Local historian Bruce Bomberger on documenting the history of today

6 min read220 views and 319 shares Posted July 20, 2020

History isn’t just the past. It’s a collection of moments. It’s happening as we speak.

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History is a living, breathing entity that we can’t quite put our finger on.

In light of the COVID-19 crisis, we are living in historic – unprecedented? –times. So it is somewhat ironic and unfortunate that the Lebanon County Historical Society has been hit very hard by the pandemic.

Read More: 100 years ago, Lebanon grappled with a very different pandemic—the Spanish flu

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But the local historic society is in a unique position to put current events into perspective. Like everything else in the annals of time, this too shall pass.

The only real question is: How will history remember the coronavirus?

“It’s a living kind of thing,” said Bruce D. Bomberger, the Lebanon County Historical Society’s archivist and librarian. “Historians pay much more attention to the future than they’re given credit for. We’re living in the moment. We’re constantly asking, ‘Why didn’t anyone save this? Why didn’t they ask this?’ We’re all guilty of that.

“History is open to constant re-interpretation,” continued Bomberger. “That’s why we keep having revisions. You keep finding new evidence. You think you have everything figured out, but you don’t. It’s a treasure hunt for anyone who cares to look for things.”

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If local history does manifest itself into something physical, it comes in the form of a 1773 building constructed out of local limestone at 924 Cumberland Street in Lebanon, the current home of the Lebanon County Historical Society and the once-site of the original Lebanon County courthouse, where President James Buchanan practiced early in his legal career.

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Because of the coronavirus, LCHS is currently closed to the public, and it has been for four months, ever since Gov. Tom Wolf closed the state to help stop the spread of the virus. But the Lebanon County Historical Society has also been forced to cancel many of its events, including its Union Canal Days and Civil War Weekend, among others.

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Read More: Here’s what you’ll find at Union Canal Days [Photo Story]

Bomberger said that LCHS is hoping to make a decision on the status of the remaining events on its 2020 schedule soon, as well as when its Stoy Museum, Hauck Research Library, and gift shop can re-open to visitors.

“We get a fair number of genealogy requests, and we haven’t been able to work on those requests for a few months,” said Bomberger, a 61-year-old resident of Fredericksburg. “I’ve had to put off people in a friendly way. A lot of those kinds of research requests have been tabled. We’ll just have to deal with it when we get back.

“We also have a number of elderly volunteers, people who have special skills in different areas, who we have to consider when we get back,” Bomberger continued. “They do a lot of that research. We have a lot to consider. Even the patrons who come in the door. There are schools, libraries and a lot of public places that are wrestling with the same things.”

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Local genealogy research requests have been put on hold at LCHS for the past few months. Much of the work is done by volunteers. (Jeff Falk)

The Lebanon County Historical Society exists to “collect, exhibit, interpret, preserve and publish the history of the Lebanon Valley.” Its most basic purpose is to celebrate the lives, the people, the buildings, the records and the events that made Lebanon County what it is today.

“There’s the old thing about learning from history, so you don’t repeat its mistakes,” said Bomberger. “That goes a long way in giving history everyday value. Now we know all the different facets of history that can be interesting and can have an impact on Lebanon County. How did things improve? It’s a trail that more and more people are finding interesting. To me, history is truth, but you can never know all of it.

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“You can have things from a great-grandfather that fills a shoe box,” added Bomberger. “But you can never know the worthwhile facts about those items unless they are documented. Mysteries are in everyone’s family. What they show is how a person lived and what they did. That’s one of the things that can be alluring to people, just the chase. One family member can tell you one thing, and another might say, ‘I lived across the street and it wasn’t that way.’”

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Lebanon County’s recorded history dates back to the 1700s. But the Lebanon County Historical Society has a storied history of its own.

LCHS was formed on January 14, 1898 by a group of concerned community leaders, and it held its first official meeting at the Lebanon County Courthouse a month later. It was headquartered at three other city locations over the next 70 years, before moving to its current location in 1973.

The Society headquarters at the county’s first courthouse were partially destroyed by a fire in November of 1908. Afterwards, the organization moved to the old YMCA building for thirteen years before moving again to the basement of the Farmers Trust Company in December of 1921. (Jeff Falk)

“As far as I know, the founding of it was typical of historical societies,” said Bomberger. “They [the founders] didn’t want history to be lost and they wanted it to be known to the public. There was a different civic spirit years ago. You wanted children to know about their local history.

“Museums and archives work to have physical control of their collections, to have it safe,” Bomberger added. “Then there’s intellectual control. That’s knowing what we have and where it is. I think all museums and all archivists are working to fill holes. But the space is finite and you can’t save everything. Sometimes some things seem important, and then something else comes along and you have to make room in the collection.”

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Every area’s history is unique, and certainly Lebanon County’s is no exception.

Lebanon County’s history has been influenced by its geography and location, and the cities like Lancaster, Harrisburg, and Reading that surround it. The locale has also been influenced by industries like iron, steel, mining and farming, families like the Colemans and cultures like the Pennsylvania Dutch and the Hispanic.

Bomberger encourages Lebanon residents to engage in local history — and write it down — in order to help preserve the truths of the present for future generations. (Jeff Falk)

“We are very much a part of a region,” said Bomberger. “Certainly the Pennsylvania German element had an influence early. Because of the fact that we were very close to mountains, we were affected by the French and Indian War. We’ve got a little bit of frontier history. We have the Cornwall iron influence. We had a new immigration that supplied workers for the mines and steel mills. It really is a melting pot. It also has some of the elements that some of the surrounding counties don’t have.

“We’re talking about tens of thousands of things [housed within the confines of LCHS],” continued Bomberger. “Every area of history you can think of — military, architectural, schools. Some of the stuff goes back to the mid 1700s. We have a lot of architectural plans, a lot of German heritage materials, church records, hospital records.”

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But the Lebanon County Historical Society’s collections will never be complete or all-encompassing. Part of its mission is to fill as many holes in it as it can, with the express knowledge that it will never be fully successful.

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“If we don’t preserve history, then I think we have less of the truth,” said Bomberger. “We have less of the picture or more of one side of the truth. You’re limited by what you have. We can’t save everything. The onus is on people like me and other professionals to make those judgments. Somebody might be offering 50 items, but we only want two. Most of the things we get are donations, but we also purchase things. Some people want things in a public venue.

“There’s another message, and that’s that everybody out there can potentially be an historian,” concluded Bomberger. “I encourage people to write things down and document them. With family papers, you have to write down the names and the dates, and the associated things you know. If it’s only word of mouth, it has less meaning.”

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Catch up on the Historical Society’s “Past Calling” feature below

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