My Summer Internship with the WRHS Italian American Archives

When I stepped into the Western Reserve Historical Society offices for the first time in June 2022 for my summer internship with the WRHS Italian American Archives, I truly had no idea what to expect. I had just changed my major to history in fall of 2021 and knew only basic information about my Italian heritage. My great-great grandparents on my father’s side had emigrated from the Puglia region of Italy sometime in the late-1800s, early-1900s. I previously held a research assistant position during which I processed and interpreted documents. However, I was coming into the internship with little experience and knowledge of Italian American and family history. I left my internship, however, with new friends, a wealth of knowledge and skills that can be used within the history field, and a deeper understanding of my Italian heritage and the role Italian Americans have played in our great city of Cleveland. 

I spent most of my time scanning documents to make them available online. I worked with the scanner and computer at the second scanning station, which I started to think of as “my office.” My first project was digitizing photos donated to WRHS from the Alta House, the settlement house located in Little Italy founded in 1895. Although I was familiar with the name, I didn’t understand the important place Alta House held in the Little Italy community until I saw and scanned photos of weddings, community basketball games, family businesses, and philanthropic events. 

My next project was digitizing copies of the East Side News from the 1920s-1940s. While scanning, I read stories about Dr. Barricelli, an important Italian physician in Cleveland in the 1920s, and Joey Pignataro’s thoughts on community sports in his column titled “Piggy’s Pen.” I had no idea Little Italy had its own newspaper, let alone one that was so well-established and painted a detailed picture of the Italian American community throughout this period.

Another project involved scanning photos of the Feast of the Assumption from years past for an exhibit that would be on display at the Italian American Museum of Cleveland. 

My favorite and the most involved project that I worked on was a scrapbook that belonged to Mildred Maddalena (1901-2009). My job was to digitize the scrapbook in its original form and then remove the newspaper clippings, greeting cards, letters, gift tags, and other items from the disintegrating paper to preserve them. After I removed the materials, I organized them into acid-free folders and containers. I learned so much about Mrs. Maddalena through this process. I realized I was holding in my hands a small snapshot of her long life (she lived to be 108). From it, I learned about her activities as event chairman for the Italian Women’s Club in Cleveland in the 1930s. I learned that one of her sons was a member of Alpha Phi Delta at Case Western Reserve University, an exclusive Italian heritage brotherhood. I also learned that one of her nine siblings went on to be a radio star in Chicago and how proud she was of him. Finally, I got to look through the many greeting cards she received between 1937-1945 that she saved in that very scrapbook. 

These were just some of the many digitization projects I completed during my time in the Italian American Archives. To say I understand how my Italian heritage and how Italian Americans helped build Cleveland’s east side better after this experience would be an understatement. I feel connected to the people who wrote these letters and articles for the East Side News, saved information about their achievements in the Italian Women’s Club, went to Murray Hill School, and played major roles in Alta House functions all those years ago. I had the opportunity to do some digging into my own ancestry as well, learning that my great-great grandparents immigrated in 1890 and that my grandfather was actually one of eight siblings.

I am extremely grateful to Pamela Dorazio Dean, Curator for Italian American History and Director of the Italian American Museum of Cleveland, for hiring me as her intern, teaching me the scanning and processing procedures of archives, and showing me some pieces of our Italian American heritage. I am also grateful to the entire staff at WRHS and my fellow interns as they were fantastic to work with. One of my favorite things about history is how it forces us to reflect on our past to see our present and future. I’ll think about the stories I now know of Little Italy's past and the Italian Americans who came before me as I walk through the Feast of the Assumption, watch my mom sing in the Holy Rosary choir, and reflect upon what the future holds for Italians in Cleveland, all thanks to my experience in the Italian American Archives. 

Maddalena Scrapbook