Archives I never knew existed and why I value archivists…

This past week’s class was really eye-opening in terms of just how much stuff can really accrue in a collection… room upon room of the Temple University Libraries Special Collections was bursting with interesting, diverse, wonderful documents, books, manuscripts, and objects that stand to tell incredible stories and offer insight to a multiplicity of subjects so numerous I cannot even digest.  The Urban Archives is such an incredible resource to Philadelphia historians.

And yet, within and close to this beautiful city of Philadelphia, there are so many smaller, sometimes tiny collections worth exploring.  I have been very lucky lately to be drawn to these special places.

For one, the Swarthmore Peace Collection is a gem.  While this archives is not very unknown, it is a bit off the beaten track for most Philly historians, requiring a trip to Swarthmore College (a gorgeous campus).  Situated in the basement of the McCabe Library, this collection is run by a very engaged (and excellent listener) named Wendy.  When I approached her about research I am doing this Fall regarding police interactions with activists in terms of space in 1980s Philadelphia, she immediately brought my attention not only to an activist group called the Philadelphia Women’s Encampment for Peace, but also other lesser known groups and the papers of one activist couple who had altercations with the police.  The Peace Collection is not tiny– though I am certain it is not as large as Temple’s Special Collections– as plenty of their collection is stored off site, but it is very focused in subject.  I find this sort of experience to be very soothing, and I wonder if other researchers do also.

Another small archive I recently explored was the John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives at William Way Community Center.  This resource on LGBT history, with a good deal of gay history relating to Philadelphia, sits on the third floor of William Way’s 13th and Spruce building.  The space is not very large, and there is barely table space to share with another researcher.  Their archivist, Bob Skiba (who also writes for Hidden City and offers tours of the gayborhood), was also very supportive on my research, and their volunteer George helped me tremendously in narrowing my research from a large box on ACT UP Philadelphia to a special file of newsclippings related to ACT UP demonstrations.

Lastly, I have been spending some time at the Center for Art in Wood on a project for the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts program related to industrial history.  At CAW, I have been checking out the John Grass papers, the set of boxes and objects from the John Grass Woodturning company which used to exist on 2nd St.  Hanging out with a relatively-unorganized collection (it has only been digested with a basic Finding Aid by the Historical Society’s Hidden Collections Initiative) covered in major dust has been extremely exciting– every little detail found seems like such a “DID YOU KNOW??!!!”” moment– but it is also daunting.  How I wish, in the midst of this treasure that someone like Margery or Wendy or Bob was there to help me break down the material.

I suppose that is really the point of this post– the more time I spend in the vast material available for research in Philadelphia, I realize how important archivists truly are in the research actually done.  And upon exploring TU Special Collections last week, I realized how daunting that task– simply locating the ideal resource for an archives user– can be.

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Confessions of a Disorganized Organizer

I am an honest person, and so, I will confess here that I am not always the most organized person.  I am constantly on the go with the intention of imposing order on ‘all the things’ when I have a chance, and those ‘chances’ rarely come. (I am not the worst ever, though… I promise.) So, it is with a guilty, but optimistic heart that I embark on the readings involving Arrangement and Description in the Archives.  Of course, as a fly-by-night person, it is somewhat comforting to know that archivists carry a manifesto of respect de fonds (leave it as it was kept)– simply because it makes me feel like if I was an archivist, I would not always be thinking about reorganizing or creating systems for each acquisition.  However, I also realized in reading Schellenberg’s Principles of Arrangement that respect de fonds comes with the responsibility of careful consideration for smart reorganization.  I also realize as a researcher how important it is for the archives to be maintained with specific stack order and maintenance; just today I visited the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, and the first box I requested was missing from its place.  Luckily, the archivist found it while I scrounged to decide what other collections I might examine.

One of the things I wonder about in actual archival practice is how to handle discrepancies between space availability and organization sensibility. Terry Eastwood, in “Counterpoint- Putting the parts of the whole together: Systematic arrangement of archives,”wrote, “The process of identifying records with the aggregation to which they belong is complicated by problems stemming from the effects of administrative change on the structure of organizations on record-keeping,” (98). So- if there are two collections which make sense best to be next to each other, and one of those collections is 300 linear feet and the other is two linear feet, and the space available for storage is not best suited for larger collections, how does an archivist decide how to reorganize?  Do archivists sometimes organize by size of collection as opposed to theme, year, author, etc.?  How do archivists decide which collections are stored off site– is that mostly based on usage or is that partly about size of collection or how close the collection fits with the development policy?  Do items which most closely target the mission of an archive stay closer to home?  I am still exploring the readings for this coming Tuesday, but it looks as through Oliver Holmes may answer some of the questions I have in Archival Arrangement: Five Different Operations at Five Different Levels.  And if not, perhaps class will help me understand better how we move from the thought processes behind organization to the hands-on process of organizing items when they are first accessioned and then as collections grow.

 

 

Ending in the Archives.

Well, it is my last semester of classes before writing my thesis this coming Spring.  How interesting for the journey of M.A. public history study to end with Archives and Manuscripts for Public Historians and Managers of Cultural Institutions.  It is almost like this little blog is now an archive of public history study.

I have been a bit focused on the values presented by Mark Greene in “The Power of Archives: Archivists’ Values and Value in the Postmodern Age.”  Firstly, though, I noticed that Greene described the challenge for archivists to describe what they do is very similar to what public historians in general face.  It made me think back to my courses with Seth to consider if any of the history of public history pieces we read had defined values for public historians to substantiate the field with collective meaning.

It will not be a surprise to anyone, I think, that the values I most identify with from Greene’s article have to do with activism– agency, advocacy, and archiving the marginalized.  However, I also am greatly interested in reading more on how the value of use trumps the value of preservation.  I understand why this value arguably matters most, but I would imagine that not all archivists feel this way.  I would like to read a different opinion (and maybe I will with the remaining reading for the week).

The other thing I am wondering about after reading Greene’s article is about appraisal.  Why do archivists fear it?  Better yet– what exactly is appraisal?  What is the process?  How does it work?

A lot of thoughts, really.  I’m now getting into “What is Past is Prologue” by Terry Cook and highly enjoying the way capital M Memory is identified as the “Mother of all Muses”– that through Memory, “society can be nursed to healthy and creative maturity,” but in order to use Memory correctly, we-collectively, perhaps as archivists or as citizens or as humans– must battle the balance of remembering and forgetting.  This passage ended with a gorgeous quote from one of my most favorite authors, Milan Kundera: “…the struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”  I think, though, there is another quote from Mr. Kundera for all of us to think about in terms of archives and public history– “The future is only an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past.” 

Cheers!  I am so excited to spend the semester considering what and how we choose to remember.