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Picturing religion

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

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What can a photograph tell us about an individual’s religious beliefs and practices? A lot, according to Colleen McDannell, author of Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. In that book’s opening chapter, McDannell unpacks a single image—a snapshot of the living room of a home built by the Farm Security Administration—to reveal how wall hangings, knick-knacks, and furniture communicate valuable (and otherwise unobtainable) information about a family’s connection to the divine, the church, and other believers.

McDannell’s analysis came to mind as my partner, Dan, and I began processing the photographic collection of the Religious News Service at Presbyterian Historical Society. The photographs in the collection are nothing like the one McDannell uses in her analysis—most of the images are photojournalistic shots of denominational gatherings, public appearances, or other religion-related activities. Nevertheless, McDannell’s larger point—that a photographic image can tell us just as much or more than the written word—still applies to this fascinating collection.

Since its founding in 1934 by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Religious News Service (RNS) has operated as a sort of religious Associated Press, sharing religious happenings and religious takes on current events with the broader reading public.

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To say that RNS’s photographic records capture every U.S. religion-related event in the twentieth-century would be an overstatement—but not a major one. The photos depict typical national and international “current events”: political ceremonies, summits, and speeches; social events like rallies, protests, demonstrations; scenes from wars and other conflicts; and the like. But they also depict specifically religious events, trends, and observances, and introduce viewers to important contemporary figures in Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities.

Some researchers might value this collection for its visual chronicle of major events in twentieth-century American religious history. Indeed, the collection does substantially document the history of American Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish groups during the twentieth century. But for researchers who want to move beyond this narrative usage, the collection might prove useful in raising questions. Why do the photos often document meetings between politicians and religious figures? And why do they so frequently depict those whose religious beliefs and practices make them “different”—Amish, Orthodox Jews, Catholic nuns?

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Questions like these point to the real utility of a collection like the RNS photos: scholars of American religious history can take the collection itself as a historical document and consider how its composition—its foci and its lacunae—reveals Americans’ thinking about religious matters during this era. Perhaps RNS focused on political-religious interactions because so many mid-century Americans were concerned about the “dividing wall” between church and state. And perhaps photographers pursued images of the Amish, Orthodox Jews, and Catholic nuns because Americans have had (and continue to have) an ongoing fascinating with the unknowable religious “other.”

Regardless of their value to researchers, the RNS photos—from the breathtaking to the bucolic, from the horrifying to the hilarious—have provided for interesting conversations between my processing partner and me over the last month-or-so. Check out the thumbnails below for some images from our processing work.  Photographs may not be used without permission from the Presbyterian Historical Society.

Presbyterian missionaries in Brazil

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

While prepping for processing at Presbyterian Historical Society (PHS) back in March 2010, I remember feeling just a little jealous of the processors who would actually get to process all of the super cool collections there!  So you can imagine how I jumped at the chance to process a collection at PHS when our processing schedule changed at the last minute.  I could not wait to get my hands on some papers!

Taking on the Philip Sheeder Landes papers, I got to travel to mid-twentieth century Brazil and learn about Presbyterian mission work in an otherwise Catholic dominated mission environment.  Landes was born in Brazil and spent most of his life there, and helped to build a Presbyterian community across the entire country — which is no small feat, in case you didn’t realize, Brazil is gigantic!  In addition to evangelizing, the mission (there were actually 3 or 4 related Presbyterian missions strategically placed in Brazil) brought literacy and other education, including a farm school, to people throughout the remote areas of Brazil.

The Landes and other missionary papers we processed at PHS taught me a lot.  For one thing, the missionaries we got to know truly embraced their adopted countries as their own, whether they were stationed in Brazil, China, Korea or the Belgian Congo.  They devoted their whole lives to their work and chose to raise their families in these countries.  Though there were undoubtedly negative consequences of missionary work and perhaps some ethnocentric motivation, I found that the missionaries we met were well-intentioned people, who provided very valuable services to the communities in which they lived.

While I was excited to process the Landes papers and learn more about Landes’ work in Brazil, I was frustrated to find out that approximately half of the collection is in Portuguese, a language that I am not familiar with!  I didn’t get to learn as much about the Brazil mission as I would have liked, but I was surprised to see that even with the language barrier, I was able to quickly provide much needed order to a collection that was in complete disarray when I found it.  Now it is ready for use, and I expect that a researcher, especially someone with knowledge of the Portuguese language, would certainly be satisfied with what it has to offer.

Jesus Loves You… Let Me Draw You a Picture To Prove It

Monday, July 11th, 2011

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When most of us think of the word “evangelist,” we picture people like Billy Graham—seemingly angry, fist-shaking preachers who whisper, cry, shake, and shout in an effort to drive their audience to a spiritual frenzy. McKendree Robbins Long—the early twentieth century Presbyterian evangelist whose papers Dan and I just finished processing at Presbyterian Historical Society—was probably a lot like Graham in some ways. But Long didn’t just rely on his oratorical prowess to draw would-be believers to Jesus Christ. Long, a classically trained visual artist, also used pictures to proclaim the Old Time Religion.

Long’s papers at PHS reveal this evangelist’s penchant for fusing his soul-saving impulse with his artistic muse. Two classical examples of this activity—hand-drawn sketches titled “I Will, Be Thou Clean” and “There is Never a Drought in the Spirit”—depict the two New Testament tales in which Jesus heals the lepers and meets the woman at the well, respectively. Each contains an implicit message to viewers—Jesus saves, both physically (from disease) and emotionally (from the “drought” of loneliness experienced by the woman at the well).

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Most interesting to me was Long’s apparent obsession with the Christian doctrine about the end of the world. A number of his paintings and illustrations depict death, destruction, and damnation—all end-of-the-world themes Long culled from New Testament scriptures. Many of the works feature familiar faces, too—one, appropriately titled “Apocalyptic Scene with Philosophers and Historical Figures,” shows historical actors like Charles Darwin and Karl Marx awaiting their final Judgment on the banks of a boiling lava-filled river. (Researchers, please note that only a copy from a scan of this piece of art is available at the Presbyterian Historical Society.  The original oil painting is at the North Carolina Museum of Art).

As in much apocalyptic art, Long’s work isn’t just about condemnation. The artist-evangelist also fills his paintings with impressions of hope and salvation. In “Apocalyptic Scene,” that hope takes a familiar Christian form: a cross, surrounded by angels and gilded with a heavenly glow. It’s far off in the distance, a fleeting glimpse of redemption amid the terrifying immediacy of Hell—just where an evangelist like Long, preoccupied with fire-and-brimstone approaches to Christian conversion, would want it.

Photographs cannot be used without permission from the Presbyterian Historical Society.

Did we process 52 cubic feet in one day?!

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

When Devin and I started working for the PACSCL/CLIR Hidden Collections project, I thought that we would at most process 7 or maybe even 8 cubic feet of materials in a single day. My assumption turned out to be very wrong. Over the course of one day in March, Devin and I processed 52 cubic feet of materials. The discovery that we had processed so much in such a short time prompted me to ask two questions: How did we do it? And, did we really process all of those materials?

Before I can answer these questions, let me give some information about the collection Devin and I were processing at the time – The Religious News Service (RNS) records at the Presbyterian Historical Society. The creator of these records, RNS (now called the Religion News Service) is a news service that has been dedicated to providing information about religion and ethics to newspapers and radio stations in the United States. Since its founding in the 1930s, the service has distributed a wide range of publications including syndicated articles, editorials, and photographs.

The RNS records contain copies of nearly every publication and photograph distributed by the organization between the late 1930s and early 1980s. During that period, RNS not only covered a wide range of subjects (e.g. World War II, the civil rights movement, ecumenical movements, evangelism and religious cults), it was also very prolific. According to our calculations, the RNS collection consists of over 600 cubic feet of materials.

Devin and I faced a major challenge when we began the RNS project, how were we going to process such a large volume of materials in ten or less weeks? Before we started the RNS project, we were told that we would not be able to use exactly the same processing methods that we had used for other collections at Presbyterian Historical Society. For example, early estimates showed that it would have likely taken Devin and me at least two months to type every folder title in the collection into the finding aid’s container list.

So, what did we do? How did we process over 600 cubic feet in a little over two months? Well, there were three major factors that contributed to the timely processing of the RNS records collection.

  1. The RNS records collection is ideally suited for minimal processing methods. The original arrangement and folder titles of the collection were so clear that little additional arrangement was needed. Every RNS publication was organized by publication type and in chronological order. If Devin and I had wanted to find a single RNS publication for any given day between 1940 and 1981, we could easily find it. Also, if Devin and I had wanted to search for materials covering a major historical event, we could consult the collection’s series of subject files where additional copies of the RNS publications had been filed by topic.
  2. Rather than examining the materials in every folder we sampled the materials in the collection. Devin and I pulled 8 folders from every cubic foot box and examined the materials they contained. We took notes about these materials and later used the notes to develop a finding aid for the collection.  We were confident that this approach would allow us to develop a fairly accurate view of the entire RNS records because of the nature of the materials in the collection. Early in the project we discovered that while most of the RNS publications contained unique information, certain editorial patterns (e.g. the format of the publications, the kinds of subjects that were covered, the writing style) persisted throughout the entire collection. Because of these patterns, Devin and I were able to gain a good sense about the information researchers would likely find in the RNS records through our sample.
  3. We had some help. Devin and I would not have been able to finish our work with the RNS records without the help of David Staniunas at the Presbyterian Historical Society. David sampled a large portion of the photographs and photographic negatives in the collection and shared his notes with us.

Having explained how we processed the RNS records, let me address the other question posed at the beginning of this post—did we really process the RNS records? I don’t know if I have an answer. On one hand, and I think everybody who has been directly involved with the collection would agree, more work could and should be done with the RNS records. For example, it would be great if we could examine every folder in the collection and describe it at the file level. On the other hand, I recognize that additional work would take a considerable amount of time and money. If we had waited until these resources became available, the collection may have remained hidden for a long time. To paraphrase what Holly has written in an earlier post on this blog, our work will ideally be a first step in the arrangement, description and preservation of the RNS collection.

These issues of course are at the heart of the debates about processing that are going on within the archival profession. I do believe that we have made a valuable contribution to the future of the RNS records. Hopefully, with the completion of the collection’s online finding aid, more researchers will be able to learn about the RNS records and soon make use of the rich and extensive materials.

Atrocities in the Congo

Friday, May 13th, 2011

In 1898, a Southern Presbyterian named Lachlan Cumming Vass II volunteered as a missionary to the Congo Free State. At the time, the nation was still under the oppressive control of Belgium’s King Leopold II. In the 1890s, Leopold’s dummy non-governmental organization, the Association Internationale Africaine, began to exploit Congolese natural resources (including rubber, copper, and other minerals) and to forcibly employ indigenous peoples as laborers. Leopold made huge profits from these endeavors, but only through the violent physical oppression of Congolese workers, many of whom were tortured, maimed, and/or killed. Estimates suggest that this forced labor system directly or indirectly decimated the Free State’s indigenous population by 20%. Gradually, the international community learned of these atrocities, often through consciousness-raising activities of Presbyterian missionaries like William M. Morrison and William H. Sheppard. Upon his arrival, Vass quickly joined his colleagues’ efforts.

Vass’ photographic documentation of the atrocities now resides at the Presbyterian Historical Society, in the Vass Family papers collection. My partner Dan and I recently had the opportunity to process these records. As we did, I was fascinated to learn more about Presbyterians’ roles in exposing the horrors of early colonial Congo rule.

Vass spoke explicitly about the rubber worker atrocities in a 1906 letter to Stanley Hall, president of the Congo Reform Association in the U.S.:

“How bad are the conditions? . . . I am in a position to say from personal experience . . . that the conditions in the Congo have not in the least been exaggerated . . . . It would make your blood boil to see some of the treatment meeted [sic] out on these poor defenseless people . . .”

Vass was also frank about his own cultural and social baggage, having been born in the Reconstruction-era South just seven years after Emancipation:

“I am a Southern [white] man from the black belt of eastern [North Carolina] and I don’t think we are often loaded with praise for our love of the Negro . . . but I wish to protest in the strongest terms to the absolutely inhuman way these poor people in their own country are being butchered by the white man, and all under the cloak of Philanthropy. I believe confidently that there has never been such a contemptably dishonest government on the face of the earth.”

Vass and his fellow missionaries certainly suffered for their outspokenness. In fact, both Sheppard and Morrison were charged with libel after they accused the Company Kasai rubber company of malfeasance and violence against workers. (Both missionaries were eventually acquitted). Nevertheless, the actions of these Presbyterian missionaries contributed to the overall effort to topple the regime, which succeeded on November 15, 1908, when Belgium annexed the state.

What amazing activists! You can learn more about Vass II and his work in the Congo by checking out the Vass Family Papers at PHS.

[Excerpts above from L.C. Vass, letter to G. Stanley Hall, September 4, 1906, Vass Family Papers, 1:14, Presbyterian Historical Society (Philadelphia, Pa.).]

An Archival Quandary at PHS

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

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When Frank A. Brown (1876-1967) retired in 1949 following a four-decade career as a Presbyterian missionary to China, he didn’t just sit back and enjoy “those happy golden years.” Between 1949 and his death in 1967, Brown remained active in a number of ways: writing articles, letters to the editor, and books, including a biography of his late wife titled Charlotte Brown: A Mother in China; serving on boards and committees of both religious and secular organizations; and lecturing on his experiences in China.

Brown also stayed busy in his later years by selecting for and arranging his personal papers—a fact that became quite clear to me and my processing partner, Dan, as we began to survey the Brown papers at Presbyterian Historical Society. At least one box of the less-than-three box collection had been pristinely ordered by Brown, complete with descriptive folder titles like “Retirement Years” and “Carville Hospital Experience” (a particularly interesting file of materials—including press clippings from several newspapers—documenting Brown’s bout with leprosy in the 1950s and early 1960s).

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It struck me almost immediately that there might be some intellectual problems associated with this collection—a collection consciously selected and arranged for posterity by the creator of the papers. Could personal bias have entered into the collection, either consciously or unconsciously? Couldn’t the creator have left out certain materials—materials he didn’t want to bequeath to future generations, for instance, because they might make him “look bad”? Will researchers be misled by such a collection, if archivists don’t warn them of the potential problems? Will they be put off by such a “flawed” collection if the archivist discloses the problems? How can an archivist detail the intellectual limits of the collection without firing off wild and potentially baseless accusations about the motivation of the collection creator? What is the archivist’s responsibility to this kind of material?

Unfortunately, I don’t have any easy answers to these questions. In fact, my response is tempered by my dual identities: as archivist and as public historian. As an aspiring archivist (and current archival processor), I have the daunting responsibility of consciously, critically, and carefully cultivating and preserving one small corner of the intellectual heritage of our society—the responsibility, to put it another way, of cultivating a cultural memory. But as a public historian-in-training, I also have a responsibility to the public, which includes collection creators and their family members.

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I think, therefore, that we need to walk a fine line in these situations: being transparent and honest with potential researchers, and maintaining appropriate respect for the creator of the collection. We don’t want to obfuscate intellectual problems from our researchers, nor do we want to dissuade them from using a particular collection because of potential—and unavoidable—embedded bias. (After all, no collection is perfect—all are, in one way or another, shaped by imperfect humans.) And at the same time, we need to respect our collection creators and not hastily accuse them of attempting to white-wash their legacy. (We don’t want to get a reputation, after all.)

In the end, Dan and I added just a short blurb to our finding aid—enough to let future researchers know about the provenance so they can draw their own conclusions about the potential intellectual problems of the collection: “The series title ‘Life and Letters’ appears to have originated with Frank Brown, whom it seems originally arranged these records.” Hopefully, researchers will recognize that Brown’s legacy doesn’t just live in the papers and pictures arranged in the boxes; his legacy also lives in the arrangement itself.

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

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.

Wives in the Samuel Hall Chester Papers, or: Who Is Mrs. S. H. Chester?

Friday, February 18th, 2011

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After a whirlwind week of “Archivist Boot Camp,” my processing partner Michael Gubicza and I just finished our first minimal processing project at the Presbyterian Historical Society. We were lucky to have a fascinating collection to start out on: the Samuel Hall Chester papers, 1873-1950. We hope you’ll keep an eye out for our finding aid, which will soon be posted to the PACSCL Finding Aids site. Dr. S. H. Chester, a Presbyterian minister, was the Executive Secretary of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church (United States) from 1893 to 1926—a delicate time for the Committee of Foreign Missions.

While Dr. Chester was on the Committee of Foreign Missions, the knowledge that missionaries were converting polygamous families to the Presbyterian faith was beginning to cause some consternation among Presbyterians in the United States. Some writings on the subject are included in the Samuel Hall Chester papers, although the extremely interesting documents are not very extensive. Dr. Chester, along with others, argued that missionaries should continue to welcome polygamous converts into the Presbyterian Church. In countries where plural wives were common, Dr. Chester pointed out, the Church’s insistence upon monogamy would result in additional wives and their children being abandoned by their husbands. Most likely they would be cast to the streets, and Dr. Chester was sympathetic to the plight of these pitiable women.

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As to Dr. Chester’s own marriage, he appears to have been a devoted husband. On the occasion of his 50th wedding anniversary, he compiled a massive scrapbook stuffed with cards and letters of congratulations from friends, the guest register from the anniversary party, and even dried flowers from the boutineer he wore to the party! But flipping through pages and pages of the scrapbook, Michael and I began notice that one important detail was missing: what was Dr. Chester’s wife’s name? Everywhere she was referred to as “Mrs. S. H. Chester,” or, in correspondence with the children, “Mother.” We began searching through the other materials, and were amazed that her Christian name seemed to be completely absent. No mention in the correspondence; no mention in Dr. Chester’s writings. In scrapbooks we found printed poems written by her, probably published in a newsletter or newspaper—even those were signed only “Mrs. S. H. Chester.” After much searching, we nearly despaired of ever finding out her real name.

Just before putting away the collection, however, we came across a photograph of Presbyterian Church (United States) delegates to the Universal Christian Congress in Panama, 1919. Only a few of those seated in the group portrait were identified, but luckily for us, one of them was Mrs. S. H. Chester. And next to her married name, to our great satisfaction, Michael and I found another name enclosed bashfully in parenthesis—“Mrs. S. H. Chester (Susan Willard).” Finally, we had an answer! Mrs. Chester’s name was Susan.

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

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.

Processing plans for minimal processing

Monday, March 1st, 2010

You haven’t heard much from me in the past month or so because I have been out in the field on a reconnaissance mission, so to speak.  Since the middle of January, I visited Independence Seaport Museum and Presbyterian Historical Society, and Holly joined me at The Library Company, Free Library of Philadelphia, Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Chester County Historical Society, to gather information about collections for the creation of processing plans.

Our processors do not have a lot of time to think about their processing decisions and once those decisions are made there’s no turning back.  Not to mention, we are working with students, who are learning the art of archival processing as they go and therefore do not have a lot of experience to draw from when making decisions about arranging collections.  Even so, because of the nature of the project, we need our teams to work independently.  As such, the processing plan is a very important part of our work flow.  It is completed prior to the processors’ arrival, provides them a place to start, and guides them in their decision making as they begin to divide collections into series and subseries.

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I spent from one to four hours with each collection, its accession file (if there was one), and collecting biographical information about its creator(s). Taking this information (and lots of photocopies) away with me, I created processing packets.  Each collection’s packet contains the processing plan, a preliminary biographical/historical note (written by Holly or me), copies of useful documentation from the accession file, a copy of the PACSCL survey record, and copies of any historical/biographical information we found about the creator(s). The processing plan itself identifies basic information about the collection, including its date range, linear footage and container count, and a basic list of supplies needed for processing.  More importantly, the plan offers a list of proposed series and subseries as well as specific processing instructions for collections that are especially unique or potentially problematic.  For example, at the Independence Seaport Museum, numerous collections contain large numbers (1000s, actually) of rolled ship’s plans, which will present significant problems in terms of time–the students will not have time to unroll the plans in order to identify them nor will they have time to figure out how to effectively deal with them.  As such, Matt Herbison, the Director of the Library at the Seaport Museum, and I took some time one afternoon to figure out the best way to handle those collections that would enable both greater intellectual and physical access.  The systems we came up with are outlined in the processing plans for those collections for the students to replicate.

Our teams are instructed to completely read all the materials in the processing packet prior to processing.  In doing so, the teams quickly become acquainted with the collection and its creators and are made aware of the various types of records to look for and how to group them.  Additionally, through the packets students gain a sense of the historical context in which the records were created—information that they do not have enough time to uncover on their own and that we believe to be essential in understanding archives and their value.

Since the students will ultimately devote a lot more time to the collections than we can, we do allow them to adapt the processing plan as they see fit.  If they feel additional or different series are necessary to maximize the collection’s accessibility, they may make those decisions on their own.

At all the repositories I have visited thus far (there are a few more stops along the way) I have gotten quite an in depth “sneak peek” at what’s in store.  Based on my experience over the past couple of weeks, we have some exciting collections coming up that are sure to be both interesting and challenging from the perspectives of history AND minimal processing — so stay tuned!

Here are some teaser snapshots of what’s to come: