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PACSCL Hidden Collections Processing Project » Michael Gubicza

Michael Gubicza

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THE (yes, THE) William Penn papers

Friday, June 24th, 2011

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When our friend and co-processor Jenna heard that Michael and I were working on the Penn family papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, she was a little bit jealous. “That’s amazing!” she gushed. “But, you do realize, you have officially peaked in your careers as archivists. It doesn’t get any better than William Penn!”

Truly, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s collection of William Penn and family is unparalleled. It is a rich and vital source for anyone studying the history of the Pennsylvania colony, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), European-Native American cultural encounters, colonial administration, inter-colonial disagreements, the transition of colonial government at the time of the American Revolution, and myriad other topics. Michael and I were fascinated to find treaties upon which the Native American parties had drawn “pictograms” of their names next to the English equivalents. We were blown away by the sheer volume of records relating to the Maryland-Pennsylvania border dispute, which dragged on for many decades. I’m a bit of a Quaker history nerd, so I was thrilled to see Penn’s correspondence with George Fox. All of which is to say that from the perspective of a researcher, Jenna is right: it doesn’t get any better than the Penn family papers.

Unknown size: small.

From the perspective of an archivist, however, I have to say: I hope that wasn’t the peak of my career. The Penn family papers were frustrating to process precisely because they are such an important and frequently-used collection. As an archives student I’m often told that archival processing and description are iterative processes, and this collection really brought that truth home. Almost two centuries have passed since the Historical Society was founded, and the Penn papers seemingly represent a cross-section of every fad, trend, and development in archival theory. There are huge bound volumes of collected documents, custom-size boxes for individual items, and several generations of Hollinger boxes; they are described in volume indexes, outdated finding aids, and a card catalog; important documents have been hand-copied, microfilmed, and photocopied. The collection is all over the place.

Under the auspices of this minimal-processing project, we didn’t have the time to update everything according to today’s standards and best practices. But even if we could, it might not even be desirable. Decades of scholars have used the collection as it is and cited their sources accordingly. While working on this collection, Michael and I had to ensure that nothing we did would inhibit the ability of researchers to find materials they used last week, or chase scholarly citations from 100 years ago. What processing we did was necessarily minimal, but our major objective was to create an online finding aid that would serve as an entry point to the collection. That much we accomplished, and we are pleased to make this contribution to the field. Welcome to the digital world, William Penn!

What have we learned from the experience?

Here are our words of wisdom to researchers: Come to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania! The Penn family papers are an incredible resource. We recommend you consult the card catalog on site to ensure you will have a fruitful experience.

Here are our words of wisdom to archivists: Come to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania! Maybe ask if you can get your hands dirty on an unprocessed collection instead of the Penn family papers. If you do work with the Penn family papers, allow at least 150 years to do a thorough job. At which point archival theory may have changed sufficiently that it will be time to start all over again….but you can worry about that when you get there.

Chaos to Order, in 4 hours or less

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

Written by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen and Michael Gubicza.

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When we first saw the boxes holding the Belfield papers, stacked on shelves in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, we said to each other: “Ohhh boy, I bet there’s good stuff in there!” That was our Pavlovian response: the collection was stored entirely in candy-bar and liquor boxes.

Our next response was anxiety about our 2-hour-per-linear-foot target processing speed: the collection was stored entirely in candy-bar and liquor boxes. Were these boxes packed by a child or a drunkard?

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We’re still not sure who packed the boxes, but they were truly a mess. Sometimes documents were folded up and tied together in little packets, but more often the materials were just loose. The Belfield papers seemed insurmountable. But we’re proud to say that we managed to process them more or less on time. With help from Holly and Courtney we finished before our 6-week deadline was up, although if you count man-hours we clocked somewhere around 3.7 hours per linear foot. That’s not bad—it’s almost twice our target speed (2 hours per linear foot) and a bit above the project average (2.8 hours per linear foot), but it’s just under the speed Greene and Meissner suggest for minimal processing (4 hours per linear foot, and that’s for large 20th century collections of business records).  It is well under the speed of traditional processing, which can take up to 40 hours per linear foot!

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Most importantly, we are pleased with the finding aid we produced. We didn’t quite manage folder-level description, but we did at least provide subseries-level description. And now that everything is arranged in folders and document boxes, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania can finally grant physical access to the materials.

As much as we dreaded having to paw through the disorganized boxes of the Belfield papers, in retrospect we’re almost glad they were such a mess at the beginning. It forced us to do lots of research and explore related subject material in order to understand the collection well enough to arrange it properly. Don’t get me wrong, this was still minimal processing. We didn’t spend weeks checking books out of the library. But whenever we needed some additional context, we did hop on the computer for a quick Google search or visit to Ancesty.com. Over the course of 6 weeks of processing, we covered a lot of interesting topics. Lucky for us, the Fisher-Wister-Starr-Blain families happened to be involved in some fascinating things. We learned about Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, Colonial Dames of America, the Sesquicentennial Exposition, stamp collecting, world travel during the Great Depression, twentieth century psychiatry, and nineteenth-century industry and legal practice, just for starters. The Belfield papers will prove to be an amazing resource for researchers in these, and many more subject areas, and we are proud to say that we were able to make the collection serviceable for them—in less than 4 hours per linear foot!

Harold E. Cox transportation collection at HSP

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Written by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen and Michael Gubicza

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The Harold E. Cox transportation collection at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) is a rich resource for anyone wishing to study public transportation in Philadelphia. It consists largely of records from the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC), which operated the city’s transit from about 1940-1964, and the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (PRT), which operated the city’s transit from about 1902-1940. There are also many records from the many small predecessor and subsidiary rail lines that existed before public transit was consolidated.

We just finished processing the collection, and we’re working on a finding aid that will soon be online. Nonetheless, using the collection isn’t as simple as walking through the door and asking to see it. When Dr. Harold E. Cox, Professor of History Emeritus and University Archivist at Wilkes University, donated the collection to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, he made an unusual stipulation:

Anyone wishing to use the Harold E. Cox Transportation Collection shall be told of the heroic efforts of Jeffrey Ray [Curator of Collections at Atwater Kent Museum] to save the collection from destruction and how he has been a ‘living saint’ for the last 13 years and put up with not only me, but all of the crazy idiots who have wanted to use the collection. The recitation of this glorious saga shall last no less than 20 minutes, and be set to verse.

As a courtesy to HSP staff, we put together a few verses just to get things started. Enjoy.

Listen, my researchers, and we shall say,
The midnight ride of Jeffrey Ray.
(If it was midnight, to tell the truth,
We don’t know) but forsooth
He saved everything in this rich collection,
And for over a decade he gave it protection.

Ray got the collection from Dr. Harold E. Cox,
Who kept it in many a big cardboard box.
Cox found it in the bowels of SEPTA’s subway.
Someone had trashed it! But without delay,
He saw it was treasure: maps and reports,
Financial, administrative, and records from courts.

Two-hundred feet of such quality goods!
Cox had no space, and knew that he should
Bring it to Atwater Kent Museum.
He called Jeffrey Ray to come out and see ‘em.
Ray saw the treasure and cried in delight,
“Researchers will love this! I’ll take all in my sight!”
That was nineteen-ninety: the next thirteen years,
Jeffrey Ray faced bravely, and without fear,
All researchers who came to see
The archives of Philly Rapid Transit and the PTC.

But time does pass, and when the Atwater Kent
Became the Philadelphia History Museum, they sent
Their archival holdings our way:
To the Historical Society of P. A.

Now the collection is processed, finding aid online,
So we hope that you’ll come visit some time,
To learn of subways, the trolley and bus,
In Philadelphia—or at least how it was.

Face powder and gun powder

Monday, March 7th, 2011

Everyone recognizes the image of “Rosie the Riveter,” that symbol of female power and resolve born of World War II. Not every woman could be Rosie, but every woman wanted to do her part to assist the war effort. Or at least, that’s the impression we got while processing the Historical Society of Pennsylvania collection of World War II papers this past month, our first processing project at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

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Among the highlights of the collection are photographs taken from inside the Stage Door Canteen, a USO club that offered servicemen on leave in Philadelphia free food and entertainment. And, most importantly, the club had hostesses for those without a date! We gather that this line must have been the most effective advertising technique, because we saw it everywhere. Girls, girls, girls! We found photos of girls dancing, girls serving drinks, and…well…what else do girls do? Oh yes, they look pretty.

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But times were tough during the war, so staying pretty was no easy business. Food was rationed, travel was discouraged (gas was rationed too-as were tires!), scrap metal was collected in great quantities. Among the most daunting challenges for our lovely hostesses at the Stage Door was a make-up shortage due to rationed ingredients. It must have been a happy day for servicemen and hostesses alike when a substitute was finally discovered. When we found a press release with this statement in it, we sighed with relief too: “American women-housewives, career girls, and war workers-won’t have to choose between face powder and gun powder!”

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To be sure, being a woman during war time wasn’t all about being pretty. It was also about cooking. And that, too, was made difficult by all the rationing we already mentioned. Luckily, the government had a few crack suggestions for cooking up delicious dishes out of surplus food items. Check out these recipes for spinach. If you’re brave enough to try the Spinach Salad with Mayonnaise Dressing, let us know how it turns out! Molded veggies are always a classy choice.

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We don’t want to give the wrong impression, though. We found some strong female personalities in this collection, and the servicemen’s appreciation for them had nothing to do with their beauty or cooking skills. “Mother” Weber, a member of St. Mark’s Church, corresponded with over 76 Philadelphian servicemen lonely for a voice from their home town. She saved money for their birthday presents (a $1 bill) by skipping her weekly movie. There was Harriet Favorite (her name says it all!), the bold and capable president of the Stage Door Canteen. There were the women who went to work in factories, real-life Rosie the Riveters. And, of course, there were also servicewomen who served our country right alongside the men, and partied with them in USO clubs or in their own Servicewomen’s Club. All of these women did their part with grace and courage, whether their responsibilities required the use of face powder or gun powder.