TERRE HAUTE —
As a child, Nancy Sherrill enjoyed visiting cemeteries with her grandmother and learning where ancestors and relatives were buried.
“She’d say, ‘There’s your great-grandfather’ and point to his grave. It didn’t strike me as unusual to be introduced to a tombstone,” Sherrill chuckled on Friday in the special collections area at the Vigo County Public Library.
For the past 40 years or so, she has helped introduce countless others to their relative past, the local history and the people of Vigo County, while working as an archivist at the library.
“I think genealogy would have been my hobby if it hadn’t been my job,” Sherrill said.
A former library sciences major at Indiana State University, the mild-mannered librarian said she got her master’s degree because she didn’t think she would like teaching.
But at the time, ISU’s library sciences program was not accredited by the American Library Association, so she could work only in a limited number of libraries. She was hired to do clerical work in special collections at the Emeline Fairbanks Memorial Library on North Seventh Street. When the director of the department left, she was “elected” to take over the collection because she was well-acquainted with the contents.
“The Fairbanks building was so cramped,” she recalled, “and there were stairs everywhere. Stairs to the front door and in the building and to get to the restrooms. It wasn’t easily accessible.”
So when the decision was made to relocate the library to a new building constructed on the site of the former Wiley High School, Sherrill was happy to make the move. One of the reference librarians boxed up the collection and made many trips between the old and new facility in his Volkswagen van. Some of the collection had been in storage at the Terre Haute House.
“We thought when we moved in here, we had space for years to come. And we did. But now we have some items back in storage,” Sherrill said.
The special collections area dates back to the 1920s, when the library was used as the repository of local history. There was no historical society or art gallery organized to properly store and display local items, she said, so the library contained artwork and statues, as well as books.
“Because of all the purposes it had served, we had all kinds of wild things,” Sherrill said. “But we also have a lot of old, out-of-print books that are historical gems.”
In the 1970s, the public interest in genealogy really took off, she said. Previously, only wealthy people had kept track of their genealogy. The marriage and death records were highly requested, she said, and they still are. The library also helps research genealogy information for attorneys who are trying to prove inheritance rights or settle estates.
The interest in local people is far-reaching.
“We have always had an international clientele,” Sherrill said. “We not only get requests from all over the country, but also all over the world. Even before there was email and it was easy to contact people, we would get letters from Germany or Japan.”
One man in Germany wrote to ask about a successful relative who was born in Terre Haute. He wanted information on the local environment where his relative had lived.
Another person in Japan wanted to research the area to better prepare a relative who was planning to travel to the Wabash Valley.
On another occasion, some people from England visited VCPL to look up information on well-known local poet Max Ehrmann — whose likeness now sits, in all weather, on a park bench at Seventh Street and Wabash Avenue.
A man in Italy contacted Sherrill to inquire how Vigo County came to be named for Frances Vigo. And there was a man in Argentina who intended to contact Vigo, Spain, but ended up emailing Vigo County.
“It’s amazing the connections,” Sherrill said. “And there was someone else who came here from Germany to look up a great-great-uncle who had worked in a local brewery. It’s just astonishing the way people have spread out and the connections that don’t go just from state to state, but from country to country.”
And the information shared is not just about people.
Buildings and businesses of the past are also popular topics for library patrons. People who buy antiques often contact the library to research a manufacturer’s stamp.
“This is the place to come if people need to know about Terre Haute and Vigo County, because this is not just genealogy, but local history,” she said.
In her years as a librarian, Sherrill said the biggest change she has seen has been because of the Internet.
In the past, many of the calls that the library handled were basic things, such as address or phone number searches. Now, people can find those things online, along with marriage licenses and death records. A lot of that was busywork, she said, so now the librarians find themselves doing more specialized searches.
“We very rarely get anything through the mail anymore. People want to pay online for copies, and they are also more in a hurry to receive replies because of email,” she said. “It’s different. It’s definitely different. But, it’s made it a lot easier to communicate with people from everywhere.”
A native of Montezuma, Sherrill said she is still interested in the local history of her hometown, where her 90-year-old mother still resides.
She remembers playing as a child around the foundations of a button factory along the Wabash River. A lot of mussel shells from the river were used in the production of buttons, she said. It was also easy to see the turning basin of the former Erie Canal where it met the Wabash River.
In retirement, Sherrill said she plans to spend some quality time with her mother. And she also hopes to digitize all of the photos left to her by her genealogist grandmother.
“I’m sure I’ll miss working here, because I have for so long,” she said.
But, it was time to go, she said, and she planned to exit gracefully Friday without a celebration or fuss.
“That would be too embarrassing,” she said.
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.