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Where are they now? Part II

Friday, July 27th, 2012

The last time this blog heard from me, I had finished processing the papers of Dr. Stella Kramrisch at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In that blog post, you can tell that I’m a little surprised that the processing went so well. I thought it would be complex to reconcile two different phases of previous processing that had separated a collection into two physical groups.  I can laugh at that now, because it turns out 1-year-ago-Sarah had no idea how complex processing could really be. (Oh, little baby archivist, just you wait.)

Since I left the Hidden Collections project, I’ve worked on two projects at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (which participated in the CLIR grant but alas, I was not part of the team that worked there). The first was as project archivist for the Digital Center for Americana Project, Phase II. Both phases of this project had, at their heart, the drive to create access to the collections at HSP through digitization. Phase I focused on collections relating to the Civil War and Phase II on collections that documented immigrant families, individuals, and communities in the Philadelphia area. I feel especially lucky that I got to work on this project given the subject matter. Many researchers know about HSP’s treasures – and there are some amazing things in those holdings, believe me – but fewer researchers know about these collections that document the immigrant experience or represent minority groups. The history of the Philadelphia area is mostly a narrative of Western European families who, yes, were all immigrants themselves, but very well-documented immigrants. So I’m happy to be adding to the richness of that narrative by making collections of less well-documented minority and immigrant groups accessible to the public.

The project involved some MPLP and some full processing. Collections had to be arranged, described, housed, inventoried, conserved, and digitized. Some collections received full digitization, like the beautiful 18th and 19th century bound volumes in the Abraham H. Cassel collection and the tapes and transcripts in the Balch Institute’s South Asian Immigrants in the Philadelphia Area Oral History Project.  Others received “signpost” images, meaning that I selected items for digitization that represented the contents of the collection. This was actually a bit of a challenge, because I had to resist the urge to digitize the most unusual, amazing, or funniest items in a collection and just digitize things that wouldn’t mislead a researcher as to the collection’s contents.  So, for the Athena Tacha papers, rather than digitize a letter from one of Tacha’s famous artist friends, I chose one of her many letters to her family in Greece.

One of the biggest challenges with this project was the language barrier. I can read some German (but don’t ask me to speak it), as well as Japanese, Latin, and a tiny bit of Spanish, but this project also included Greek, Swedish, and French, languages that I had zero experience with. Luckily, I was able to fall back on the skills of two interns who were natives of Sweden and Greece. Without their help, the finding aids for these collections would have been a lot less informative and the processing experience a lot less fun. The interns had different levels of archives experience, so I relied on them mostly as translators rather than processors. But even our clever Swedish intern, who spoke German fluently, was stumped by some of the spidery, 18th century German handwriting and syntax we encountered.

Working on the DCAII has given me a deep respect and thankfulness for the work that Holly and Courtney did on the PACSCL CLIR project. Transitioning from a student processing intern to a project archivist had a very, very, very steep learning curve. But luckily I had some understanding coworkers who created a support system of archivists, conservators, and digital technicians, all willing to put up with my mistakes and answer my questions (although in hindsight, one of my biggest mistakes was not asking more questions). Coordinating moving collections between three departments was difficult, as was getting used to budgeting my time on a project for which I had to keep track of and participate in processing, conservation, and digitization tasks. I also managed interns, ordered supplies, blogged, helped organize an exhibit, helped arrange a talk, and generally tried to look like I knew what I was doing. (As the internet says: fail.)

Of course, I would not be where I am now — happily processing the papers of the Woodlands Cemetery Company at HSP — if I hadn’t been selected as a student processor for the Hidden Collections project. This project and others like it are truly wonderful ways for archives and LIS students to get their feet wet in the processing pool. Especially if they’re managed as well as we were, with readily available guidance and frequent on-site supervision, processing interns gain not only skills they’ll need for those first few jobs, but the confidence to use them.

For further reading, here are some links with information about the projects I’ve done since Hidden Collections:

HSP’s Digital Library:

HSP’s finding aids:

HSP’s archives blog, “Fondly, Pennsylvania:”

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about the DCAII and its collections, Woodlands Cemetery, or my experience with the PACSCL-CLIR Hidden Collections project.


Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

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Dr. Stella Kramrisch, the curator of the Indian Art Department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1954 until her death in 1993, exerted a deep and lasting influence on the field of Indian Art scholarship and collecting. For those who are unfamiliar with her life and work, her obituary from the New York Times offers an overview of her life and accomplishments (and, of course, our finding aid includes a fabulous biographic note). She was a force to be reckoned with in the art museum world, a cat lover, and a one-time hyena owner. If you are ever in the PMA’s Indian and Himalayan Art galleries, take a moment to check the provenance of the objects on display. About 2/3 of them were either acquired by Stella Kramrisch while she was curator, bought with funds in her name, or were part of her personal collection, bequeathed to the museum after her death. Clearly, the PMA would not be the institution it is today without her.

Processing her papers presented unique challenges for an MPLP-based processing style:

  1. It had previously gone through the hands of at least two people: an intern in the PMA’s Indian and Himalayan Art Department who had subject knowledge of Indian art and scholarship, and a project archivist at the PMA.
  2. The materials dealt with by these two people were separated in to two distinct chunks (located on opposite sides of the processing room, even).
  3. The project archivist and the intern described and arranged these parts of the collection to different degrees. The intern did not have archival training, but had enough subject area knowledge to write out very detailed folder titles (which were both helpful and problematic for MPLP!) and identify photographs. There was, however, no folder-level arrangement. The project archivist wrote an excellent inventory and arrangement suggestions, and labeled some of the sections of records with paper inserted into the record cartons. She left all materials in their original order, as they were when they were transferred from the Indian and Himalayan Art Department.
  4. Due to the importance of Dr. Kramrisch to scholars from various fields, this collection had been accessed many times between its transference to the archives (piecemeal starting in the mid-1990’s) and our processing. Biographers had pulled materials from their original folders and relocated those documents into new folders to better suit their research and writing needs.  And those are the alterations we know about.

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My processing partner, Christiana, and I were a little apprehensive before we waded in, expecting that reconciling the contrasting arrangements of two chunks of Stella’s papers would be time consuming and frustrating. We feared that the existing organization created by the intern wouldn’t work for the collection as a whole, and that we would need to pull the contents of those boxes apart while doing some serious interfiling and hefting of record cartons. We found, however, that we could largely keep those series and that the materials from the Indian and Himalayan Art Department would either fit into those or could be put into new (small-ish) series of their own.

We did, however, keep these groupings of materials in separate subseries. For example, there were materials processed by the intern and art department materials that fit into a “Writings and research notes” series. But rather than interfile these records, we put them in two subseries to preserve the distinction between the kinds of processing they received. We thus saved ourselves an awful lot of time that would have been spent interfiling and (I think) made it clearer to researchers how much the materials two subseries had been interfered with, thus making it easier for them to know what to expect when they open a folder.

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For me the most challenging aspect of this collection was dealing with folder titles written by someone with lots of subject knowledge, but no archival training. It was time consuming to reword someone else’s titles – which he had put hours of research into – and wrangle them into something that could be alphabetized in a subject file subseries. Titles like “Manuscripts and correspondence on a book on death that SK and Anindita Balsev were going to co-author” or (my favorite) “POPULAR WISDOM !?!” might contain useful information, but aren’t in a format that’s useful to archivists.

But the challenges combined with the opportunity to learn more about Stella Kramrisch made this collection incredibly rewarding to work with. The collection actually seems very similar to Stella herself: full of information, very valuable and obviously loved, but at times difficult to work with.

Former dancers (subject specialists) process the Pennsylvania Ballet records

Friday, July 1st, 2011

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One of the first discussions my processing partner, Christiana, and I had was about our secret past as ballet dancers. This didn’t have much bearing on the first two collections we processed (the papers of the Safe Energy Communication Council and Health/PAC), but our third was the Pennsylvania Ballet records at Temple University Special Collections. Our knowledge of ballets, costumes, performances, and famous dancers would obviously have some effect on how we processed this collection, but we weren’t sure whether our subject knowledge would help or hinder our attempt to process at 2 hours per linear foot. This collection had a lot of photographic materials, and a not insignificant amount of those were unidentified or “miscellaneous.” Would we be so bogged down in trying to assign ballets to unidentified performance photographs that our processing speed suffered? Or would our knowledge of costumes and sets enable us to blithely sort miscellaneous photographs into piles of  Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Giselle, and so on?

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Subject knowledge is a clear advantage when doing traditional processing. Knowing something about your collection before you start can save you research hours and make both arrangement and description easier. In the case of minimal processing, however, subject knowledge can only do so much good. There are some strict time limits on processing speed and everything must be considered in terms of trade offs: you can spend more time researching if you process a little quicker. If you leave those “general” or “miscellaneous” folders as they are, then you can do something more elaborate with the next series. Taking the time to utilize subject knowledge must be considered in the same way, which means there is a tipping point when doing so is no longer worth the time.

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For example, in the Pennsylvania Ballet Collection there were times when we could have given titles or added description to previously untitled photographs and folders. We tried only to do this only when it would be quick and not break our stride. So if we looked through a folder of publicity photographs from, say, Sleeping Beauty, and found that unlabeled photographs from Giselle were included, it only took seconds to add the second ballet to the folder title. However, there were more situations in which we could have used our subject knowledge but chose not to, because we simply didn’t have the time. At the bottom of one box we found a thick layer of loose and unlabeled photographs of dancers, performances, and fundraising events. It would have been fairly easy to sort out all of the Nutcracker photographs. Or any photographs of a famous dancer. Or photographs we could date to a specific span of years when a certain dancer was in the company. But we couldn’t, because while this would have been easier for us than for processors without subject knowledge, it still would have taken an awful lot of time (which of course we didn’t have). So we decided to place these photographs in the dreaded “miscellaneous” folders and move on, doing the same with a box of loose slides. We also didn’t touch any chunky folders already labeled “miscellaneous,” “general,” or other vague terms that didn’t tell you much about content. (Folders with only one or two items in them, though? Those got re-titled.) If we had taken the time to identify every single one of those unlabeled items, then we would have had to skimp on arrangement and description elsewhere, which was not an option.

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In the discussion of minimal processing using archivists with subject knowledge, it’s also worth  discussing how much this can help researchers. In the above Sleeping Beauty and Giselle example, our addition would only help someone who was looking for photographs of Giselle productions by the Pennsylvania Ballet (so, probably not the vast majority of people who will access this collection). The place where subject knowledge was most needed was in the un-arranged jumble of photographs and slides, but these are also the parts the collection that would have taken the most time to deal with and were therefore unlikely to be touched during any minimal processing project.

To sum up, subject knowledge helps in traditional processing and certainly didn’t hurt us here; but it didn’t greatly improve the quality of the description and arrangement we were able to do, nor did it save us much time. Because we were practicing minimal processing, we didn’t have the luxury of using our subject knowledge to its full extent. Having knowledge about the material in your collection before you begin can help you, but the rewards are small given that you might not be able to apply it without devoting more time than you can spare.

Things I did not expect to find in a collection of records from a safe energy advocacy group:

Monday, April 18th, 2011

A Toxic Avenger movie poster.  If you’re interested in learning more about the movie, here’s a link to its imdb abstract:

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An anti-nuclear power billboard illustration that spoofs romance novel covers, in which our heroine has three breasts and our hero has a foot for a hand. (It’s called, of course “Mutated Love.”)

A political demonstration itinerary that includes the line, “Tether pig to podium by 11:30 a.m.”

Larry the Space Cat.

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Folders full of materials about Leslie Nielsen.

The Safe Energy Communication Council (papers at Temple University Special Collections) was involved in the writing and production of Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear, which had an anti-nuclear, pro-clean energy message mixed in with all of its slapstick and puns. The campaign files about the movie include correspondence between the movie’s director, Steve Steveman, and SECC Executive Director, Scott Denman. The SECC was even thanked in the closing credits of the film.

For your viewing enjoyment, here’s a clip from Naked Gun 2 1/2:

Of course, everyone at SECC was incredibly excited about this. Scott Denman’s handwritten notes about Naked Gun 2 1/2 from board of directors meetings include multiple underlinings and exclamation points. The SECC sent out invitations to a private screening of the movie to politicians, both pro- and anti-nuclear energy, with a “highly energy efficient and renewable” party at the National Museum of Natural History afterward. Oddly enough, the pro-nuclear power politicians seem to have mostly declined the invitation.  The SECC also sent copies of the movie to politicians (perhaps those who couldn’t make it to the screening), some of whose replies are in the Naked Gun files. A few replied by indicating that they do not accept these kinds of gifts, while others reported that they found the movie both hilarious and informative.

When I started drafting this blog post, there was a paragraph here about how nuclear energy wasn’t at the forefront of anyone’s mind anymore and hey, isn’t it weird how this 90′s paranoia about nuclear power has gone away? But on March 11th, an earthquake, tsunami, and series of powerful aftershocks happened on the other side of the globe. The earthquake and its aftereffects have damaged several nuclear reactors and thus brought the risks of nuclear power back into the American consciousness. Once again we’re seeing discussions of nuclear power similar to the ones present in SECC media campaigns, in which nuclear energy is depicted not with scientific detachment, but with emotional rhetorical appeals. For all the science that’s present in the SECC papers (and it is there), most of the media campaigns and published material use emotional rhetoric, like the pictures of injured and dead animals in their Licensed to Kill publication. This was a smart and successful attempt to appeal to the average Joe, who wouldn’t have or want the knowledge required to understand the technical aspects of nuclear power.

One of the interesting aspects of the debate about the safety of nuclear power happening on the internet is the availability of information from both anti- and pro-nuclear power camps. It’s not uncommon to read online articles or blog posts arguing for for or against nuclear energy, and to see someone supporting the opposing case in the comments or in a rebuttal that links back to the original piece. Perhaps this availability of information will prevent public opinion from becoming as strongly anti-nuclear power as it was in 1991, when these discussions that created a culture in which nuclear weapons and power were so obviously evil that they could be involved in  the evil machinations of a bad guy in a slapstick comedy movie.

Lacy LeGrand Little papers

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

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With the start of 2011, PACSCL has taken on a new group of processors to work in area repositories.  For our training project, our group (Garrett Boos, Bruce Nielson, and Sarah Newhouse) arrange a collection of photographs and papers belonging to Lacy LeGrand Little, a Presbyterian missionary to China in the early 20th century.  This collection is housed at the Presbyterian Historical Society, along with many other collections from missionaries serving during the same time period and in various countries.

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Most of the photographs are of unidentified groups and individuals, which presented some problems in arranging and using minimal processing (especially for those of us using minimal processing for the first time). We wanted to label folders with names when possible, so searching for names and dates became a process that took more time than we intended. We ended up dividing the photographs into formal and informal (posed portraits and snapshots), and within those categories, into photos of individuals, pairs, groups and locations.  Within those groups, we had categories of identified and unidentified photos.  As always, with minimal processing, time was our main concern, but we were also concerned with balancing our allotted time with the desire to create the most informative finding aid possible.

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Among the unidentified photos were several of a man whom we were pretty sure was Lacy Little, but lacking any identifying information, we hesitated to assign his name to those photos.  After we had processed the collection and created the finding aid, our project archivist, Courtney Smerz, mentioned that she had seen an identified photo of Lacy Little in another collection being processed during training.  Thus began a frantic, but brief hunt thorugh the collections we had pulled for processing, trying to find this labeled photograph that we knew was in a photo album or scrapbook with black pages. The photo was found, we identified our man, and everyone was happy.

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The primary value of this collection is in the snapshot it provides of life in the 1920s and 1930s China, especially the life of a tourist or missionary.  Many of the photos are of unidentified groups and views, including a series of photos of classes from the school run by the Jiangyin Mission.  Some of these, however, have a list of all the students on the back, but no additional information, such as year, instructor or location.  The most interesting photos were two long, rolled photographs of landscapes.  One was the view of a harbor, with small fishing boats mingling with imposing battleships.

This collection fits into a larger narrative and documentary history about American missionaries moving into the rest of the world, but it is surprisingly short on quantitative data and the details of a missionary’s life. The photographs, however, provide tiny windows into Little’s life and travels, giving us a sense of what was interesting to a missionary encountering China through Western eyes.

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