Local History
and the
West Orange Public Library

I work very well with libraries and museums. I always have. I've done so on both sides of the Atlantic and throughout a great number of states. It isn't just because of the natural value I place on these institutions as a writer. It also derives from a respect I gained by working in my school libraries while growing up in West Orange, New Jersey. Not only was I taught how to catalogue books and how to repair books but I also got to tend an actual Egyptian mummy which was on permanent loan from the Princeton Museum and given prominent library display. That brought me into my first immediate contact with a very real ancient artifact—it is something not easily forgotten (and something featured in one of my mystery novels).

Because of that very formative background, I always had a wonderful relationship with the West Orange Public Library. For decades, I was the one they turned to with local history questions—I was on speed-dial every time such questions came up. I was the one who gave talks there about West Orange history and my West Orange-based novels. In fact, the most dominant director during the 1990's not only made sure that I received several awards but she wanted me on the library board which would be a perfectly sensible position for the local author/historian. Sadly, that idea became too embroiled in political intrigues for which I have no tolerance. New Jersey libraries are mandated to be free of political influence and political machinations but in West Orange, all things are political.

When my work started to be repeatedly stolen by politicians for campaign literature and municipal projects and when those thefts were traced to copies of my books in the West Orange Public Library, I stepped aside and my publisher no longer allowed my books to be sold to them. It became an embarrassing state of affairs but it also wasn't the first time such a thing had happened. The family of my late mentor (who was the town's most remembered historian) had years before pulled his donated materials from the library collection because of the misuse and abuse and lack of credit being given to him. A part of the problem was that after a great many of the key personnel retired, fewer and fewer familiar faces—non-local faces—began working there. The job and institution seemed to be choosing a more generic by-the-numbers approach and losing its local focus entirely. Directors became much too aligned with politicians and downright unfriendly—even antagonistic—towards patrons. Whereas I used to be at the library practically every day, I haven't gone near the place in years.

I thought all of that might have changed when the newest director was appointed (thankfully internally rather than through the usual statewide search). Here was a woman who had been on the staff of the director with whom I had worked so closely. I felt for the first time in a very long time that I could once again trust the local library because this was surely the person who could turn things around. But when this newest director was personally informed that my latest West Orange mystery novel had just debuted, she remained non-responsive. Every time West Orange has a fleeting chance of making amends with me, it never can bring itself to do so.

Currently, the latest in a long line of  "town historians" has his every move on the library's behalf chronicled in the town newspaper (for which he ineptly writes a "history" column trying to make himself sound like Indiana Jones). I've never really understood why doing a necessary job for a necessary institution required publicity. But then again, this latest "town historian" isn't even a town resident; he hasn't done anything which hasn't been done before; and he certainly hasn't done anything approaching what I had done. Yet he finds the constant need to thump his chest (and even though he refuses to acknowledge my existence, it doesn't stop his friends from trying to dupe me into doing research for him). In one article, he even claimed to have found books which the library had "never" owned so, always with an eye towards self-promotion, he sprang into action and "helped" in their acquisition. Well, if he's such a "town historian" why didn't he know that the town library had owned those books and those books are now in my possession because I rescued them when they were discarded. The West Orange Public Library had a long pattern of discarding books which dealt with West Orange history. Yes, that boggles the mind but it is very true. All of this is best categorized as unfortunate.

West Orange has had a very uneasy relationship with its own roots. It has always found it easier to make up historical facts rather than to adhere to the truth and it has always tended to report its history vicariously. Ever since General George Washington passed through what would become the town, it's never been a case of what really happened here but one of trying to attach outside famous figures to this place. General George McClellan lived here in a grand estate after his dismissal as Commander-in-Chief of the Union Army and during his term as New Jersey governor but West Orange was a whistle-stop back then and McClellan's allegiance was hardly to the town; it was solely to his own property out in the countryside. Naturally, Thomas Alva Edison is the famous person most correctly associated with West Orange but he didn't move here because he found it a wondrous garden-spot where he was inspired to relocate. He moved here because his second wife wanted to live "in the country" and he got a deal on a mansion which was in foreclosure. While his second wife was indeed very generously involved in local charities, Edison himself was a man always preoccupied with his work and his factory—often curmudgeonly so. He was autonomous. He took no interest in town affairs other than to employ a large percentage of the residents. The supreme workaholic, local stories of him walking the streets and doling out pennies to passing schoolboys are doubtful at best—especially since a chauffeur drove him the half-mile or so distance between home and work.

But the West Orange predilection for attachment to famous personalities doesn't stop with those who actually spent time within its borders. When a woman found an eight-by-ten glossy of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth on their wedding day in her grandmother's trunk, the "discovery" was proclaimed in the local newspaper that they were married here. They were not. They were married in Santa Monica, California. It was a media blitz reported in all the newspapers and magazines of the time and in every biography about either star. This was something very easily researched but instead the wrong conclusion was leaped at and that's what was publicized. Someone once claimed that Marilyn Monroe owned property here. Whether she owned it or not, the property would have been part of an investment portfolio. She never occupied the house. She never set foot here. But it's always much easier to latch onto celebrities and go for good copy rather than to strive for accuracy.

In West Orange, local history is rarely tackled objectively or honestly. That is entirely due to the people whom politicians have deemed as our "historians." As a result, West Orange has had "historians" who outlived their contemporaries and were therefore never challenged when they intentionally fabricated facts—usually for their own aggrandizement. We've had "historians" who so lacked any sort of expertise that their own families wouldn't entrust the storage of vintage photographs or documents to them. We've had "historians" who didn't even know the correct boundaries of the historic sections of town. We've had "historians" who couldn't accurately read old maps, old books, or old newspaper articles. We've had "historians" who had no command of writing or language—you simply cannot convey the context and nuances of history without the ability to write and without the mastery of words. Yet, other than me, no one ever seems embarrassed or bothered by the perpetual and monumental historical errors. More importantly, no one seems to realize that is precisely how history gets lost. Local libraries have a very important role in keeping such things honest but all too often no one on library staffs knows the right or wrong of things either.

In my latest West Orange mystery novel, I solved the town's 1883 murder cold case but no one in West Orange has been allowed to know that regardless of how newsworthy such an accomplishment should be.

Of course, press releases were sent out. But for years, the West Orange Chronicle has quite intentionally boycotted any mention of my work because they are blatant in their unwavering political-leanings and I have successfully sued one of the politicians they support because he stole some of my creative property. Add to that the Chronicle's current vested interest in promoting and protecting their columnist who misreports the town history on a weekly basis.

On the other hand, the West Orange Public Library has been equally silent. It seems that they would rather sponsor Power Point presentations of vintage postcards which supply unsuspecting audiences with historical facts and descriptions that are all too often misinterpreted. Nowadays, local history has become just that: something only to be viewed as a sort of casual, polite, shallow multimedia-social event after which we break out the wine and cheese. But that is the entirely wrong approach.

History—especially local history—isn't a Technicolor movie with pretty people wearing immaculate, perfectly pressed, dry-cleaned costumes while dreamily passing through frame. Local history is gritty and dirty with actual dung on the cobblestoned streets. It shouldn't and doesn't exist to be altered in adherence to present-day morals or to mesh with current political-correctness or to be out-and-out whitewashed. Rather, it's about real everyday people with very real foibles who sometimes made very stupid mistakes and sometimes committed very dark deeds. But that is exactly why local history serves a very important role: to accurately explain why places evolve and develop into what they are. That is what the politically-driven, lifeless, "official" history of West Orange has always lacked and why the town's founding is celebrated on the wrong year. Regrettably, it's also why the West Orange Public Library continues to fumble the ball.


to read about John Dandola and
West Orange's 1883 murder cold case
along with how he has addressed other town history in his mystery novels

John's mystery novels contain original maps of West Orange as it was during the 1940's.

His town histories not only contain original maps of West Orange dating back to
colonial times but also original illustrations.

Copyright © 2012–2013 John Dandola, Ltd. All rights reserved.
This site's contents are fully protected by copyright; neither images nor text are allowed to be reposted (in whole or in part)
anywhere else on the Internet or published in print