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PACSCL Hidden Collections Processing Project » Forrest Wright

Forrest Wright

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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.

Dirty Processing: The John H. Mathis Company records

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

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The John H. Mathis Company was a major shipbuilding firm based out of Camden, New Jersey. Founded in 1870, the company built and repaired yachts, river steamers, tugs, barges, car floats, and other varieties of shipping vessels. The impressive collection of Mathis Company records available at the Independence Seaport Museum includes the business papers, photographs, and measured drawings.

The drawings, which number in the thousands, arrived at the Seaport Museum covered in soot and other dirt.  Apparently they had been sitting for years in the former Mathis Shipyard (closed in 1960), and were “rescued” from certain “doom by disintegration.”

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While I have processed film reels, maps, and even medical instruments on this project, these measured drawings were a true test. We had to empty nearly 30 boxes of these plans, and sort them by design number. Just a few plans were enough to turn brand-new white gloves into the dirty mitts that looked like they belonged to a chimney sweep.  We ruined several pairs, but only after permission from the head archivist, of course!

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After hours of sorting, we were able to arrange every measured drawing by design number.  Though our process was hardly an exact science, we laid dozens of boxes across three huge tables and assigned each box with a range of design numbers.  We then removed each plan from its original container and placed it in the corresponding box. Of course we had to make several adjustments along the way, but our final product imposes at least some order on the thousands of previously loose drawings.

Despite the dirt and grease, this collection taught me a great deal about minimal processing. It is impossible to apply “More Product, Less Product” to this type of material.  Because each drawing contains minute details of complex ship designs, it would take countless hours to open each roll and record these details. Therefore, we elected to simply record the design number and box location. This is not ideal, but given our time constraints, it was our only option.  However, not all measured drawings are described at this level. Researchers will find a couple hundred select plans from a few different Mathis-built ships described in greater detail in the library vaults. These plans had been processed by a past volunteer with substantial knowledge of the Mathis Company, and are included in the collection.

19th Century Playbills at Free Library of Philadelphia

Friday, July 9th, 2010

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During the 19th century, Philadelphians flocked to theaters in droves to see burlesque shows, minstrel shows, vaudeville, melodramas, comedies, and musicals. The demand for this type of entertainment can be seen in the sheer number of theaters open in Philadelphia during this time, with the most popular destinations being the Walnut Street, Chestnut Street, Continental, Arch Street, and Academy of Music theaters. The 19th Century Playbills collection at the Free Library provides a fascinating glimpse into the Philadelphia theater culture throughout this time period, not only through the spans of playbills in the collection, but also the dozens of scrapbooks put together by theatergoing fans.

This collection boasts thousands of playbills from several Philadelphia theaters. The Chestnut Street Theater, one of Philadelphia’s earliest, has playbills in this collection dating back as early as 1803. The Walnut and Arch Street Theaters are also well represented in the collection, with hundreds of playbills for each theater.

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Each playbill provided all the information the public would need in deciding whether or not they would attend a production. This typically included a list of actors, a schedule of events (most theaters would offer more than one event per evening), ticket prices, and even a synopsis of the plays.

Like film and theater fans today, many theatergoers during the 19th century weren’t satisfied with simply attending a production. They wanted to document their theater experiences by saving the playbills, tickets, and related ephemera of performances they attended. Some enthusiasts even arranged these saved items into scrapbooks. The 19th Century Playbills collection includes dozens of theater-related scrapbooks assembled by Philadelphians. Flipping through the pages of these scrapbooks, one can see the various interests of theatergoers during this period. Some scrapbooks were dutifully arranged by date and location, as if the creator wanted to track their weekly theater consumption. Other scrapbooks resemble collages, with playbills, ticket stubs, and published reviews glued adjacent to one another, representing a more overall experience.

Some were dedicated exclusively to photos of popular actors and actresses, a reminder that American celebrity culture has deeper roots than one might expect. Overall, this was an amazing collection for anyone looking to learn more about Philadelphia theater history.

The Changing Face of the College of Physicians Library

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

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Today, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia is known throughout the world for its disturbing, yet fascinating Mütter Museum.  However this was not always the main draw of the College of Physicians, which was founded in 1787 as America’s first medical organization. Throughout most of the institution’s history, physicians and other medical professionals came to the College to teach and conduct medical research. The College’s Library played a crucial role in supporting these functions, as it held both extremely rare medical texts, as well as contemporary medical journals.  Over the last few decades however, the Library has shifted its focus from a medical library for physicians, to an independent research library dedicated to the history and heritage of medicine. The College of Physicians Library records documents this shift, demonstrating how an old institution can still offer a rich learning experience for modern researchers and the public.

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One of the ways the Library reached its audience was through the publication “Fugitive Leaves,” a newsletter dedicated to the Library’s unique and historic collections. Published irregularly from 1935 to1996, the newsletter relied on Library books and illustrations for its fascinating articles.  The Library records contains several printings of the newsletter, as well as photographs of images used.

The Library has also supported exhibitions at the College of Physicians, providing materials for exhibitions such as “Emerging Infectious Diseases: Ancient Scourge/Modern Menace,” “Exploring Therapeutic Resources in Colonial North America,” and “Only One Man Died” (an exhibition on Lewis and Clark).

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The Library records was one of the largest collections of the “Hidden Collections” project. At times, finding all the items in the collection proved a challenge, however the Library staff was very accommodating in allowing our team to make full use of their space. This was also my last collection working with my teammate and student processor Leslie O’Neill.  It was a pleasure to work with Leslie, and we all wish her the best of luck in her future career as an archivist!

Keeping the minimal processing dialog going: The views of a student processor

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

(In response to:  Keeping the Minimal Processing Dialog going, by Courtney Smerz and Reflections on Training and the PACSCL/CLIR Project, by Jack McCarthy, CA, Archival Consultant.)

Mr. McCarthy’s concern over dealing with separated materials within the “More Product, Less Process” methodology is certainly valid. When faced with a folder containing seemingly unrelated or miscellaneous material, it is extremely difficult to know which course of action is appropriate.  As a processor in these situations, you must ask yourself “should these items be separated or maintained,” and as importantly, “how will slowing my pace here impact how I treat the rest of the collection?”

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The best approach to take really depends on the situation. For example one of our first collections, the Douglas and Dorothy Steere papers, included a box that has attained special status within our project; the “box of despair.” Inside the box was a mound of loose papers, with no apparent order.

Holly recommended that as a team we separate the materials within this box, grouping the material by general categories such as correspondence, notes, photographs, etc.  From there we were able to integrate that material into pre-existing series as we further processed the collection. This approach was necessary for the “box of despair” because if the box was left in its current state, it would never have been accessible to researchers. Additionally, original order in the Steere collection had been compromised throughout the years as a result of so many processors working on small parts of the collection. Therefore, in order to complete processing, we had to integrate boxes of separated material based on what we thought made appropriate intellectual sense. As a team we continued to use this approach when faced with similarly daunting piles of disorganized materials.

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In other instances, we have been advised by Holly and Courtney not to separate material from folders if it appears that original order would suffer as a result. Instead, they have recommended that we keep the folder in its current state and make a correlating “scope and content” note in the finding aid. In a recent collection, The Thornton Oakley collection of Howard Pyle and his Students, this approach was implemented. In one folder there were several magazine clippings that could have potentially been separated individually and placed elsewhere in the series. Yet because original order had been maintained throughout most of the collection, we decided to leave the folder in its current state and label it “Assorted Tearsheets collected by Thornton Oakley 1887-1911.” Within the finding aid we added a note stating, “this box contains tear sheets from Scribner’s, Harper’s, and The Literary Digest.” This maintains original order, while at the same time highlighting content that a researcher may find valuable.

The situational approach is our best hope for reconciling the dilemma of separated materials.  While it is difficult to ensure that every decision we make is correct, over time we are improving the methods used deal with “grey area” issues such as this one.

The Matchteld Mellink Papers, and so long to Bryn Mawr!

Monday, March 15th, 2010

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Machteld Mellink (1917-2006) was a Dutch-born archeologist and professor at Bryn Mawr College from the 1950s to 1988. She led a fascinating life, overseeing excavations at sites such as Tarsus and Sardis, as well as publishing extensively on the archeological field. This collection contained Ms. Mellinks notes, correspondence, writings, and photographs from excavations. When it came to processing however, the Machteld Mellink papers at Bryn Mawr were a test of how “More Product, Less Process” could work on a collection with little available information.

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When we first saw the collection, all the papers were housed in cardboard boxes and plastic storage bins of varying sizes. Some of the boxes contained labels identifying where the papers were found in Ms. Mellink’s apartment. This included the living room, bathroom, and bedroom.

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We occasionally found labeled folders throughout the collection, however for the most part the papers lay loose and unorganized within the boxes. Dealing with such an unprocessed collection was certainly a challenge. Our approach, which relies on using available information such as folder labels and previous finding aids, had to be reconsidered in the face of this lack of information. Our first step then, was to open the boxes and scan for general content. After this, we separated the material within the boxes into our proposed series, which we placed on open shelves.

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After the series had been created, we organized each one chronologically or alphabetically. This was time consuming, and considering how much re-foldering and physical arrangement we needed to accomplish, it felt at times as if we weren’t really using “More Process, Less Product.” However, we eventually completed our arrangement and began plugging our finding aid information into Archivists’ Toolkit. Despite the early setbacks of dealing with loose papers and a lack of content information, we were still able to meet our timeframe for completing this collection.

One of the lessons learned from the Machteld Mellink papers is that having more information available for a collection helps the “More Product, Less Product” approach exponentially. Neither I, nor my co-worker Leslie, had much knowledge of twentieth-century archeology; therefore it was extremely difficult to identify many of Ms. Mellink’s writings and notes regarding certain topics. In these instances we had to create general labels for the papers. There are some highlights within this collection though, particularly as we learned more about Ms. Mellink and her career. She led an amazing life, and hopefully researchers will be able to shed more light on her papers one day.

This was our final collection at Bryn Mawr, which ends our time at this wonderful institution. The special collections staff including Eric Pumroy, Marianne Hansen, and Lorett Treese were incredibly helpful in their support of our project. We also received processing assistance from the Special Collections student worker, Lee. Her help with the Mellink papers allowed us to finish the project on time.

Bryn Mawr College’s Philadelphia Club of Advertising Women

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

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The Philadelphia Club of Advertising Women (PCAW) Collection is filled with gems from this club’s fascinating history. Formed in 1916 by sixteen women advertising executives, PCAW participated in charitable efforts, offered advertising courses, and published a newsletter (Ad-Land News). These efforts garnered both local and national recognition for the organization. Adding to its reputation as an influential Philadelphia area organization, one of PCAW’s trademark activities was hosting social events. Included in this collection are dozens of invitations for these events, many of which reflect the advertising styles and fonts of the day.

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The collection contains several photographs of these gatherings, giving us glimpses into what these gatherings entailed. Pictured here are women smoking and drinking at the bar.

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Some events were held annually, such as the Children’s Christmas Party. Pictured at left is Harry Hawkins, President of the Poor Richard Club in Philadelphia dressed as Santa. The Poor Richard Club often hosted events along with PCAW.

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Some of the events carried a theme, as demonstrated by the image at right (can anyone guess this one?).

Vaux Family Papers and the U.S. Board of Indian Commissioners

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

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The Vaux family papers at Haverford College offer a unique look into the affairs of the U.S. Board of Indian Commissioners during the early nineteenth century. George Vaux, Jr. (1863-1927) was appointed to the Indian Commissioners in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt, and served until he passed in 1927. During his appointment he traveled to Native American villages, documenting his visits.

George Jr.’s papers also include official government documents regarding his interactions with various tribes, as well as correspondence with other appointees to the Board of Indian Commissioners.

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George Jr.’s sister Marry Morris Vaux Wolcott (1860-1940) also became involved with the Board of Indian Commissioners, being appointed to the Board after George’s death in 1927. Her papers include correspondence, official government documents, and meeting minutes all related to her role with the Commissioners. She also collected material related to Native customs.

This collection goes beyond providing a fascinating glimpse into the past; it also holds some contemporary relevance. Contained within the collection are records related to tribes (specifically the Blackfeet) involved in the recent landmark restitution case where Native Americans won $3.4 billion dollars from the United States government.

John Davison papers at Haverford

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

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John Davison (1930-1999) was an accomplished musical composer and professor at Haverford College for forty years. His collection in the Haverford Archives spans from 1943 to 1999 and includes almost all of his musical scores, as well as several dozen recordings of his pieces. Approaching this collection was admittedly a little scary at first, as Davison’s correspondence was only loosely organized in boxes. It was also our first time dealing with reel-to-reel audio recordings in a collection. However after some planning, we were able to organize his correspondence by year, and placed the reel-to-reels in special storage units.

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One of the strengths of the Davison collection is the musical scores, many of which include his annotations in the margins. He produced over 140 pieces, including choral works, symphonies, quintets, and religious songs. Blending a variety of styles, his music is described by Dram as “rooted in the great Western classic-romantic tradition with Baroque, Renaissance, jazz, modernist, and folk elements mixing in at times.” In addition to his accomplishments as a composer, his love for teaching was evident. He kept musical pieces produced by his students at Haverford, many of which are also included in the collection.