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.