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Overview of the Polonica Collection
The holdings in Archive 1, located in the Paderewski Room on the museum’s 2nd floor, consist mainly of the Polonica collection, a treasure-trove of nearly 4,000 works. The Polonica collection revolves around books, pamphlets and broadsides appearing in two catalogs: Polonica in English and Polonica Americana. Both were compiled by Dr. Alphonse Wolanin, assistant curator of the PMA and later librarian of Alliance College.
Polonica in English, published in 1945, took three years to complete. It reflects four centuries of writing on the Polish experience, and contains about 1,500 items. These works were either written directly in, or translated into English. Perhaps the highlight of this collection is the remarkable output of the Polish-government-in-exile organizations such as the Polish Information Center and the Polish Ministry of Information, whose goal was to communicate Poland’s dire situation to the outside world on a regular basis during World War II. However, observations on the “Polish Question” in this collection date back much further, with personal testaments to Polish history of the 17th and 18th centuries.
On a lighter side, Polonica in English also contains biographies of famous Poles, such as Queen Jadwiga and Jan Sobieski, along with meditations on language, art and travel. To be sure, translations into English of the great works of Sienkiewicz, Reymont and Mickiewicz appear in this collection, but it also contains two dozen works of fiction on Polonia, by authors who were largely not Polish. Also to be found in Polonica in English is rare sheet music—about two dozen items—such as Longfellow’s Hymn of the Moravian Nuns, The Modjeska Waltz, along with musical themes on Pulaski, Kosciuszko, and other Polish miscellanea. Polish American Studies, the journal of the Polish American Historical Association, called it “the most complete list of Polonica in English from the earliest until the latest times” in its review of this catalog (Jan-June 1946 issue).
In contrast to the earlier catalog, Polonica Americana, a five-year effort and the largest of the two, contains about 2,500 works and focuses mostly on American Polonia. Published in 1950, it reflects the wide array of activities Polish-Americans undertook in their new home, and collects their writings–regardless of the original language in which they were written. Though Polish and English predominate, works in French, Spanish, German and Latin also appear. The oldest item in this catalog is Kosciuszko’s Manoeuvres of Horse Artillery, published in 1808 in New York.
In Polonica Americana, one can read about noteworthy contributions to America made by Illinois-born Arctic explorer Frederick Schwatka, radio personality Tony Wons and Civil War-era eccentric Adam Gurowski–known as “Lincoln’s Gadfly.” Perspectives on Polish-American life also abound in the short stories, novels and plays of Stefania Laudyn, Helen Stas, Czeslaw Lukaszkiewicz, and Antoni Jax. Without doubt, the foundation of this catalog rests upon the scholarly works of Mieczyslaw Haiman, first curator of the PMA, who wrote extensively on the early Polish presence in America. The July-Dec 1951 issue of Polish American Studies called this catalog “a veritable mine of information about Polish Americana”.
The 2003 publication of Traitors and True Poles—Narrating a Polish-American Identity, 1880-1939, confirmed the ongoing relevance of these Polonica catalogs—particularly Polonica Americana in this case–to researchers. Written by PMA member Karen Majewski, Ph.D., of Hamtramck, Michigan, Traitors and True Poles reflects a current phase in American literature of focusing on authors writing in languages other than English. At the end of her book, Dr. Majewski constructs a bibliography that is not merely a list of sources used for her work, but is also a sorely needed compilation of all Polish-language American fiction written during this period. She lists exactly 50 institutions in the U.S. and Poland where each of these 316 works can be found. Glancing through this section, it becomes clear that the PMA appears more frequently than any other institution as the repository of these works. In fact, for 75 titles, or close to 25% of the total, the Polonica Americana collection is the ONLY source where a particular work can be found. Technically, Majewski’s bibliography extends beyond the scope of Polonica Americana, since a good deal of this fiction appeared only in Polish-American newspapers and periodicals, which reside in the PMA’s archives. Majewski calls the PMA periodical collection “the richest”, but also says that the PMA rates best with regards to works that have survived as single imprints. Noteworthy as well is Dr. Majewski’s list of about a dozen works of which she has not been able to locate a single existing copy. Since publication of her book, two of these very rare works, and possibly a third, have surfaced at the PMA. They have been added to the Polonica Americana collection. The continuing value of these immigrant writings is evident in a project that Majewski proposes: A comparison of the literature from over a century ago with that being written by Polish immigrants today.
Time has not been too kind to the physical condition of these priceless works; natural aging has played a role in the deterioration of almost 250 items. An even greater number, particularly in the Polonica Americana catalog, appear outwardly intact, but were printed on cheap paper. This condition may apply to as much as 75% of that collection. These works need to be copied onto acid-free paper. Steadily since early 2002, books, pamphlets, broadsides and sheet music have been taken to the book bindery for repair through our “Save the Book Project”, which was first announced in the Fall, 2001 PMA newsletter. The preservation process is very slow, for book repair is still very much a manual art. Nevertheless, the Polish Museum of America could never undertake this preservation project without its members, who have responded very generously to the “Save the Books” Project. With the continued support of current and future members, the PMA will then be able to focus on the remaining catalogued items awaiting care, along with the many uncataloged items that are also in need of attention.