by Randal Beeman
On Wednesday, February 1st the Ventura County Museum hosted the first installment of its “Speaking of Ventura County” series, an 8 week program featuring local scholars discussing matters related to the county’s past. Among the future lectures are presentations on agricultural water use, travel writing, Ventura County’s Mexican-American community in the 1920s, and a talk on the Ventura School for Girls.
The series commenced with a session entitled “The Real Thing: The Value of Primary Resource Material in Research Today,” Charles Johnson, the Research Library Director at the Ventura County Museum, Michael Redmon, Director of Research at the Santa Barbara County Museum, and Frank Barajas, Chair of the History Department at CSU-Channel Islands, took turns addressing their own careers, the importance of primary source materials, and some of the challenges they have encountered in preserving history in Ventura County.
Johnson noted that without primary source research the public would rarely get new insights into the past as historians would simply repeat other authors instead of delving into new sources or new interpretations of historical events. Johnson and Redmon also lamented that aspiring scholars and even accomplished researchers have become accustomed to conducting all of their research on the internet. In fact, much of the historical record has yet to be digitized due to the immense cost of digitizing materials and the time involved in converting records into new formats,
Barajas spoke of how his passion for primary source research helped connect him to Alice McGrath, a communist civil rights activist who fought for the rights of Mexican-American youth during the infamous Sleepy Lagoon Trial during World War II. Redmon talked about a collection he acquired and processed from an early 20th century diabetes researcher who did some of the initial work using insulin to treat the disease. His clinic eventually evolved into the world renowned Samsung clinic.
All of the scholars agreed that capturing and maintaining digital documents and resources will be a challenge for future archivists, and the lack of space and resources are always problems in the public history business. The librarians continued with a discussion of some of the frustrations they encounter with individual researchers, with a common theme being that the public and scholars themselves are often unaware of the service librarians provide.
Members of the public can be indirect and vague when asking about what they are seeking in the collection. The panel, moderated by Ventura County Museum Education Director Megan Gately, encouraged the audience to appreciate the value of primary source material in providing fresh interpretations of the past. Approximately 50 people attended the event.