Many times, in archives, we come across collections that do not turn out the way we expect. Perhaps the processing time takes far longer than we anticipated due to a box full of deconstructed file folders with no arrangement. Perhaps someone has come in before the archivists and “preprocessed” without letting anyone know, and with their own idiosyncratic system. These kinds of challenges are common in the archives and add to the flavor of processing, so even when they make you want to tear some hair out, in the end, you find you’ve grown as an archivist.
And then, there are the collections that, simply put, turn out to be a little different. Not at all what we anticipated. Revealing in ways that make the job as exciting as it truly is. I’m talking, of course, about collections where you open up an envelope and find a severed squirrel’s tail in the middle of a box of financial records.
The Marion Turner Stubbs collection at Temple University was one of these collections, and remains one of my favorites processed to date. Some of the materials were so unexpected and painted such an interesting snapshot of the time from which they came that this small and at times vague collection ended up being uniquely exciting.
These papers came from Marion Turner Stubbs, a founding member of Jack and Jill of America, Incorporated. The papers are mostly her husband’s, Dr. Frederick Douglass Stubbs, an extremely gifted chest surgeon in Philadelphia, and from her father, Dr. John Patrick Turner, a respected physician, police surgeon, and first African American serving on the Philadelphia Board of Education. These three people led enormously influential lives in Philadelphia, and were prominent, well-respected members of the community, so I went into the project hoping for some interesting background on their lives. I was not expecting…a squirrel’s tail. Nor was I expecting the records to mostly come from Dr. Stubbs’ research files, which at first, was a disappointment, if only because I wanted to learn more about these remarkable people and how they kept records of their many accomplishments. Honestly, the answer, based on this collection, seems to be that they didn’t keep very many. Most of the collection (aside from the research) consisted of plaques and certificates from the many awards these three received throughout their lives. Fun to look at, but not really helpful for providing some context about who they were as people, one of the best parts about working in archives.
However, these research files provided an amazing look at 1930s medicine and thought, especially with a focus on tuberculosis and even prohibition-era philosophies. Dr. Stubbs was, for much of his career, focused on the treatment of tuberculosis, and so most of the research pertains to new medicines and surgical options, even treatments centers for children. But there was also information debating the socialization of medicine, the effects of alcohol, and the emerging “Negro Medicine” field.
Here were research files placed in Stubbs’ own particular order (not always the easiest to understand, until we realized he worked both alphabetically and often by subjects, like “Hospitals”) and which included a variety of materials like pamphlets, correspondence, and article reprints. I did not expect these materials to shed as much light on the philosophies of the time period from which they came, considering they were from a fairly narrow subject area.
To be fair, this was one of my first collections processed, and was a lot smaller than the others, so my expectations probably weren’t as high as they could have been. However, the important thing I got out of this collection was that keeping this collection intact, and preserving the original order as much as possible really provided the true value of the collection. Separating out all of those medical journals from the correspondence could have been an option. But seeing some of the letters Stubbs wrote to other doctors in conjunction with this research painted a much richer picture. I did not expect to walk out of this collection with information about the uses of whiskey in therapeutic treatment, or the stance of the Philadelphia medical community on socialized medicine, or the colors available on Acme appliances for a particular year.
Part of the excitement of this collection, too, was the fact that despite my complete lack of subject knowledge on any of these topics, I was able to get the information I needed, even with minimal processing, to properly describe the files and create a finding aid that I felt touched on all the important aspects of the collection. Additionally, since the collection did not have as much information about the family, I had the chance to do some of my own research to find out more about what they accomplished and who they were. It was exciting to use some of the clippings in the collection to piece together important moments in their lives and fill in the gaps with information I had to go track down on my own. In fact, I was thrilled to find a variety of clippings available on flickr that documented some of Marion Turner Stubbs’ life.
So while this collection did not turn out the way I expected, I got to immerse myself in a time period that I had previously never explored, from a perspective that made it all the more fascinating. Also, I got to see the reaction of my Project Manager to opening an envelope expecting a letter, or perhaps a piece of cloth, and instead finding that squirrel’s tail. Truly one of the finest moments of my very short career.