We know history is important in St. Augustine. The stories of all those who came before us in the Ancient City, and the documents that tell those stories, are the key to understanding our illustrious history. Given this, the transitive property tells us that the person tasked with keeping these historical documents safe and accessible must be one of the most important people in town, and chances are not many people know much about him. This interview should help to illuminate the man with a crucial role in making sure St. Augustine’s story is told:
Give me a brief overview of who you are and what your role is:
I’m Bob Nawrocki and my job is as the Chief Librarian of the St. Augustine Historical Research Library. I have been involved in archives, records management and information management for over 40 years. I work with the two members of my staff Debby Willis and Charles Tingley to preserve and make available the history of St. Augustine and St. Johns County from its’ founding until today. I always say that I am preserving these items not just for current patrons but those who will be coming to the library in the next 100 years.
What makes this library different than the public library?
We are a public library in that we are open to the public at no cost. The scope of our collection and the types of material we collect are what sets us apart from the typical public library. Our scope is limited to St. Augustine and St. Johns County but our collection encompasses books, maps, photographs, oral histories, genealogical material, moving images and manuscripts.
Also unlike a public library you can’t check something out. Much of our material is one of kind or rare so everything in our collection has to be used here in the library.
So it’s more than a collection of books. What other types of material are in the library?
What don’t we have! In our library we have books about Florida and St. Augustine history, maps, photographs, photos and photo albums, microfilm of almost all of St. Augustine’s newspapers from 1821 to date, microfilm of church and government records, CDs of images and documents, St. Augustine music in albums, 45’s, cassette tapes and hard copy. Scrapbooks, clipping files, videos, oral histories and manuscript collections of documents of people and organizations, maps and architectural drawings from local architects. I think there is more but that should give you an idea of the depth and breadth of our collections. If it’s about St. Augustine we try to collect it.
Remember that we also collect objects which are the part of our museum. So if you have something related to St. Augustine or St. Johns county let us know, we may want to add it our collections.
The Historical Society has been around for a long time; don’t we know everything there is to about St. Augustine? What is there left to learn?
We’ve barely scratched the surface of St. Augustine history. There are literally thousands maybe hundreds of thousands of Spanish documents that need to be translated. There are records in the British Library, their National Archives, that have records about the British occupation of St. Augustine but we don’t have copies. There are many streets that have never been photographed so we don’t know what the houses on that street looked like. So as Yogi Berra said “it aint over till it’s over” so there are many more stories about St. Augustine and St. Johns County that need to be told.
A question from Bernado Segui, ca. 1800: “What the heck have you done with my house?”
Chill Bernie, your house is in good hands. Like most buildings over two hundred years old it is modified over the years to match the needs of the owners. Over the years the library building has been a private home, a warehouse, offices and a boarding house, a public library and now the St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library. Each time the building’s use changed changes were made to the building. When the public library left, the building was eventually offered to the historical society for use the Research Library. The society undertook a restoration of the building so it will survive another 200 years.
Do you currently have a favorite item in the library?
If I had to pick a favorite it would be the small collection of ledger drawings done by the Native American captives in the Castillo. The drawings are of the prisoners’ daily life back home and events here in St. Augustine. Sadly these drawings are so fragile that we cannot exhibit them. They have been scanned so you can see a digital image but not the original.
For me these collections provide a window into past times.
What is one thing you wish all St. Augustinians knew about the library?
That we exist, we are the best kept secret in St. Augustine. While we have between 1,200 and 1,800 visitors a years the vast majority are from outside St. Augustine. Our job is the preserve everyone’s history in St Augustine and St. Johns county. We save it all for the future.
Many people think we only want “old stuff” and that couldn’t be further from the truth. The library works to preserve as much as we can not only for our current patrons but the patrons who will be coming to the library in 50, 100 and even 200 years. The society has been in existence since 1883 and we will be here in 2083.
A good example is the documentation of the 450th anniversary. While we have some videos that were on television I know that there were thousands of cell phone videos and photo that were taken of all the events. We need to collect these. In the old past people would bring in packets of pictures or a photo album that documented what had happened. Now people dump their phones and/or computers and the images, videos and other electronic records disappear forever. So if you have digital images from the 450th I would like to get copies.
What’s a current project at the library?
Our most useful and yet incredibly fragile resource is our photographic collection. So we are digitizing our photographs and posting to ‘Emily’, our online catalog (it’s named ‘Emily’ in honor of Emily Lloyd Wilson, the Historical Society’s librarian from 1919-1930s). Just go to oldesthouse.org and click on the library button.
We digitize for preservation and access.
To learn more about the St. Augustine Historical Society, visit them online.