If you want to know anything about Martha’s Vineyard’s past — and much of its present — Bow Van Riper, research librarian extraordinaire at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, is the man to seek out. He imparts his vast knowledge with great insight — and with a good dose of humor.
As a history and geology major in college and with a doctorate in history, Van Riper spent 21 years teaching at the university level. His family’s roots on the Island go back to his grandparents in the 1930s, and Van Riper came every summer from childhood on until he moved here permanently in 2011. In the spring of 2014, he nailed the job as the library assistant at the museum, and became the research librarian in 2017.
Van Riper was trained by two contract archivists at the museum who were on a grant-funded project at the time. “Even though it wasn’t their job to teach this washashore librarian the basics of how to be an archivist, they were kind enough to show me the ropes, like how to locate the answers to people’s questions amongst the 2,500-odd boxes of items in the archives,” Van Riper says. He also learned how to write a finding aid — a document that describes the contents of an archival collection, and how to use the museum’s electronic catalog so he could add new items, which continually come in.
“I literally don’t know from day to day what is going to be on tap the next day or the next week, and that’s just a marvelous thing for someone like me who’s endlessly curious about the past, and especially about the Vineyard’s past,” Van Riper says about his position.
His first order of business in the morning is to weed through the inquiries that constantly pour in. He explains that it can be as simple as, What year did the Lagoon bridge open, before the one that’s here now? or they can be as complicated as, Do you have anything related to my ancestor who lived here in the 1700s? There are those that are less easy to look up, such as, When Europeans started spreading Christianity among the Wampanoag, what was life like for those who adopted the religion and abandoned traditional ways of life? “It’s an awesome question, but not one you can just find the right book, newspaper article, or right document and look up,” Van Riper says.
Then there is working with people who have made appointments to look at a particular set of materials or to talk about a specific research project, as well as those who just wander in. Van Riper, who is one of the warmest people you’ll meet, says he sees himself as “an extension of what Visitors Services folks do — greeting people, welcoming them to the museum, and helping them have an enjoyable visit where they go away feeling like they know more when they left than when they came in.”
Part of his day is working with the archives themselves — organizing, describing, and cataloging historical documents, newspapers, photographs, tourist brochures, and so forth, so he — and future generations of library visitors, and whoever sits behind the library desk after he leaves — will be able to find what they are looking for.
His favorite find was when Liz Trotter, one of a core group of library volunteers, got her hands on a vague reference for a Revolutionary War pension filed by Mary Hillman, née Polly Daggett. According to the old, oft-told tale, she had been one of the three girls (though they were actually young women) who blew up the Liberty Pole in Holmes Hole (later Vineyard Haven), thus depriving the captain of a British warship of a replacement for his vessel’s broken mast.
“The story had been treated as a tall tale,” Van Riper explains. “When Liz and I went trolling through the records of the 19th century U.S. Congress, we were able to turn up a digital copy of the petition that Mary Hillman submitted in the 1830s, saying, I served in the Revolution, and here’s what my friends and I did, and I believe I’m entitled to a pension in my old age just as if I’d worn a uniform. With that we had the first concrete evidence that, in fact, the Liberty Pole story was absolutely true.
“In 30 years as a historian, it’s very, very rare that you discover an unknown, nobody-has-seen-it-for-175-years document in which a participant in an event whose existence is disputed puts pen to paper saying, I was there, this is what happened. Those kinds of smoking guns are the unicorns of the historical world. And that was an amazing experience.”
Despite his position at the museum, Van Riper doesn’t collect antiques. “The closest thing I come to collecting is examples of the ship models that were made by my grandfather’s business on Beach Road between the 1930s and 1960s,” he says. “I inherited a large collection, but I’m always on the lookout for particularly interesting examples of models that came out of the Van Riper shop that aren’t in the collection.”
Thinking about his own collection, Van Riper’s words have a broad application: “We are all in pursuit of our own stories, the history of how we came as individuals to be who and where we are.”
Check out Van Riper’s next event at the museum, “Hidden Collections,” online at bit.ly/collectionmv.