Sunday, December 10, 2017

Columbia’s Best Ambassador

Once upon a time, back when I was much shyer than I am now, I ventured out to an event at the Columbia Archives. This was back when it was in its old home in the American City Building. I can’t remember the particular exhibit that was being debuted that evening. I do remember being overwhelmed by the number of attendees all of the same generation, who all knew one another, and who, I supposed, had all known Jim Rouse.

They clumped together chummily in the small space. They lingered over the photographic display, sharing personal anecdotes. It was easier to back up and out of the way. I left feeling that 1) I hadn’t really done the exhibit justice, and 2) maybe it wasn’t really meant for me, anyway. 

I felt defeated. I was intrigued by the archives and had great admiration for its director, Barbara Kellner. But that evening suggested to me that perhaps Columbia history was the property of the Pioneers. At any rate, I came away feeling that my attendance didn’t truly matter.

I was wrong.

Unbeknownst to me, Ms. Kellner had noticed me there that evening. And it mattered to her that I was interested enough in the archives to show up in person. I don’t know how she was able to spot me in that crowded room, all while she was giving personal attention to so many enthusiastic guests. Attention to detail is a hallmark of good archivists, clearly.

Anyway, some years later Ms. Kellner was willing to sit down with me at Comptoir at the Lakefront and answer my questions about the history of Symphony Woods, her thoughts on the ongoing process of the Inner Arbor Trust plan, and many other things as well. I learned so much that day and I was very grateful to her for giving her time and expertise to bring a local blogger up to speed.

Back when the Columbia Association discovered social media and everyone got their own account on  Facebook, my favorite was the Columbia Archives account. Ms. Kellner seemed to instinctively know how to use the new platform to engage, pique interest, inform, and build connections. When CA reversed course and shut all those individual accounts down, they made a huge mistake in de-activating the Archives account. It was by far the best ambassador for all things Columbia that they had going. It was Excite Columbia before it was cool.

I had heard this summer that Ms. Kellner was retiring and, despite the time I have had since then to process it,  I still can’t wrap my brain around it. I’m guessing that she would not want the Archives mission to be associated so closely with her that it couldn’t go on in her absence. It’s crucial that the Columbia Archives not be merely “Barbara Kellner’s archives”. If they are to live on along with the New American City, we need to think of them as our archives. No matter what our ages. No matter when we moved here.

Please go read more about Ms. Kellner in this article by Janene Holzberg:

Over quarter century, Columbia archivist made her own mark in history

This quote from archivist Robin Emrich says it all:

Barb is the key liaison between Columbia history and the public. There is no Columbia ambassador equal to her.

The best of wishes to Ms. Kellner in her retirement. We ought to give you the key to the city. But I have a feeling that, if there is one, you already have it. In the Archives. 

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