiving Wheeling,” she continued. “We believed it was a way to engage the public and a way to connect other collections that other organizations have compiled. Now, the awareness has been spread to the whole community because this goes far beyond what we have collected.”
“It is very difficult sometimes to find things when they are doing research, so we believe it would be a great place for people to go,” Duffy said. “It’s a one-stop-shop. A hub of history. That’s why we wanted to invite the other entities to collaborate with us so we can get those stories, too.
“It has evolved from there, and now it’s not just the photographs, but also the stories that go along with those photographs,” he continued. “What we have found is that once it’s out there people are adding to what we have discovered, and that have included information that we did not know. It has grown into what we envisioned, but also more than that. It’s become storytelling.”
A prime example of how one old photo can unlock mysteries about American history is the photograph Duffy and Rothenbuehler found rolled up and forgotten.
“It said, ‘USS Wheeling’ on it, so we went through the process of unrolling it and re-hydrated it and that took several weeks,” Rothenbuehler said. “We found out that the photo was of the crew of the USS Wheeling in 1919 in New Orleans.
“When we looked carefully at the photo, we found that there were three African-Americans in the photo, and that was unusual at that time because of the rules the military had back then about who was allowed to serve and who wasn’t allowed,” she continued. “African-Americans had been banned from serving in the Navy after World War I, but what we found out was that they were allowed to continue serving after World War I if they had prior service on their record.”
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“It may just be a photo of a crew of a military ship, but we have found so much more U.S. history contained within that photo, and the further you dive into it, the more interesting it had become. Initially, we just intended to tell the story about unrolling it but it became so much more interesting than that process.”
And yes, they did dance.
“It’s an adventure. We call it, ‘history mystery,’ Duffy said. “So often one artifact reveals so much more you didn’t know. Every time we think a project is going to be a simple one, many more things unfold.
“It’s a lot of fun, to be honest, and there’s always more to learn about the roles this area played in American history. That’s why we feel it’s important to get as much of it out to the public as possible,” he said. “It’s nerd stuff; it’s geek stuff, but it’s a lot of fun, and I know a lot of people enjoy and appreciate it.”
And there’s plenty of history when it comes to Wheeling, W.Va., that spans centuries, and thanks to donations from local residents Duffy and Rothenbuehler possess plenty of material for the website.
“We have so much that it’s going to be easy to keep the updates going for a very long time,” Duffy reported. “If one photograph or one postcard can start an avalanche of discovery, then I say we’ll have plenty of material for the future because we have a whole room full of it.
“We have photographs and postcards and documents, and new things come in frequently, so I don’t think we’re ever going to run out,” he said. “This city’s history covers several eras in the history of this country and everything that’s happened in America.”
On occasion, though, they get frustrated over something they cannot find, and the amusement park known as “Coney Island” is one piece of history that keeps them searching for more.
“That’s a good example of something that we know existed, but we’ve not been able to find very much about it as far as photos are concerned. But we know it has to be out there,” Duffy said. “There’s a huge potential for discovery. It just hasn’t been discovered yet.
“We may not have much now but we know it’s out there, and that’s exciting, too,” he said. “There are a lot of times when people will bring things in that they have found, and even though it may look like nothing, there’s always something. One never knows what could be in a photo. That’s why I tell people to never think some musty old photo album should be thrown away because there could be a treasure inside.”
Duffy and Rothenbuehler are appreciative of the cooperation www.ArchivingWheeling.org has received from local residents and organizations who are interested in the same goal, preserving the history of the Friendly City. It is those heritage partners who will allow growth to continue.
“And we hope even more people want to support these efforts by making contributions,” Duffy said. “If someone finds a photo or something that might offer something historical, they should bring it in to us. If nothing else, we’ll be able to digitally scan it for them no matter what condition it’s in.”
(Photos provided by the Ohio County Public Library)