Megan Atkinson

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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.

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

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

By Megan Atkinson and Christiana Dobrzynski Grippe

Unknown size: small.

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.

Unknown size: small.

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.

Unknown size: small.

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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More processing please…

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

The Stevens-Cogdell-Sanders-Venning family papers at the Library Company of Philadelphia posed one of the more challenging trials in minimal processing that I have experienced to date (almost more than the Read family papers).  The Stevens-Cogdell-Sanders-Venning family papers document the development of a prominent middle class African American family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The family began with the emigration of John Stevens from England in 1760.  His daughter, Mary Ann Elizabeth Stevens married George Cogdell and had three known sons, John Stephano Cogdell, Clements Stevens Cogdell, and Richard Walpole Cogdell.  The son Richard Walpole Cogdell (1787-1866) married a women named Cecilia, and had three sons.  Although he was married with a family, Richard Walpole Cogdell sought the relations of a black woman, Sarah Martha Sanders (d. 1850).  With Sarah Martha Sanders, Richard Walpole Codgell fathered ten children.  It is from the Codgell-Sanders relationship that the birth of this family in Philadelphia began.

As with many family papers, obtaining the story of Stevens-Cogdell-Sanders-Venning family requires the researcher or the archivist to sit with a large genealogical tree to understand who or what is happening in the collection (this is also complicated by the fact that everyone has the same name).  This collection is further problematic because of the nature of the materials and how they were maintained.  The materials, which were predominately scrapbooks at one point, are now pages from scrapbooks and pieces of scrapbooks that are removed from the pages.  This “arrangement” creates an environment that minimal processing cannot handle and the optimal situation for the materials would be for an archivist to put the puzzle pieces back together and try to re-establish some type of original order.  This is not done at two hours per linear foot, nor even at twelve hours per linear foot.

Our resulting finding aid includes folders named after individual family members with a slight description as to what is in the folder, and a series titled “Scrapbook Pages,” which contains information that pertains to many family members.  Even with this shortcoming, the Stevens-Cogdell-Sanders-Venning family papers holds an immense amount of information for researchers.  The collection includes numerous people who would be great to research, such as Miranda Venning.  Miranda Venning was a teacher and later a principal of the Joseph E. Hill School.  She received her education at the Institute for Colored Youth, Robert Fortens private school, and The Vaux School.  She was also the first black graduate of Philadelphia’s Girls Normal School in 1882.  Miranda’s scrapbooks contain a wealth of newspaper clippings from Philadelphia black newspapers as well as information regarding the music scene in Philadelphia, including information on the prominent singer Marion Anderson.  John Stevens’ letterbooks contain numerous letters to his supposed prodigal son, who moved to Jamaica after leaving his job and responsibilities behind.  To add to the collection’s interest even more, the family has a relation to the Chew family of Philadelphia.  Overall, the Stevens-Cogdell-Sanders-Venning family papers offer an excellent glimpse into the lives of a prominent black middle class family’s life and they would be a worthy addition to research pertaining to black history.

Lessons Learned from minimally processing at College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

A month ago, Becky Koch and I finished our first “official” minimal processing project at the College of Physicians.  The records, The College of Physicians Office of the Executive Director, amounted to 112 boxes.  Overall, it was a good selection for minimal processing, with the exception of restricted materials.  This being said, there was one thing I learned about minimal processing that seems to illustrate how it should and should not be done.

The issue is the difficulty of processing with a partner while trying to get a job done as quickly as possible.  Our method was to divide the work and conquer it equally and quickly.  This was not a good method because we were not coordinated with one another on what particular name a folder should be labeled or the type of series it should be placed under.  Do we call it financial, administrative, programs…etc.  Our vocabulary and thoughts on the overall collection and arrangement were not synonymous (how could it be) and without it, both of us thought of our own individual ideas and labels.  This is also problematic later on in the collection because as the records are processed, there are usually some preliminary ideas which do not always end up in the final product.  This led to a very large amount of rearranging and re-titling when we finally put the collection together intellectually.  This problem led me to realize that if an archivist is processing with a partner, almost all folder ideas, series ideas, and titles need to be discussed thoroughly while processing so that the two archivists are not processing one collection using two different organizational and title schemes.

Fortunately for both of us, the following records we processed, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod records at the Lutheran Theological Seminary were processed with much more discussion over what each of us thought were parts of the organization and we discussed titles in detail.  This made the processing and organizing less complicated and created more fluent folder and series titles.