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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