Each Tuesday for the past 30 years, visitors to the Johnson County Museum of History’s genealogy library have been welcomed by a familiar face.
Joan Woodhull’s main responsibility as a volunteer is to help people find the information they need. From looking up cemetery records to finding marriage certificates to guiding them to hard-to-find histories of individual houses in the county, she is always available to aid their search.
She knows where nearly every document and record is. After all, she organized the library.
“I don’t know why I do it, but I love it,” she said. “It’s very interesting to not only find out my roots, but to help other people find theirs.”
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Volunteers such as Woodhull are the engines that move the museum forward. People donate their time to help guide patrons through the massive genealogy department, organize obituaries and other historical documents and index the items in the museum collection.
When exhibit frames need to be made or items mounted on the wall, volunteers do the heavy lifting.
“We have two full-time staff members, and running a museum is a big time commitment. Think about how much time goes into putting up an exhibit or working with the collection or catching up on photographs,” said David Pfeiffer, museum director. “There are only so many places myself or our curator can be at any given time. We really rely on our volunteers to help with those bigger tasks.”
Every day, three or four people spend their time working with the museum collection, doing indexing in the genealogy library or installing new exhibitions. Between 10 and 15 volunteers have been helping this summer, with more taking time to work educational camps or pass out information about the museum at festivals and events, Pfeiffer said.
One of the most important things they do is help accession, or assign each new item that comes to the museum a unique number so it can be tracked and stored properly.
“Last year, we took in something like 1,500 new artifacts into the collection,” Pfeiffer said. “There’s a long process that goes into doing paperwork, making photographs, getting the proper locations and they really help with that project.”
Robert Lee started volunteering 16 years ago in the genealogy library. He was interested in the subject, and thought he could help himself as well as others.
Ruth Dorrel had a similar experience. She was the archivist for Franklin College, and was interested in researching a subject in the genealogy library about 10 years ago.
After being helped with her own project, she thought it would be nice to use her time to do the same for others.
“It’s very gratifying, if you can help them find something. It’s a little bit discouraging if you have to say that you’re sorry, we don’t have that,” she said.
Woodhull has been part of the volunteer program for the past 30 years, during with time she has contributed 12,900 hours to the museum.
Before she and her husband, Charlie Woodhull, moved to Franklin, she had volunteered for the library in Petersburg. She taught genealogy classes and set up a genealogy library for Pike County.
“I was interested in genealogy, and did my own in 1958. When I went into the library down there, it was just a public library, and they had a little bit of a history section,” she said. “The librarian told me I could have this one wall in a little room, and once I set that up, people started donating genealogy books and it kept growing and growing.”
When they came to Franklin in 1986, Woodhull decided to stay with that subject. She started serving at the museum on July 10, 1987. At the time, the museum was housed a small former residence known as the Suckow home on West Madison Street.
Working with curator Kay DeHart, she was the only volunteer at the museum. Just as she had in Petersburg, Woodhull helped organize and establish its genealogy library. One of her foremost contributions was organizing the library to make it easier for people to research different subjects.
Rather than use the Dewey Decimal System — the number-based organizational method most libraries use to categorize materials — Woodhull instead borrowed a system used by the Daughters of the American Revolution national library in Washington D.C.
“I’m in the (Daughters of the American Revolution) chapter here, and I knew they were set up by subject file. I wrote to the librarian there and asked if they would send us instructions on how to set the library up that way,” she said. “So everything in Johnson County is together — cemeteries, marriages, deaths. Then the same for Indiana and other counties. It’s very user-friendly.”
Woodhull has seen the museum move from its location in that small house to the massive Masonic Temple on Main Street, its current home. The new building offered more space to display materials, but that meant additional work arranging all of those documents and books.
She spent 834 hours in 1993 alone getting the library set up and organized.
“Her expertise if invaluable,” Pfeiffer said. “She’s been doing this research for 30 years, and knows our collection down in genealogy like the back of her hand. She knows right where everything is.”
Woodhull works every Tuesday. Genealogy is her main focus, but she also helps out wherever else the museum needs a hand. She’s worked special events such as history camps and holiday celebrations.
Charlie Woodhull volunteers at the museum as well, recruited by his wife in 1992. He served as a handyman, doing building projects and working on the facility to help it operate day to day.
Many of the exhibit display cases were hand-built by him, Pfeiffer said.
“A lot of them were things he just made. We gave him the raw materials, and he went to work,” he said. “Talk about the value of volunteers.”
Though many of the volunteers are retirees, others come seeking experience in a museum setting to use later on in life. Riley Steimel will be a senior at Franklin College this year, and is majoring in history. In thinking about what she’d like to do for her career, she decided to donate her time to see what historical work is actually like.
This summer, she has helped work on a trove of donated items from Indian Creek schools. She had cataloged all of the different items, from papers to enumeration records. At the same time, she has helped create a mini-exhibit that was on display at the fair, and assisted during history camp.
“Growing up in Franklin, it seemed like a good idea to get a little bit more experience and to learn more about the county I live in,” she said. “I still don’t know where I’m going professionally, and they say that internships help a lot finding an area of focus in history, so it’s been a valuable experience.”
To recognize the hard work that Woodhull has put in, museum officials hosted a special celebration on July 11 — nearly 30 years to the day that she started volunteering. They presented her with a plaque, while family and friends gathered to congratulate her.
Having people appreciate what she’s done has been nice, Woodhull said. But as soon as the party was over, it was back to work.
“I don’t plan on slowing down any time soon,” she said. “Too much fun, too much yet to accomplish and too much missing my friends to retire.”
How to become a volunteer
The Johnson County Museum of History is in need of volunteers to help in a variety of responsibilities.
Options are available for many different interests, such as genealogy, working with the collection, assisting with tours and working our various special events.
Contact David Pfeiffer at (317) 346-4500 or email@example.com for any questions or to get a volunteer application form.