Joan Rapp – Volunteer Extraordinaire

Volunteer Joan Rapp cataloging a collection.

The Filson is most fortunate to have a loyal core of volunteers. As related in a previous post on Larry Carr vounteering at The Filson, our volunteers bring a variety of experience and knowledge to the work they do here. Their talents and dedication help us to succeed in our mission of making collections available to researchers and telling the stories of Kentucky and the Ohio Valley.

One of our most dedicated volunteers is Joan Rapp. Joan is our longest serving volunteer. A native of Albany, New York, Joan graduated from Vassar College with a BA in history. Her former husband's career took the family to various cities, including Evanston, Ill., and St. Louis. They have called Louisville home since first moving here in 1955. The mother of four sons, Joan kept very busy with family, but still found time to keep up with her interests outside the home, including history.

Joan checking entries in the card catalog.

In February of 1993 Joan began volunteering two days a week in The Filson's Special Collections Department. Seventeen years later, she is still volunteering two days a week! As with any job, orientation is an important component. There are always collections awaiting cataloging that need preprocessing - arranging a collection in proper order, foldering it, etc. This is a task that most volunteers in Special Collections begin with. Joan quickly mastered the sometimes rather involved steps of this phase of collection processing. One of the aspects of the work she most enjoyed was the immediacy of the letters. Handling letters and documents written fifty, one hundred, or perhaps two hundred years ago brings history and the people making it alive. "You're holding history in your hands," Joan says. "It is living. It is unfolding before your eyes, whether it is the descripiton of a battle, or carving a home out of the wilderness, and it's a thrill."  Such enthusiasm coupled with Joan's historical knowledge and quickly graduated her to actual cataloging.

An important aspect of cataloging is understanding what it is you're reading so that the appropriate subject and name headings can be generated for the online and printed finding aids. This is what allows the researcher to know that information regarding their topic is in a collection. If the information is missed, then important information regarding people and events might go unnoticed for years, if not forever. For years now, Joan has been cataloging new collections and "recataloging" old collections not originally done to our current standards. Joan's favorite collection cataloged, she answers with no hesitation, is the Mona Bismarck Papers. A who's who of the mid-20th century Cafe Society, Joan enjoyed reading about the activities of these "beautiful" people and more importantly, recognized the names, generating the appropriate catalog cards for them. Working on the collection also led to one of those serendipitous experiences that make working with the researchers who visit so memorable. Noted British biographer Hugo Vickers visited one day to conduct research in the Bismarck papers. Joan was volunteering that day and not only did she serve as his personal guide to the collection but she also shared her lunch with him. A memory that Mr. Vickers himself fondly recalls to this day.

Joan "living history" through cataloging.

In "recataloging" collections, Joan reads the material, checks exisiting card entries for headings she believes are pertinent, and if they are lacking she creates cards for them. In some cases, the number of entries - signposts for researchers to find material of possible interest - have more than tripled.

There is no end of collections in site for Joan to catalog. "I'm learning something all the time," she says. As a history major and avid reader, she appreciated the importance of primary sources; but in actually handling and reading the letters, diaries, and documents themselves, "history comes alive."

James J. Holmberg

One comment for “Joan Rapp – Volunteer Extraordinaire

  1. Dennis Brennan

    Any friend of Mona Bosmark is a friend of mine, especially her cataloger! I am truly impressed by this dedication and perseverance, and not one bit surprised. What a fine record of dedication and accomplishment to serve an important historical purpose. Good for Filson, having such good judgment, and congratulations to Joan. db


Leave Comment