When most people think of Cleveland now, it’s mostly just a small city with a bunch of hip restaurants, an ever-thriving bar scene, and a complicated relationship with its sports teams. John Skrtic sees something much more romantic.
John is the director of main library and research at the Cleveland Public Library, a position that gives him access to the library’s vast archives. In turn, John takes it upon himself to digitize old photographs that predate even some of our parents, sharing with us a very different view of Cleveland.
Images provided Cleveland Public Library
What is it about this city that inspires John to dig deep into the archives of old newspaper ads and front pages of the past to almost obsessively compile photographs from time immemorial? It’s simple: nostalgia.
Born in 1974, John grew up on Cleveland’s East Side off of Superior Avenue, describing it as “a very diverse neighborhood” with no shortage of different cultures, history, and languages. He explained that the people in his neighborhood had a certain “grit” to them, but that grit also came with a mutual understanding. John found a similar sense of community at The Cleveland Main Library, stating the people there were “indiscriminate, and accepting of everybody” and that “they didn’t throw out kids.” Aside from the libraries, John also enjoyed baseball, mentioning how listening to his older family members talk Cleveland sports would fuel his curiosity of the city’s past.
John spent most of his education at parochial schools, first at Immaculate Conception on East 40th Street. He later attended high school at St. Ignatius on the West Side. He described his culture shock and how it seemed more homogenous at that time, but also credited the school for the quality of education he received. John spent most of his time after classes at the Carnegie West Branch of the Library, while also still frequenting the Main Library. Eventually, the workers would say to him “You come here so often, why don’t you work here?” At age 15, John did just that and took his first step onto a lifelong path.
John graduated from Ignatius in 1993 and continued 11 more years of schooling, studying literature analysis at Cleveland State University and obtaining a master’s degree in library science at Kent State University. In 2002, he got a job as a librarian at the Cleveland Public Library, John found himself interested in the other library branches throughout the city. He obtained his masters in Public Administration at Case Western Reserve University and in 2006 obtained his first role in management of the libraries, followed in 2010 by the position he had held most currently as director of public services
John’s passion for the library was more than apparent. The question now was how could he share that love with others? What would he show people?
In came the age of social media. In 2019, John’s title changed to director of main library and research. As a result, he now oversees 11 million items in the library collection like a mad sage in an attempt to share it with the people of Cleveland. During a brainstorming with his boss, Director of Cleveland Public Library Felton Thomas, Felton jokingly mentioned John’s vast amount of “useless” knowledge and his deep-seated connection with the city. John took to Twitter on his personal account and began sharing images of a very different Cleveland. He digs through the archives looking for interesting, old photos of notable landmarks in Cleveland, noting how it satiated his inner “library nerd” to do research and tap into the nostalgia of his fellow Clevelanders.
Eventually, John moved on to more than just landmarks, including pictures of anything from athletes to general stores in his search. He compared the expanded interest to when a family member or friend shows you an old band that becomes a new obsession.
“You just become hooked and can’t help but dig deeper into their discography,” John explains.
Once people started taking notice, they contacted him through Twitter or Facebook to find old landmarks or family businesses. His collection grew to include old ads in the newspapers for restaurants and Cleveland nightclubs in the ‘70s and ‘80s. John’s love of sharing knowledge is really only rivaled by his love of the city and its cultural evolution over time.
“People from the neighborhood often ask ‘where can you find things?’ and the greatest thing is, it’s all at the library,” John says. “Generations of Clevelanders built this library and collected all this stuff for them.”
John seems to treat the library as his old neighborhood: a place that has something for everybody and where everyone is welcome. If you like sports, head to the sports research center, which boasts the second-best baseball collection of any library. It’s interesting to see how Cleveland has changed over the years through their collection of over 45 different languages, including Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish, and 42 other dialects. John not only wants to share history, but build a bridge between then and now with the tools he’s provided.