Gail Naughton and the Czech books of Iowa

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If you want to find out more about the long history of Czechs and Slovaks in the United States, the place to start is The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The museum was devastated by floods in 2008 and some 6,000 flood-damaged volumes from the library are still being painstakingly restored. But the pace of recovery has been remarkably fast, and within the next couple of years, an ambitious project to rebuild and expand the museum should be complete. With it the library will also be up and running once again. In Czech Books this week, David Vaughan finds out more about the library’s rich collections.

Museum in Cedar Rapids
The director of the museum in Cedar Rapids, Gail Naughton, was in Prague at the beginning of September for a conference that brought together over a hundred representatives of Czech émigré communities from across the world. She gave a vividly illustrated talk on the work being done to recover from the floods. Afterwards I took the opportunity to ask her about the library and its history. To start with, I was intrigued to know how the foremost institution devoted to Czech and Slovak history and culture in the United States came to be in Cedar Rapids.

“Lots of people ask that question. To go back a little, when the Czechs emigrated to the United States, they particularly came to the middle of the country: up and down Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and down into Texas. And when some people got together in Cedar Rapids to form a museum, it was just in the right place – it was right in the centre of all this.”

And when was that?

“It was the 1970s, and the national museum came into being in the 1990s. Always, from the very first day in the 1970s, there was always a museum and a library.”

So, tell me something about the kind of books and other documents that you have in the library…

“Well, at first it was a lot of books that were in the Czech language, some in the Slovak language, that people had originally brought with them and that were being used less and less, so the family didn’t want to keep them. That formed a core. Since that time we have expanded a lot more and have a lot more personal papers, archival materials, photographs, maps and periodicals, from as many Czech and Slovak organizations in the United States as we can reach.”

And how far back do these books and other materials go?

“I would say mostly from the 1800s, through the 1900s. We have tried to focus on some key volumes today, but we’ve focused mostly on historical reference material, family histories, histories of states and counties and the kind of things that are worthwhile for the future.

And can you give me some examples?

“One example I can give you is a set of letters, written by a man named Jan Pospishil, and this set of letters was written while he was on the battlefield, fighting in the Civil War of the United States. He had been a new immigrant and had decided that this country was so worth sacrificing for that he went to war, and wrote home in Czech to his family, giving his story of what it was like for a new American to fight in that civil war. It’s really a very interesting topic.”

It must be quite moving, as well…

Gail Naughton
“Yes, although it’s surprising, sometimes, when people write these things, that they’re very day to day, but even that tells us a story.”

[If you would like to see a scan of some of the letters, go to http://cdm.statelibraryofiowa.org/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/czech&CISOPTR=137&REC=1]

And so your collection must map very vividly the life of the early settlers, who came to Mid-America from Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia.

“Yes, it does, but we are still constantly collecting these kinds of things. Families come to us from all over with family papers, family travel documents, correspondence. We try to collect organizational periodicals – newsletters – because those are fascinating – the things that people were doing, from their social life to their more political life. In more recent years we have a collection from the Czechoslovak National Council of America, which was an organization formed in 1918 that dissolved in about 2005. And in the early years of that organization their purpose was to fight for the freedom of their homeland, and there were many fascinating things that they did. So it is not a cohesive story, but many pieces of a story from a lot of different voices and different angles.”

In the course of the 20th century, the position of people of Czech and Slovak origin in the United States in relation to their homeland must have changed dramatically as different regimes came and went. There was the First Republic – the democratic Czechoslovak state between the wars – then the Nazi occupation, then the 40 years of communist rule, and now, of course, the re-opening of Czech society. This must be quite a complicated and sometimes quite difficult relationship.

“Well, it is, and we see all sorts of reactions. We have people who tell us that when their family came they were children and their parents wanted them to speak English – they wanted them to be American – and there’s a whole generation in there that can’t speak Czech. It has skipped them, because the family was so adamant that they needed to be American. And now we find them coming back and saying, ‘I wish I knew the language better,’ and so they learn the language. But then on the other hand there are families who have stayed very closely in touch with their relatives, and have continued to go back and fourth through the years – not just after communism, but even during it. So, I suppose it goes back to the reason they came in the first place: was it from some travail – the result of some personal history with the government, which made them really want to get out – or were there other reasons, which meant that they still stayed very close to home.”

And what kind of people use the library and visit the museum?

“Well, it’s a mix. There are people, of course, who are of Czech or Slovak descent, who want to come. They enjoy it, they tell us all the things we need to do, to get right and so forth. And then there are more serious researchers. We’ve had people use the library for their research and will continue to do that. We have some general public, who really are not Czech or Slovak – they’re history aficionados or they’re just interested in history and culture. They’ll come for a temporary exhibition, then go through our historical exhibition. So it’s a wide range of people really.”

And is part of your task also to try to keep the Czech and Slovak cultural traditions alive?

“It is, and we watch how many of those people who came in those early years, came from the smaller villages, and they brought all of that culture with them, and I think even took the opportunity to celebrate the culture here that they were having more trouble at home doing. And so, yes, we do, but it becomes Americanized as well over the years, and we recognize that. So we also try to have authentic cultural activities from the Czech and Slovak Republics and bring them over, as part of our process for people to learn how rich their culture is.”

And has your work changed since the split of Czechoslovakia?

“Not really. It was interesting, though, that the timing of the split was when this museum was changing, transforming from more of a local museum to a national museum. And there was a very specific decision made that it would be Czech and Slovak. Before that, it had been Czechoslovak. And it’s really almost impossible to tell the historical story of one without the other, they’re so entwined through history, through various regimes. And the language, while it’s not the same, is closely related. So that was a very conscious decision in the ‘90s.”

And, of course, there are other elements in the Czech Republic and Slovakia as well. There is also the Jewish history of Czechoslovakia, or the people living in America who were from German-speaking Bohemian or Moravian families, or Hungarian-speaking in Slovakia. That must be a slightly more complex legacy to deal with.

“Well it is. We have some correspondence among families that is in all three languages – just different members of the family and so forth. I have to say that to this date I’ve not delved into those issues very deeply. But it is a very interesting history that really says a lot about the history of Europe and the history of the 20th century in particular, that we think there are many lessons to be learned for everyone from that experience.”

Museum after the floods, photo: Vít Pohanka
The museum has an excellent website (www.ncsml.org). Presumably, if people are interested in doing research into Czechs and Slovaks in the United States, this is a good place to start.

“It is, although I would have to give a caveat at this point in time, because we went through a disaster in 2008 – our museum was flooded – and that included the library. We had removed many items before the flood, but not all. There wasn’t time, and so we are in the process of recovery now. We do not have a public face of the library at this point, our director of the library fields questions and enquiries about the library via email – his address can be found on our website – we had an online catalogue of over 10,000 items, but that catalogue is not active at this point in time. So, we have some work ahead of us to get back to full-fledged library work here in the future.”

So, when do you think you will be back, business as usual?

“Well, in the long haul it will be years. This was a very devastating hit for us. In the short term though, we are building a new museum and library now; it will be opening probably in mid-2012, and the library will have a public face then. We will be open and more of our materials will be organized at that point, so we hope to get the online catalogue back working.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on September 19, 2010.