Jenna Marrone

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A Touch of Archival Drama

Monday, May 9th, 2011

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“If I weren’t going to be an archivist,” I declared one afternoon, “I’d go to New York and pursue the stage!”  I turned to Brian.  “Are you shocked?”

“No,” he replied, busy with folder numbering.  “And what are you even talking about?”

“Little Women!” Holly chimed in.  “It’s a quote from the movie.  Sort of,” she laughed.

I sighed and stared down at the glossy black-and-white photos strewn across my desk.  They were headshots from the 1980s, and they were marvelous.  They had been pulled from the boxes stacked high around the room – boxes filled with set designs, stage directions, and dog-eared scripts.  As I sat there, looking down at the artfully posed figures silently pleading, “Hire me!” I felt the atmosphere in the room begin to change.  The glamour, the excitement, the drama contained in those boxes somehow slipped out and began winding their way around the room.  From that moment on, I knew that the papers of the Delaware Theatre Company at the University of  Delaware would be my favorite collection that I’d process with PACSCL.

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The Delaware Theatre Company (DTC) collection is truly a treasure-trove of information for both researchers and artists.  The materials range from board meeting minutes and financial records, to posters and advertisements for each season’s productions.  My favorite part of the collection, however, are the papers of Cleveland Morris, DTC’s co-founder and first Artistic Director.  These include Morris’ production plans, as well as director’s notebooks, set design drawings, costume sketches, stage directions, and casting information.  The material for each production – and there were many over Morris’ career – are contained in folders packed full of photographs and letters, most containing opening night well-wishes and thank-you’s from the cast.

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It was the first time I ever found myself so affected by the materials I processed.  I began striking dramatic poses as I foldered, attempted to script our days, and even tried to “direct” Brian (“If you could just say that again, but this time, with FEELING!”)  I frequently lamented my office-bound state and complained that I could be “treading the boards” instead of writing folder titles.  I even began referring to the shelving space as “stage right” and “stage left.”  For awhile, it seemed as if diva-status had been achieved.

With the completion of processing, however, all returned to status quo.  Despite the excitement, and the drama, we were happy to help raise the curtain on the Delaware Theatre Company collection.  The collection merely awaits some enthusiastic researcher – perhaps one with a flair for the dramatic – to continue the discovery process.

Whose Bird’s Nest is This?

Monday, April 4th, 2011

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Like most archival processors, Brian and I are quite used to working under crowded conditions.  For the past seven weeks or so, we’ve been squeezing around stacks of record center cartons, contorting our bodies around tables and book trucks, and performing feats of gymnastic wonder through the stacks, all so we can write “F13” in the upper right-hand corner of an acid-free folder.  But I can honestly say that, until this collection, I’ve never had to compete with a horseshoe crab for processing space.

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Before we even embarked on this emotional journey through the Armistead Browning collection, we were fascinated by the conspiratorial whispers surrounding two mysterious boxes in the corner of the room. “Just wait till you get to ‘Teddy’s Treasures,’” we were told.  “Oooh, treasures…” I had breathed, eager for the day I’d be running my fingers through a pile of Spanish doubloons.

Of course – because nothing in archives ever goes quite as planned – those boxes were NOT filled with treasure.  At least, not the kind of material I would consider valuable.  Where I expected gold coins, a rope of pearls, and perhaps a tiara or two, we found rodent skeletons, birds’ nests, and owl skat, among other such precious items.

That’s right.  Owl skat.  And pellets, of course.  And did I mention the rocks?  I really should, because there were a lot of them.  Yep.  Rocks.

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Our disappointment (or rather my disappointment, and Brian’s fascination) grew with every bottle of dirty unidentified liquid we discovered.  In trying to fit all of the rocks, feathers, and horseshoe crab shells in acid free boxes, it became clear that certain items would defy standard archival housing.

Take, for example, Browning’s birds’ nests.  There were two, and he cut them from the tree along with the branches that held them.  Unfortunately, the nests must’ve been built in some evil twisted thorn bush, because the branches that hold them are peppered with thorns.  We had a hard time finding a box to fit them, so the nests stayed out (and in the way) for a few days.  During this time period, it was not uncommon to hear a shout from whoever was working in that corner of the room.  “Ouch!  What the hell!  WHOSE BIRD’S NEST IS THIS?!”

Our adventures in archiving nature, while memorable (Me: Ew, it’s dirty; Brian: What the hell is wrong with you) also raised some questions as to how one should archive material like this.  First of all, should we have even kept “Teddy’s Treasures?”  What research value do thorny birds’ nests have?  It also brings up storage-related issues.  Is an acid-free record center carton, shelved right next to Browning’s papers, really the best way to store these items?  In a minimally processed world, these procedures probably hold up.  But are they necessarily the right procedures?

Robert Pierre Johnson: Man of Mystery

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

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“This is ridiculous!” I cried, throwing my hands up in disgust.

From across the table, my processing partner, Brian, reluctantly looked up from his work.  “What’s ridiculous?”

“This guy,” I replied, shaking my head in frustration.  I was referring to the Reverend Robert Pierre Johnson, creator of the collection we were processing at the Presbyterian Historical Society.  Though it was a relatively small collection – less than three linear feet – I was experiencing some problems with it.

My archivist-angst was not directed at the collection itself.  Indeed, from an organizational perspective, it was a minimal processor’s dream.  Johnson’s correspondence, sermons, notebooks, and a few subject files came to us fairly well organized.  Nor did I have an issue with Johnson.  In fact, he seemed like a truly amazing person.  He lived from 1914 to 1974, and led an exceptional life.  He was a Presbyterian minister, and the first black man to be elected to the position of Executive Presbyter of New York City.  He held pastorates in both Pennsylvania and Washington D.C., and was a prominent religious authority in D.C. during the March on Washington and the passing of the Civil Rights Act.  In addition, Johnson had high-ranking positions on a number of national Presbyterian organizations.  Because of these positions, he was drawn into two notable incidents of the 1960s and 70s: James Forman and his Black Manifesto, which demanded financial reparations for African Americans from white churches, and the situation involving Angela Davis, a fugitive whose legal fees were paid for in part by a Presbyterian organization.

Wow! One thinks upon hearing this brief bio.  This guy was in it!  Golly, I bet he had a ton of stuff to say about all of this drama!

Except that he DIDN’T.  This is where my frustration with the collection lies.  For all of Johnson’s proximity to important historical events, as well as his own history-making role within the Presbyterian Church, he left us with little personal information.  We know almost nothing about how he felt regarding or reacted to these important incidents.  A quick scan of his correspondence reveals that he was an excellent pastor and a respected member of his organizations.  And yet, they reveal little of Johnson himself.  His folders on James Forman and Angela Davis are filled with third-party material – nothing that immediately reveals his active role within the events.

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Over the hours we processed, I grew increasingly frustrated with the collection and Johnson’s mysteriousness.  “Look!” I said to Brian at one point, waving a paper in the air.  “It’s a list of all the articles he had published in major news publications.”  I gestured to the folders piled between us.  “And none of it’s here!  We have all these letters and stuff, but I still feel like we know nothing about what he thought or what he believed in.”

“That’s true.”  Brian leaned forward and tapped on a book filled with Johnson’s sermons.  “But I think it’s all in here.”

Surprised, I stopped to consider Brian’s words.  It was certainly possible that Johnson’s personal beliefs could be found in the numerous books and folders containing his hand-written sermons.  Isn’t this something that a pastor, particularly one who seemed so dedicated to God, would do?  For example, Brian asserts that Johnson was a huge supporter of civil rights, almost from the beginning of his career.  His passion for equality was merely couched in the religious rhetoric he preached to his congregation.  This is apparently only one of many such examples.  Whether Johnson deliberately left so little of himself behind, or whether he had a personal preference to express himself predominately in sermons, we cannot know.

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This mysteriousness – and the answers that can be found in Johnson’s writings – tells us two things.  One, that perhaps this collection was not as good a minimal processing candidate as we originally thought.  Though it came to us fairly well organized, it would require more processing time to pull out the interesting facts that make it unique.  It also raises the interesting point that, perhaps Johnson’s papers don’t contain enough critical information to warrant a high research value.  I’m willing to bet that Johnson, with his birds-eye view on some fascinating moments in history, had plenty to say that he just didn’t tell us, and there is a good bet that it lurks within his collection.

For permission to use images of items from the Johnson papers, please contact the Presbyterian Historical Society.

It’s All Greek to Me!

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

It is not uncommon, when processing collections, to hear an archivist cry out in frustration: “What is this?!”  Oftentimes we are stuck holding a non-descript, third party-created slip of ephemera and wondering what the heck to do with it.  Not only do we have to decide where it goes, but we need to figure out the basic fact of what to call it.  And when it comes to foreign language collections, oh boy!

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Brian and I recently came across this particular problem while processing the Karl Wolfgang Böer papers at the University of Delaware.  Böer was a professor at the University for years; he was also a super-star physicist who was instrumental in developing solar energy.  A native of Germany, Böer did not immigrate to the United States until 1962.  As a result, some of the materials in his collection are written in German.  Neither Brian nor I can speak or understand German.  So when we came across a paper entitled, “Raumladungserscheinungen in Halbleitern bedingt durch die Feldabhӓngigkeit der Beweglichkeit,” we stared in open mouthed astonishment.  We compensated for our lack of knowledge by counting the letters in the long words.  “Twenty-nine characters!” we’d exclaim.  “That’s more than our alphabet!”   We felt justified in having no clue as to what papers like this were actually about.

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But eventually, Böer moved to the States, and with relief we moved on to process his English-language materials.  Our confidence rapidly deteriorated, however, as we came across titles like, “Transitions between Class I and Class II Crystals Induced by Heat-Treatment, Oxygen De/Adsorption and Electron Bombardment,” and “Trap-Controlled Field Instabilities in Photoconducting CdS Caused by Field-Quenching.”  Now, Brian and I were fairly certain that these titles were, in fact, written in English.  But we were also aware that it was some peculiar brand of American dialect known as scientific.  It is particularly ironic how something can be in English, but so filled with technical jargon that it is almost as incomprehensible to us as something in another language.

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As archivists, then, what do we do with materials like this?  And as minimal processors, how does it affect our work?  It is true that the only people who will benefit from papers in another language are, obviously, researchers who speak that language.  The same is true for the more technical aspects of the collection – there were some titles that would only be comprehensible to scientists.  Foreign language and technical materials do, I think, work well with minimal processing.  Instead of agonizing over folder titles, Google-translating every other sentence, or calling up our scientific friends to beg assistance, we simply make note of the folder title and leave the rest in the hands of the researchers.  Thus, though we felt a little intimidated by certain aspects of the collection, it did provide a good subject for minimal processing.  Verstehen Sie?