PBS’ History Detectives do some sleuthing at Friends Historical Library

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Sitting in the Friends Historical Library, a cell phone rang. All eyes immediately turned towards the offender–not for disturbing the peace, but for disturbing the take. They had finally gotten the lighting of the shot right, and now this? I was grateful I had left all of my noise-making devices elsewhere. The way the shadows fall on your book isn’t something you usually give much thought to while in the library, but on Friday the 23rd, a PBS camera crew from the show “History Detectives” descended on the Friends Historical Library to choreograph shadows, to police unruly noise, and most importantly to get to the bottom of a new mystery.

pbs.jpgby Miles Skorpen

Christopher Densmore, curator of the Friends Historical Library, explained that on the show, “they find a document or an artifact which they have a question about… the whole show is about going from the question about the artifact and talking with people who may know something about it until they find out the answer.” Although he couldn’t spoil the mystery for us, he explained that the show “had found something with a Quaker connection, so we worked with them on trying to identify what it was.” In particular, the document was connected to Quaker abolitionists and the Underground Railroad, an area in which Densmore is a leading scholar.

Densmore explained that the crew had contacted him five weeks in advance for help with their research. Once they had determined that the Friends Historical Library was where they wanted to be, rather than somewhere like Guilford or Earlham, they wrote a rough script and came out to film. “By the time they get to us, they have a good idea of what they want to have happen in the show… they didn’t script it out totally. They knew that in this scene, this is the kind of information they wanted to come out, but they let me express it in the way I was most comfortable with.” Densmore said that he and the other librarians was impressed by the research skills of the producers, particularly, “the amount that they were able to come up with in a very short period of time.”

He stressed that filming “wasn’t just a matter of sticking a microphone in somebody’s face and having them talk.” He had to redo takes because of excessive forehead glare, weird shadows, and even accidentally looking at the camera during a take. Even when everything went well, the crew still had to do takes from multiple angles so as to have more to work with in the editing room. The crew was at Swarthmore for almost twelve hours, from 10 AM to 10 PM.

The crew also did some filming in the area. Although Archivist Patricia O’Donnell won’t appear on camera, her house will. According to her, they needed a local house “as a backdrop… they filmed a scene knocking on my door.” She explained that “they don’t have Hollywood budgets so they need to do things like this.” O’Donnell also reported being very impressed by the skill and professionalism of the producers and was happy to help with “our mission of getting accurate history out there… it’s a big expenditure of time, but it will get us out there to an audience.”

The show was a change of pace for the librarians, since “we’re often on the academic side of people doing research for an article or a book that will circulate no more than a thousand copies… a lot of people are interested in history, and they’ll see a movie or a television program, so it’s a way of presenting history to an audience that might never think to come into those doors.”

Densmore explained that archivists have to trade off between reaching the public and protecting their documents. “If we thought something was going to be damaged in the filming we wouldn’t do it.” While filming a 200-year-old document, Densmore was grateful that it was encapsulated in Mylar, because “it’s being shown, turned around, put down, picked up, all by multiple people… I was noticing that you could see greasy fingerprints, not because anybody’s hands were greasy, you simply have oil on your fingertips.”

“There is a public side to what we do,” said Densmore, “and I think we ignore the public side of the presentation of history at our peril… if people who have the facts aren’t willing to present them, there are other people who aren’t so knowledgeable who will fill in the gap.” That said, it’s more common for the Friends Historical Library to loan items for exhibition than to be featured on television. For example, one of their documents is currently on display for an exhibit about abolitionist activity at the Maryland Historical Society. Densmore has also been featured as an expert on the Underground Railroad in a handful of documentaries, on Pennsylvania public access television, and even on Canadian radio.

Will the publicity bring more scholars to the Friends Historical Library? Densmore doesn’t expect to see any sort of spike in visitation, but he says that it’s always good to get the name out there, and people who see the program might remember the name and come in months or years later when they’re looking for information. Who uses the library now? Currently, there are students from Yale and Columbia working on dissertations at the Friends Historical Library, but people also come to do research “who are just interested in family genealogy” and amateur historians. One interesting thing about working in Quaker history is the number of histories with which it intersects, according to Densmore. People come in who are interested in African-American history, women’s history, Native American history, and also people looking for material on clothing, architecture, and even botany, which “has a huge Quaker foundation in this area.”

If you can’t wait to find out more about the mystery, mark the month of July down on your calendar, as that’s when the episode is scheduled to appear. It’s perfect timing for Swarthmore students–we know you all miss McCabe over the summer, and this show will give you a twenty-minute dose of home.

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