ATLANTIC CITY — When you step into the archives department at the Atlantic City Free Public Library, you come face to face with the past — souvenirs from the 1900s, Beatles tickets, lifeguard uniforms and nightclub posters. That is, once you squeeze your way through the door, past the tables and around the archivists’ desks.
“There’s a wealth of information in ... well, I’m not quite sure what the square footage is,” said reference librarian Shannon O’Neill, standing in the tiny aisle between the shelves. “Less than 300 square feet, for sure. There are hundreds of years of history in this little room.”
The hope, however, is that the expansive-yet-cramped nature of the archives will itself become a thing of the past. The library is about to undergo an extensive renovation, which could finally result in a larger storage and exhibition space for what is officially known as the Alfred M. Heston Collection. Heston was one of the founders of the library. The renovation would give enough room, finally, to showcase a good portion of its 20,000 postcards, or the “beer bell” rung at Schaufler’s Hotel every time a new keg was tapped (it is now stored in an upstairs closet).
But the archivists’ true dream is the proposed “Atlantic City Experience,” a new museum that would include digital displays and provide a fully immersive atmosphere.
“We envision in our next home having a big, interactive map, where you’d press a button and learn about the history of the neighborhood,” said archivist Heather Halpin Perez. “You could physically touch areas of the city.”
They also have their eye on a few more tangible things as well — items that currently could not fit in the archives room if they tried, such as a Van Duyne boat of the type used by area lifeguards.
“With the Beach Patrol, there’s so many things we could do with that,” Perez said. “We work closely with the Atlantic City Historical Museum, and they have oars. When we have the space, we’d love to have a boat. Kids could take pictures, put on a jacket and see what it’s actually like to be a lifeguard. The Beach Patrol was the very first in the country, and we’d really like people to understand that part of their history.”
Atlantic City, O’Neill said, “is really a city of firsts, and that often gets forgotten.”
O’Neill pointed to a Beach Patrol “yearbook” on a table, sitting next to photos of the early days of the casino era and the heyday of Kentucky Avenue. Inside were carefully handwritten notes listing every guard and every single rescue — 5,979 in 1920 alone. Although 1921 did see one death by drowning, the record states: the unfortunate W.R. Jenkins of Waterlect, N.Y., a town that, intriguingly, does not exist.
There also were a few nondrowning fatalities, some stranger than others.
“The nitty-gritty is kind of gruesome,” O’Neill said of one entry. “A man must have been intoxicated, and he choked on a cigar butt.”
Atlantic City also had the first public housing system in the state, and one of the first in the nation.
“Joseph Jacobs was one of the earliest residents of Stanley Holmes Village, and we have a receipt from his first rent payment,” O’Neill said. “He lived at 1627 Drexel Ave., he was a teacher in the New Jersey Avenue School and it cost $32.30 for his April 1937 rent payment.”
As it happens, Jacobs was the grandfather of Pamela James, executive director of the Atlantic City Housing Authority.
“When she saw the pictures and the housing receipt, she was just overwhelmed,” O’Neill said.
Many area residents have such priceless mementos and artifacts tucked away somewhere, little seen by anyone — and if they do, the archives staff is interested.
“We encourage you, if you have an unusual collection in the attic, other people don’t have the opportunity to look at it,” O’Neill said. “If those materials are here, they’d get a wider range of access.”
“We do have the resources to take care of those things,” Perez said. “If something’s falling apart in your mother’s attic, we can take care of that here. ... And if you don’t want to give us the original, we can scan a (digital) copy. The only parameters are that it be Atlantic City-related.”
Since Perez arrived five years ago, O’Neill said, the department has tried to be more open to the public than most archives.
“People think of archives as elite places,” O’Neill said. “I knew a person who had to have two to three letters of accreditation to even look at some documents. We have open hours. People can just come in and say, ‘I just want to look at a yearbook.’”
Perez — who did not mention that she is listed as a consultant in the credits of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” — described the variety of the numerous emails and questions the archives receives on a daily basis.
“It’s always an adventure,” Perez said. “You may come in one day and get an email from someone in Ireland.”
“Or one saying, ‘My grandmother owned a pub on some street,’” O’Neill said. “‘Do you know the name of the pub?’”
“‘And the name of the street, too?’” Perez added.
Right now, the focus is on a planned August exhibit on the heyday of the Kentucky Avenue nightclubs.
“We have our vision,” Perez said. “Even if we’re not able to implement it right away, we are able to do some small parts. Our (architectural) consultant should be finished by early spring next year, and at that point, we hope to begin more active planning. ... I can see lots of different exhibits based on the Atlantic City Experience in the future.”
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