THE (yes, THE) William Penn papers

Written by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen on June 24th, 2011

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When our friend and co-processor Jenna heard that Michael and I were working on the Penn family papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, she was a little bit jealous. “That’s amazing!” she gushed. “But, you do realize, you have officially peaked in your careers as archivists. It doesn’t get any better than William Penn!”

Truly, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s collection of William Penn and family is unparalleled. It is a rich and vital source for anyone studying the history of the Pennsylvania colony, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), European-Native American cultural encounters, colonial administration, inter-colonial disagreements, the transition of colonial government at the time of the American Revolution, and myriad other topics. Michael and I were fascinated to find treaties upon which the Native American parties had drawn “pictograms” of their names next to the English equivalents. We were blown away by the sheer volume of records relating to the Maryland-Pennsylvania border dispute, which dragged on for many decades. I’m a bit of a Quaker history nerd, so I was thrilled to see Penn’s correspondence with George Fox. All of which is to say that from the perspective of a researcher, Jenna is right: it doesn’t get any better than the Penn family papers.

Unknown size: small.

From the perspective of an archivist, however, I have to say: I hope that wasn’t the peak of my career. The Penn family papers were frustrating to process precisely because they are such an important and frequently-used collection. As an archives student I’m often told that archival processing and description are iterative processes, and this collection really brought that truth home. Almost two centuries have passed since the Historical Society was founded, and the Penn papers seemingly represent a cross-section of every fad, trend, and development in archival theory. There are huge bound volumes of collected documents, custom-size boxes for individual items, and several generations of Hollinger boxes; they are described in volume indexes, outdated finding aids, and a card catalog; important documents have been hand-copied, microfilmed, and photocopied. The collection is all over the place.

Under the auspices of this minimal-processing project, we didn’t have the time to update everything according to today’s standards and best practices. But even if we could, it might not even be desirable. Decades of scholars have used the collection as it is and cited their sources accordingly. While working on this collection, Michael and I had to ensure that nothing we did would inhibit the ability of researchers to find materials they used last week, or chase scholarly citations from 100 years ago. What processing we did was necessarily minimal, but our major objective was to create an online finding aid that would serve as an entry point to the collection. That much we accomplished, and we are pleased to make this contribution to the field. Welcome to the digital world, William Penn!

What have we learned from the experience?

Here are our words of wisdom to researchers: Come to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania! The Penn family papers are an incredible resource. We recommend you consult the card catalog on site to ensure you will have a fruitful experience.

Here are our words of wisdom to archivists: Come to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania! Maybe ask if you can get your hands dirty on an unprocessed collection instead of the Penn family papers. If you do work with the Penn family papers, allow at least 150 years to do a thorough job. At which point archival theory may have changed sufficiently that it will be time to start all over again….but you can worry about that when you get there.


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