Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories

Written by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen on May 7th, 2012

If you’ve been following this blog of the PACSCL-CLIR Hidden Collections Processing Project, you might be interested in learning about the Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR, or the “Small Repository Project” for short). This post could be filed under “PACSCL-CLIR Student Processors–Where Are They Now?” since I, and fellow former student processor Michael Gubicza, are both currently employed on the Small Repository Project. But before you conjure up too many thoughts of drug-addicted 80s TV stars and one-hit-wonder 90s teen queens, think of this post also under the headings “Lessons Learned” and “Project Legacy.” The Small Repository Project carries on PACSCL’s commitment to uncovering hidden archival collections, and builds on the PACSCL-CLIR methodology, tools, and infrastructure–with a few new twists, of course.

Another creative storage solution at Millbrook Society! Hatboro Borough records, stored in a biscuit box.

Another creative storage solution at Millbrook Society! Hatboro Borough records, stored in a biscuit box.

First, some background on the Small Repository Project. It’s an initiative of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania–not coincidentally, one of the repositories where I processed for PACSCL-CLIR–with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Small Repository Project aims to make better known and more accessible the important archival collections held at the many small, primarily volunteer-run historical societies, historic sites, and museums in the Philadelphia region. It was envisioned as a three-part project, and right now we’re in the midst of Phase I, which focuses on Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties. My title is Project Surveyor, so my job is to visit all of the small repositories in those two counties and survey their archival collections. There are two major components to the survey work: description and assessment.

Historical Society of Tacony: Frank Shuman, a Tacony resident, developed the world's first solar power plant in 1912-1913!

Historical Society of Tacony: Frank Shuman, a Tacony resident, developed the world's first solar power plant in 1912-1913!

Description In just six months of surveying, we’ve already discovered many amazing collections! From big names–like Pennsylvania Governor Samuel Pennypacker and Civil War naval engineer John Ericsson–to names that didn’t make the history books–like Frank Shuman, who built the world’s first solar power plant in 1912, or Dr. Hiram Corson, an abolitionist and prominent advocate for women physicians. To make these important resources more visible, we are creating what amount to “stub” finding aids: we don’t have the time to physically process any collections, but we can provide collection-level descriptions with very summary information. To be as fast yet thorough as possible, Michael and I use Archivist’s Toolkit, Holly and Courtney’s data-entry best practices, and an Excel-to-XML worksheet of my own devising that was heavily inspired by Matt Herbison’s.

PACSCL and the University of Pennsylvania recently agreed to host our finding aids, so they will be on the PACSCL Finding Aid Site together with the PACSCL-CLIR “Hidden Collections” finding aids. I am personally thrilled about this detail, because it means Philadelphia will be one step closer to having one central database where all area archival collections could be searched. In one place, you will be able to search collections from the biggest professionally-run PACSCL member to the smallest all-volunteer historical society! None of the Small Repository Project finding aids are up quite yet, but keep an eye on the site…

Old York Road Historical Society

Old York Road Historical Society

Assessment As I mentioned, the Hidden Collections Project doesn’t have the time to physically process all the collections that we survey, but we do hope that at least some of them will be processed in the not-too-distant future! Toward that end, we not only describe but also assess each of the collections we survey. We look at the condition of the material, quality of housing, degree of intellectual access (existence of finding aids), physical accessibility (organization), and research value (a combination of an interest ranking, and a rating for how well those interesting topics are documented). These ratings help establish collection care and processing priorities–a collection with a high research value rating but low accessibility ratings should be processed first.

PACSCL did the same sort of assessments for its member institutions a few years back (PACSCL Consortial Survey Initiative), based on a survey project at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania before that. The collections processed for the PACSCL-CLIR “Hidden Collections” Processing Project were those identified by the PACSCL survey as having the highest potential research value.

The assessment methodology that we use in the Small Repository Project, down to the assessment criteria and ratings descriptions, is modeled after the PACSCL survey. Check out Matthew Lyons’ blog post about our methodology. We strive for consistency so that our ratings will be comparable to PACSCL’s. Only the future can say whether anyone will undertake a large-scale, multi-repository processing project like PACSCL-CLIR “Hidden Collections.” But our assessments can help individual small repositories best allocate their own limited resources.

Social Media While I worked on the PACSCL-CLIR project, I loved sharing my favorite “finds” from the collections I processed on the project Flickr page and blog. We do the same thing at the Small Repository Project! Check out our blog and our photoalbums. For updates, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Holly, Courtney, and everyone who has worked on the PACSCL-CLIR Hidden Collections Project. The tools, techniques, and wisdom they developed and shared on their project website have proved invaluable to us in implementing the Small Repository Project. I’m sure that many other important and innovative archival projects will build on the PACSCL-CLIR project, and we all, collectively, thank you for enriching our communal knowledge.

 

6 Comments so far ↓

  1. Denise Clement Playo says:

    I am looking for letters written by William Penn’s widow Hannah to Simon Clement.

  2. Celia Caust-Ellenbogen says:

    We’ll keep an eye out for Hannah Penn letters as we survey the collections of small repositories. In the meantime, have you checked out these collections?: Penn family papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/pacscl/ead.html?q=william penn&id=PACSCL_HSP_HSP0485A&) and Albert Cook Myers Historical Collection: William Penn Papers at the Chester County Historical Society (http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/pacscl/ead.html?q=william penn&id=PACSCL_CCHS_CCHSMSColl190&)

  3. Robin Stokes says:

    As I’ve conducted family research into a great aunt (Catharine Johnston) who graduated from Women’s Medical College of PA on 1923, I stumbled upon the puzzling dismissal in 1923 of a well-loved faculty member Dr. Alice Weld Tallant (75% of the student body in my Aunt’s graduating class went on strike, and almost the entire surgical staff quit, many of them male faculty). I’m exploring the archives at Drexel, but I’d like to know if you’ve foumd any smaller caches of documents relating to this, or to those faculty who quit, or to the head of the board Mrs. Sarah Logan Starr. Tallant herself was very quiet on the subject, and archives of news articles state the exec board only noted ‘uncooperativeness’ in reasons not to reappoint her in 1924. Thanks.

  4. Celia Caust-Ellenbogen says:

    Hi Robin,

    That sounds like a fascinating story! I hope you get to the bottom of Dr. Tallant’s dismissal. I haven’t seen anything so far at the small repositories, but I’ll keep an eye out for things relating to Women’s Medical College or Dr. Tallant. If you haven’t already, you might want to look into Sarah Logan Starr’s papers that form part of the Belfield papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania: http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/pacscl/ead.html?id=PACSCL_HSP_HSP3159. Good luck!

  5. ED Ziegler says:

    Hi,

    I see you are connected with PASCL. This organization was just referred to me by Dr. Lukens of Chester Co. H.S. What would be the benefits of PASCL to HSMC?

    Thanks,

    Ed

  6. Celia Caust-Ellenbogen says:

    Hi Ed,

    For more information on the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL), check out their website at http://pacscl.org. You may also wish to contact Laura Blanchard, PACSCL’s Executive Director, directly at lblanchard@pacscl.org.

    Best,
    Celia

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