“Two Gun” Bessie and the case for better folder titles

Written by Evan Peugh on April 14th, 2014

One of the issues with working with a legacy finding aid is that previous descriptions can easily fall short. Such is the case with the MOLLUS collection, and we tried to go back through folders with unclear titles to fix this problem. One such folder, titled “Front, 1941”, provides an excellent example of why accurate folder description is important.

Jessica and Evan process MOLLUS.

Jessica and Evan process MOLLUS.

Upon further inspection, “Front, 1941” contains a series of newspaper clippings related to the sudden resignation of Dr. Bessie Burchett. Dr. Burchett, known as “Two gun Bessie” for her tendency to carry two pistols to defend herself, was a Latin teacher at West Philadelphia High School who strongly opposed communism. She even wrote a book on the communist infiltration of American schools: Education for Destruction. In fact, Burchett was so strongly against communism that she was revealed to have Nazi sympathies. When news of her political extremism broke, there was a cry of public outrage against her, and rather than awaiting her inevitable dismissal, Burchett elected to resign.

The case of Dr. Bessie Burchett provides an interesting snapshot of Philadelphia and the United States during an era of extreme political movements. But if a researcher were to come across the title “Front, 1941”, the researcher could never be aware of the treasures in the folder unless they opened it because the folder title provides so little useful information.

Processed MOLLUS at home in the new Union League secure vault.

Processed MOLLUS at home in the new Union League vault.

This means that an archivist must choose between properly titled folders or item level description, and when using MPLP the latter is out of the question. Folder titles should thus properly identify contents, and it is important to conscientiously consider such titles. For “Front, 1941” we had some difficulty coming up with a title that adequately captured the contents, but after a while we settled on “’Front:’ Clippings regarding Philadelphia school teacher Bessie Burchett, especially regarding anti-communism and Nazi sympathy, 1941”. This title is a much more accurate description of the folder contents.

So much for this folder, but how many other folders are out there that fail to describe their contents? How many more stories like Dr. Burchett’s are hiding in the crevices of archives, waiting to be discovered?

 

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