Dan Cavanaugh

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“Meeting” Celebrities

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

One thing I have enjoyed most about working for the Hidden Collections Project is the opportunity it has given me to meet famous historical figures. Of course when I say “meet” I mean it in the loosest sense of the word. I think that many people who have been in an archive would agree that when you work with a collection you often feel like you are “meeting” the individuals who created the materials in that collection. I think that this is not only true for a collection’s primary creators who you may get to know very well through their numerous diaries, correspondence and photographs. I think that this is also true for minor creators who may have only contributed a single letter to a collection.

During my time working for the project, I was amazed by how often I came across such letters that also had been written by famous figures. One collection in particular—the Rufus King family papers—truly made me feel like I was rubbing elbows with celebrities. The collection, which is housed at the Rosenbach Museum and Library, is largely comprised of materials that were created by Rufus King and his sons. These men occupied a central position in the political life of the early United States and the collection contains several letters written by figures straight out of a high school history textbook including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Quincy Adams, John Jacob Astor, Dorthea Dix and Zachary Taylor.

Each time I came across one of these letters I felt as though I was being introduced to a celebrity without getting the opportunity to learn more about them. I found in the Rufus King family papers one letter written by each of the figures listed above without other materials that could have enriched the context of those letters. If I were to expand the metaphor of “meeting” historical figures, it was like attending a cocktail party where the King family quickly introduced me to some of their famous friends and allowed me to engage in some small talk with them before politely ushering me away to another group of friends.

Looking back on the short time I spent processing the Rufus King family papers I am grateful for the opportunity it gave me to handle documents written by famous historical figures, but I am more grateful for the lessons it taught me about archival collections. For example, the King family papers reminded me that fame and significance can be very subjective terms. When I came across letters written by “famous” historical figures, I expected that everyone around me would be as excited about my find as I was. However, after sharing these discoveries my excitement was sometimes met with a quizzical look and the question, “Who is that?” That response reminded me of a lesson I had learned in past history and archival courses—there are no universal standards for judging an individual’s historical significance or determining the value of a collection.

The experience also reminded me that it is a good thing that such standards do not exist. Although it was exciting to handle letters written by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and the like, I discovered that many of these letters were quite brief and offered few insights. In fact, some of the more insightful letters in the collection seemed to have been written by less well-known figures. So, while some will likely value the Rufus King family papers because of the opportunities it gives them to “meet” historical celebrities, others will likely value it for a host of other anticipated and unanticipated reasons.

Jesus Loves You… Let Me Draw You a Picture To Prove It

Monday, July 11th, 2011

Unknown size: small.

When most of us think of the word “evangelist,” we picture people like Billy Graham—seemingly angry, fist-shaking preachers who whisper, cry, shake, and shout in an effort to drive their audience to a spiritual frenzy. McKendree Robbins Long—the early twentieth century Presbyterian evangelist whose papers Dan and I just finished processing at Presbyterian Historical Society—was probably a lot like Graham in some ways. But Long didn’t just rely on his oratorical prowess to draw would-be believers to Jesus Christ. Long, a classically trained visual artist, also used pictures to proclaim the Old Time Religion.

Long’s papers at PHS reveal this evangelist’s penchant for fusing his soul-saving impulse with his artistic muse. Two classical examples of this activity—hand-drawn sketches titled “I Will, Be Thou Clean” and “There is Never a Drought in the Spirit”—depict the two New Testament tales in which Jesus heals the lepers and meets the woman at the well, respectively. Each contains an implicit message to viewers—Jesus saves, both physically (from disease) and emotionally (from the “drought” of loneliness experienced by the woman at the well).

Unknown size: small.

Most interesting to me was Long’s apparent obsession with the Christian doctrine about the end of the world. A number of his paintings and illustrations depict death, destruction, and damnation—all end-of-the-world themes Long culled from New Testament scriptures. Many of the works feature familiar faces, too—one, appropriately titled “Apocalyptic Scene with Philosophers and Historical Figures,” shows historical actors like Charles Darwin and Karl Marx awaiting their final Judgment on the banks of a boiling lava-filled river. (Researchers, please note that only a copy from a scan of this piece of art is available at the Presbyterian Historical Society.  The original oil painting is at the North Carolina Museum of Art).

As in much apocalyptic art, Long’s work isn’t just about condemnation. The artist-evangelist also fills his paintings with impressions of hope and salvation. In “Apocalyptic Scene,” that hope takes a familiar Christian form: a cross, surrounded by angels and gilded with a heavenly glow. It’s far off in the distance, a fleeting glimpse of redemption amid the terrifying immediacy of Hell—just where an evangelist like Long, preoccupied with fire-and-brimstone approaches to Christian conversion, would want it.

Photographs cannot be used without permission from the Presbyterian Historical Society.

Did we process 52 cubic feet in one day?!

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

When Devin and I started working for the PACSCL/CLIR Hidden Collections project, I thought that we would at most process 7 or maybe even 8 cubic feet of materials in a single day. My assumption turned out to be very wrong. Over the course of one day in March, Devin and I processed 52 cubic feet of materials. The discovery that we had processed so much in such a short time prompted me to ask two questions: How did we do it? And, did we really process all of those materials?

Before I can answer these questions, let me give some information about the collection Devin and I were processing at the time – The Religious News Service (RNS) records at the Presbyterian Historical Society. The creator of these records, RNS (now called the Religion News Service) is a news service that has been dedicated to providing information about religion and ethics to newspapers and radio stations in the United States. Since its founding in the 1930s, the service has distributed a wide range of publications including syndicated articles, editorials, and photographs.

The RNS records contain copies of nearly every publication and photograph distributed by the organization between the late 1930s and early 1980s. During that period, RNS not only covered a wide range of subjects (e.g. World War II, the civil rights movement, ecumenical movements, evangelism and religious cults), it was also very prolific. According to our calculations, the RNS collection consists of over 600 cubic feet of materials.

Devin and I faced a major challenge when we began the RNS project, how were we going to process such a large volume of materials in ten or less weeks? Before we started the RNS project, we were told that we would not be able to use exactly the same processing methods that we had used for other collections at Presbyterian Historical Society. For example, early estimates showed that it would have likely taken Devin and me at least two months to type every folder title in the collection into the finding aid’s container list.

So, what did we do? How did we process over 600 cubic feet in a little over two months? Well, there were three major factors that contributed to the timely processing of the RNS records collection.

  1. The RNS records collection is ideally suited for minimal processing methods. The original arrangement and folder titles of the collection were so clear that little additional arrangement was needed. Every RNS publication was organized by publication type and in chronological order. If Devin and I had wanted to find a single RNS publication for any given day between 1940 and 1981, we could easily find it. Also, if Devin and I had wanted to search for materials covering a major historical event, we could consult the collection’s series of subject files where additional copies of the RNS publications had been filed by topic.
  2. Rather than examining the materials in every folder we sampled the materials in the collection. Devin and I pulled 8 folders from every cubic foot box and examined the materials they contained. We took notes about these materials and later used the notes to develop a finding aid for the collection.  We were confident that this approach would allow us to develop a fairly accurate view of the entire RNS records because of the nature of the materials in the collection. Early in the project we discovered that while most of the RNS publications contained unique information, certain editorial patterns (e.g. the format of the publications, the kinds of subjects that were covered, the writing style) persisted throughout the entire collection. Because of these patterns, Devin and I were able to gain a good sense about the information researchers would likely find in the RNS records through our sample.
  3. We had some help. Devin and I would not have been able to finish our work with the RNS records without the help of David Staniunas at the Presbyterian Historical Society. David sampled a large portion of the photographs and photographic negatives in the collection and shared his notes with us.

Having explained how we processed the RNS records, let me address the other question posed at the beginning of this post—did we really process the RNS records? I don’t know if I have an answer. On one hand, and I think everybody who has been directly involved with the collection would agree, more work could and should be done with the RNS records. For example, it would be great if we could examine every folder in the collection and describe it at the file level. On the other hand, I recognize that additional work would take a considerable amount of time and money. If we had waited until these resources became available, the collection may have remained hidden for a long time. To paraphrase what Holly has written in an earlier post on this blog, our work will ideally be a first step in the arrangement, description and preservation of the RNS collection.

These issues of course are at the heart of the debates about processing that are going on within the archival profession. I do believe that we have made a valuable contribution to the future of the RNS records. Hopefully, with the completion of the collection’s online finding aid, more researchers will be able to learn about the RNS records and soon make use of the rich and extensive materials.