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Making History Accessible

Pennsylvania Daughter and Penn State Librarian Sue Kellerman turned her passion for history into a career with worldwide impact—pioneering the field of preserving and digitizing print collections.

As the Judith O. Sieg Chair for Preservation at Penn State University’s Pattee Library, Sue Kellerman is responsible for the care and preservation of important collections of historical documents. When she started in this role almost three decades ago, such preservation simply meant careful bookbinding and microfilming and the use of de-acidifying paper in order to slow documents’ inevitable deterioration. During the past 15 years, Ms. Kellerman’s responsibilities have expanded to include overseeing the digitization of university collections in order to prevent further disrepair, and also to promote free, open access to the materials. Today, Penn State has one of the country’s largest digitized collection of maps, as well as numerous other digitized collections of Pennsylvania history that are available to the public.

Ms. Kellerman, a member of Bellefonte DAR Chapter, Bellefonte, Pa., is now considered a pioneer in her field. Excluding graduate school and a two-year stint in Ashland, Ky., as a reference librarian, she has spent her entire career at Penn State, where she is now an endowed chair.

Her most thrilling experience took place in 1984, when she and a colleague traveled miles upon miles across 30 counties in central Pennsylvania as serial catalogers for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Project. Their work was part of a National Endowment for the Humanities project that aimed to find, catalog, preserve and enhance access to all of the newspapers published in the United States.

“It has been the highlight of my life, and even though the project ended more than 30 years ago, it’s still part of my spirit,” she says.

The job sent Ms. Kellerman and her colleague to historical societies, county courthouses, private residences and even to antique shops, which they visited on hunches.

“Sure enough, we would find bits and pieces of old newspapers there,” she says.

But in order to be catalogued, those newspapers had to belong to someone, so Ms. Kellerman frequently bought them. “I have some extremely rare titles,” she says. “I have the only documented copy of a German newspaper, The Deutscher Volksfuehrer, first published in the Altoona, Pa., area in 1878.”

Another prized piece in her collection is an 1861 Philadelphia newspaper she bought for $1.25. “I was 12 years old at the time. It was in the gift shop of a military museum down the hill from my house, and I was just drawn to it,” she says. “The fact that I could hold a piece of history was so exciting to me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the start of the collection I have today.”

Ms. Kellerman’s other passion is helping others with preservation and digitization. An active member of the American Library Association, she holds numerous positions and frequently presents at conferences and meetings, and she has published several documents related to preservation.

She also enjoys helping people with practical preservation problems. For example, she sprang into action when a sprinkler at a public library went off, threatening stacks upon stacks of periodicals, and she even got out of bed and answered her door when a friend spilled water all over a favorite book and didn’t know what to do next.

“If people need help and I know I can provide good information, then I do it,” she says. “It’s a part of who I am.”

That same spirit led her to the DAR. After presenting to a local chapter in 2000 and “catching the genealogy bug” from a co-worker the following year, Ms. Kellerman decided to join. “For the past 14 years, it has been an incredible journey to research my family,” she says. “They’re so alive to me now, and becoming a DAR member was an important part of that.”