Each month, The Stone House Center for Public Humanities interviews a humanities scholar or community member and asks them everything from why they believe the humanities are important to what they're currently binge-watching. We hope that our new blog series, Coffee & Questions, will inspire you, introduce you to a variety of people and fields, as well as create new conversations.
Our guest this month is Margaret Hewitt, Special Collections Librarian at the Butler Area Public Library. She grew up in Michigan, and received her BA from Alma College and MA in Public History from Duquesne University. She is a member of the Pennsylvania Library Association and Society of American Archivists, and is on the Community Advisory Board of the Stone House Center for Public Humanities.
What inspires you in your current position/role?
The daily interaction with patrons, because it is a new experience every day. Working at a public library, I help a wide range of people daily, from middle schoolers through octogenarians, and there’s no typical question. While most researchers coming to my department are doing family history, I get everyone from history students learning about primary sources for the first time to graduate students to new homeowners researching their house history to professors out of state. With all my researchers, finding the document or personal story that ignites the spark of interest in history is my passion -- the moment where the lightbulb goes off and someone can look beyond seeing history as a sterile list of names and dates, but the ongoing lived experiences of real people. It might be something as simple as talking for a moment about how expensive a 10cent garment advertised in a historic newspaper really was for a working person, or delving further into the historic context of the pages of an estate. I believe that if you can lead someone to empathize with the experiences that an ancestor went through or marvel at the accomplishments of a local historic figure, it opens up the opportunity for further historic curiosity and empathy for others in the world at large today.
What work experiences (past or present) have been the most educational for you, and why?
My first archival job post-grad school was for a small historical society. While they had been actively collecting documents for decades, they had never had a staff person before, so there were no finding aids and no prior organization of any kind -- I was starting from zero with a giant backlog. In school, you learn to handle collections in ideal situations, where every organization has enough staff/time/resources for their collection, but we all know those rarely exist! I valued the experience because it was truly in-the-trenches, creating an organizational hierarchy from scratch and finding the best way to store and conserve a wide range of materials on a limited budget. The collection was full of unknown surprises too, as I found everything from an 18th century land warrant for the first settler who named the town (cool) to nitrate film negatives (exciting but scary, as the material is extremely flammable, and can even self-ignite if
the film has started to degrade).
What is something that people might be surprised to learn about you (hobby, skill, interesting story)?
I love a physical challenge, and where I lack in muscle I probably overcompensate in tenacity. My fiancé and I try to hike a national park each year, and climbing the final mile rock scramble at the top of Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah was an unforgettable experience. I did a Tough Mudder with a group of family and friends, which was 12 miles of running interspersed with smart activities like jumping through fire and crawling down into rain-flooded muddy tunnels. Last year I took on my hardest--and possibly craziest--challenge yet by completing a GoRuck Tough. The Tough is a 12 hour endurance event (overnight, no less) of team-building and physical challenges based on special forces training. Participants are led by a cadre, carry a weighted pack and other team weights through the entire event, and are pushed to their mental and physical limits. I looked like I’d lost a fight with a cat in a washing machine by the end, soaked, scratched, and bruised, but it felt amazing to come through the end and I’m eyeing the calendar to sign up for another.
What shows are you currently binge-watching?
Game of Thrones, like everyone else in the world. I went as the Hound to a Halloween party this year. We watch Seinfeld reruns every night without fail. And I’ve started getting into the Great British Bake-Off. It isn’t a tv show, but I’m binge-listening to the My Favorite Murder podcast.
What is your first thought in the morning and last thought at night?
I’m a night owl who is terrible at being still and doing nothing, and I never feel satisfied with what I’ve crammed into a day, so the last thing I think at night is inevitably “one more chapter,” “one more section of this embroidery project,” “one more article,” or “one more episode.” As a result, my first thought in the morning is usually a desperate plea for coffee and regret that once again I didn’t get more sleep.
What's a book you've always wanted to read but haven't gotten around to?
Top of the list right now are Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, and finishing Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton.
Check back next month for more Coffee & Questions. In case you missed our previous interview with Wes Davis, Director of Development for West End Neighborhood House, a community center located in Wilmington, DE, click HERE.
Our vision is to create a community of learners enriched, engaged and enlightened through the humanities.