Christiana Dobrzynski Grippe

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What makes a collection “interesting?” Two processors, two opinions, one collection

Monday, August 8th, 2011

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My partner, Sarah, and I just finished processing the “FOCUS: Philadelphia Focuses on Women in the Visual Arts” collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives this week.  FOCUS was a two-month long city-wide arts initiative in Philadelphia in 1974 that emphasized contemporary feminist art and was run by a group of volunteers comprised of artists, teachers, staff at the PMA, and other local art enthusiasts. This was a wonderful little collection of records (just three linear feet to start with!) that created an interesting dynamic for us as we wrapped up our processing.  Part of the finishing touches we put on each collection includes determining and assigning a “research value” for the materials.

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The value is calculated on a scale of 1 to 10, which combines a topical interest ranking value with a quality of documentation value.  To help determine these values, we ask ourselves questions such as: How frequently have recent researchers sought materials on topics substantially documented in this particular collection? How rare is the collection’s documentation of a particular topic or topics? How extensive is that documentation and how deep or detailed is it? Is there anything missing from the documentation, such as certain important year spans or key figures?

This routine project activity receives neither much attention nor time compared to our other responsibilities, yet it remains one of my favorite tasks.  It is a satisfying way to synthesize what I have learned about the collection after immersing myself in it.  It also tends to generate enjoyable discussions or even friendly debates.  FOCUS was one such collection about which Sarah and I differed slightly in how we wanted to evaluate it. We both could see the obvious value that the collection has and agreed on the quality of documentation value being “rich” or a 4 out of 5. This was because despite the relatively brief existence of the FOCUS initiative, the deliberate documentation of programs and events by internal committees makes this collection an especially comprehensive and robust representation of the group’s activities.

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Sarah and I differed in opinion concerning the overall interest and appeal of the topics in the collection. I felt that the collection’s interest value should rate a 4 out of 5 (or “high”) for several reasons. The records most likely would entice individuals and researchers interested in feminist art movements, local Philadelphia history, grassroots community initiatives, non-profit collaborative activities, the grant writing and application process, and even censorship in art.  (The collection documents a rather delicious scandal concerning the banning of Judith Bernstein from the Philadelphia Civic Center’s art show because of her “overly sexual” charcoal drawing entitled “Horizontal.”)  Sarah thought that the specificity of the materials may alienate some users and information about the specific artists is probably duplicated elsewhere, so the collection’s appeal would not be quite as far-reaching or widespread outside of the Philadelphia community; as such, the value should only be “moderate,” or a 3 out of 5.

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While neither Sarah nor I could convince the other that her opinion was best, we ultimately concluded over an amicable snack of tea and cookies (outside of the archives of course!) that it was perfectly fine to disagree. We simply documented in our worksheet that we each felt differently and explained our reasons why. Being able to work independently as well as collaborate with colleagues is one of the true benefits and strengths of this project. Maintaining a dialog with others who view the same work in a different ways helps me to further develop and explore my own opinions, as well as to better understand how other users may approach archival materials.  In turn, being exposed to so many amazing collections with this project allows for examination of the on-going question: Why do we as archivists chose the materials we do to be included in the archives?

Former dancers (subject specialists) process the Pennsylvania Ballet records

Friday, July 1st, 2011

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One of the first discussions my processing partner, Christiana, and I had was about our secret past as ballet dancers. This didn’t have much bearing on the first two collections we processed (the papers of the Safe Energy Communication Council and Health/PAC), but our third was the Pennsylvania Ballet records at Temple University Special Collections. Our knowledge of ballets, costumes, performances, and famous dancers would obviously have some effect on how we processed this collection, but we weren’t sure whether our subject knowledge would help or hinder our attempt to process at 2 hours per linear foot. This collection had a lot of photographic materials, and a not insignificant amount of those were unidentified or “miscellaneous.” Would we be so bogged down in trying to assign ballets to unidentified performance photographs that our processing speed suffered? Or would our knowledge of costumes and sets enable us to blithely sort miscellaneous photographs into piles of  Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Giselle, and so on?

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Subject knowledge is a clear advantage when doing traditional processing. Knowing something about your collection before you start can save you research hours and make both arrangement and description easier. In the case of minimal processing, however, subject knowledge can only do so much good. There are some strict time limits on processing speed and everything must be considered in terms of trade offs: you can spend more time researching if you process a little quicker. If you leave those “general” or “miscellaneous” folders as they are, then you can do something more elaborate with the next series. Taking the time to utilize subject knowledge must be considered in the same way, which means there is a tipping point when doing so is no longer worth the time.

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For example, in the Pennsylvania Ballet Collection there were times when we could have given titles or added description to previously untitled photographs and folders. We tried only to do this only when it would be quick and not break our stride. So if we looked through a folder of publicity photographs from, say, Sleeping Beauty, and found that unlabeled photographs from Giselle were included, it only took seconds to add the second ballet to the folder title. However, there were more situations in which we could have used our subject knowledge but chose not to, because we simply didn’t have the time. At the bottom of one box we found a thick layer of loose and unlabeled photographs of dancers, performances, and fundraising events. It would have been fairly easy to sort out all of the Nutcracker photographs. Or any photographs of a famous dancer. Or photographs we could date to a specific span of years when a certain dancer was in the company. But we couldn’t, because while this would have been easier for us than for processors without subject knowledge, it still would have taken an awful lot of time (which of course we didn’t have). So we decided to place these photographs in the dreaded “miscellaneous” folders and move on, doing the same with a box of loose slides. We also didn’t touch any chunky folders already labeled “miscellaneous,” “general,” or other vague terms that didn’t tell you much about content. (Folders with only one or two items in them, though? Those got re-titled.) If we had taken the time to identify every single one of those unlabeled items, then we would have had to skimp on arrangement and description elsewhere, which was not an option.

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In the discussion of minimal processing using archivists with subject knowledge, it’s also worth  discussing how much this can help researchers. In the above Sleeping Beauty and Giselle example, our addition would only help someone who was looking for photographs of Giselle productions by the Pennsylvania Ballet (so, probably not the vast majority of people who will access this collection). The place where subject knowledge was most needed was in the un-arranged jumble of photographs and slides, but these are also the parts the collection that would have taken the most time to deal with and were therefore unlikely to be touched during any minimal processing project.

To sum up, subject knowledge helps in traditional processing and certainly didn’t hurt us here; but it didn’t greatly improve the quality of the description and arrangement we were able to do, nor did it save us much time. Because we were practicing minimal processing, we didn’t have the luxury of using our subject knowledge to its full extent. Having knowledge about the material in your collection before you begin can help you, but the rewards are small given that you might not be able to apply it without devoting more time than you can spare.

Helen Oakes: Philly’s Public Schools’ Biggest Fan

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

Just before the winter break, we wrapped up processing at Urban Archives with the Helen Oakes papers.  This was truly an exercise in team processing with Forrest, Megan G., Megan A., Christiana and me contributing to the effort.

Helen Oakes was a pretty remarkable lady who devoted her life’s work to advocating for public education in Philadelphia in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.  She believed that children across the city deserved equal access to education and that the city’s public schools could and should provide it to them — if only they could get their acts together.

Oakes first became interested in the schools in the late 1960s, when she was an active member of the League of Women Voters.  The League conducted a survey of schools which found that schools with a higher percentage of African American students were getting shortchanged when it came to funding.  Angered by this blatant inequality, Oakes launched her newsletter, Oakes’ Newsletter, in 1970, to publicize this and other issues in Philadelphia’s public schools.  The Oakes’ Newsletter was devoted to the discovery and understanding of problems in the school district, of which there were plenty.  Enough, in fact, to keep Oakes writing for nearly twenty years!

Oakes research into public education was relentless.  She investigated the ways in which public education was outright failing the city’s youth, as well as the external forces exacerbating the already taxed school system.  She carefully studied the budget; teacher training; standardized testing and integration.  She investigated programs designed for special needs students and sex education.  She looked at the relationships between education and external issues such as drug use, teen pregnancy, race, poverty and crime–and she published everything in Oakes Newsletter. Oakes wrote to shock her readers and to expose issues in the public schools for sure, but she had a more noble purpose.  She wanted the public schools to be better, and believed that they could be if the school district faced some of the major issues head-on.

A full run of the published newsletter along with her research files are available at Urban Archives. The collection also contains scant files related to her term on the Philadelphia Board of Education in the 1980s.  An outspoken and critical member of the board, Oakes was not asked to serve again after her term expired in 1989.

Archivists need sunlight, too! First impressions processing at Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

By Megan Atkinson and Christiana Dobrzynski Grippe

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We have been at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society for about three weeks now and we are really enjoying the break from the paper and basements.  Our seats reside by a long stretch of windows and we get to sit in the sunlight all day.  Our collections have changed also, and instead of processing paper, we got to process an entire collection of photographs featuring the Philadelphia Flower Show.  The collection was amazing.  The slides were colorful and the photographs were creative.  Without having been to the Flower Show ourselves, the photographs have given us that nudge to swear we will attend this year.  The floral arrangements that participants created are both creative and interesting.

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Megan’s personal favorites are the floral arrangements featuring a hypodermic needle and another featuring a saw blade.  Christiana enjoyed the interpretation of literary classics such as “Charlotte’s Web” and floor presentations of retro herb kitchens.  We both found it disturbing that the Flower Show committee apparently could not make up their minds as to whether or not the inclusion of taxidermy was appropriate in the flower arrangements.  In some year’s displays, we encountered the unfortunate goose or dove (and even what we think may have been a fully-stuffed deer!).  The more animal-friendly years revealed the substitution of ceramic animal figurines or life-sized tiger-shaped topiaries.  Regardless of the chosen media, clearly many horticulture enthusiasts also enjoy animals in some shape or form.

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What is most interesting about the entire collection is analyzing how the designs changed throughout the years and there was a distinct difference in the floral arrangements from one decade to the next.  Before being exposed to the Flower Show photograph collection, we never really thought of floral arrangements being so affected by art or design, but these photographs reveal that the floral world is as dynamic as the art world.

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