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“Two Gun” Bessie and the case for better folder titles

Monday, April 14th, 2014

One of the issues with working with a legacy finding aid is that previous descriptions can easily fall short. Such is the case with the MOLLUS collection, and we tried to go back through folders with unclear titles to fix this problem. One such folder, titled “Front, 1941”, provides an excellent example of why accurate folder description is important.

Jessica and Evan process MOLLUS.

Jessica and Evan process MOLLUS.

Upon further inspection, “Front, 1941” contains a series of newspaper clippings related to the sudden resignation of Dr. Bessie Burchett. Dr. Burchett, known as “Two gun Bessie” for her tendency to carry two pistols to defend herself, was a Latin teacher at West Philadelphia High School who strongly opposed communism. She even wrote a book on the communist infiltration of American schools: Education for Destruction. In fact, Burchett was so strongly against communism that she was revealed to have Nazi sympathies. When news of her political extremism broke, there was a cry of public outrage against her, and rather than awaiting her inevitable dismissal, Burchett elected to resign.

The case of Dr. Bessie Burchett provides an interesting snapshot of Philadelphia and the United States during an era of extreme political movements. But if a researcher were to come across the title “Front, 1941”, the researcher could never be aware of the treasures in the folder unless they opened it because the folder title provides so little useful information.

Processed MOLLUS at home in the new Union League secure vault.

Processed MOLLUS at home in the new Union League vault.

This means that an archivist must choose between properly titled folders or item level description, and when using MPLP the latter is out of the question. Folder titles should thus properly identify contents, and it is important to conscientiously consider such titles. For “Front, 1941” we had some difficulty coming up with a title that adequately captured the contents, but after a while we settled on “’Front:’ Clippings regarding Philadelphia school teacher Bessie Burchett, especially regarding anti-communism and Nazi sympathy, 1941”. This title is a much more accurate description of the folder contents.

So much for this folder, but how many other folders are out there that fail to describe their contents? How many more stories like Dr. Burchett’s are hiding in the crevices of archives, waiting to be discovered?

Star-spangled MOLLUS at the Union League

Thursday, April 10th, 2014
MOLLUS whiskey label.

MOLLUS whiskey label.

When I was told that I would be processing the collection of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, or MOLLUS, at the Union League, I expected this to be an interesting project. While the name of the organization is impressive, I was certainly not disappointed by the contents of their collection.  Founded on April 15, 1865 in response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, MOLLUS was established to preserve and celebrate the memories and camaraderie of Civil War veterans. MOLLUS membership was composed of Union officers that fought in the Civil War or their male descendants, and the organization has thus included and associated with many interesting characters throughout its 148 year history.

My first encounter with stardom occurred on my first day at work, when we discovered some letters MOLLUShandwritten by William Tecumseh Sherman. The moment of discovery when one suddenly realizes that they are holding a document written in the hand of someone so famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) is tremendous. A simple piece of paper can swiftly turn into an artifact of great intrinsic value upon brief examination of a signature, and the mundane thus transforms into the spectacular instantaneously. For a history-obsessed rookie archivist such as myself, it was a pretty great find, even though I couldn’t necessarily read Sherman’s handwriting.

The excitement certainly did not stop there, as we soon discovered some correspondence with General Douglas MacArthur. Documents signed by President Rutherford B. Hayes, who served two terms as the Commander-in-Chief of MOLLUS, were also uncovered, as well as many more records of notable Civil War veterans.  In addition to written documents, we also chanced upon numerous photographs of MOLLUS members, with moustaches, beards, and sideburns as impressive as their names.

Stonewall Jackson, sans epic beard.

Stonewall Jackson, sans epic beard.

Robert E. Lee, sans beard.

Robert E. Lee, sans epic beard.

Another interesting find was the discovery of two Civil War scrapbooks, which contain contemporary newspaper clippings and other primary records of the war. The scrapbooks also contained a group of portraits of notable generals and admirals from both sides of the war. From amongst these I was delightfully surprised to find portraits of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson without their signature epic beards.

These many discoveries left me star struck, and I could not imagine that I would encounter another collection as interesting as MOLLUS. Nevertheless, this was only the beginning of my involvement with this great project, and I’m sure that I will continue to be pleasantly surprised by what the various local archives have to offer.

We’re back! Bootcamp, processing, and progress so far…

Friday, April 4th, 2014
Training_Processing

New project team during minimal processing bootcamp at the University of Pennsylvania.

Hello again! Time has flown by, and we’re just getting the blog started again by recapping the current PACSCL/CLIR Hidden Collections Processing Project of 2013-2014. I assumed responsibilities of Project Manager in August 2013 and it’s been a whirlwind of activity from the very first day. I had to quickly assess and plan how we would minimally process 46 collections containing materials from the 18th to 21st centuries, all specifically related to Philadelphia history. Processing will require us to process at a rate of 4 hours per linear foot at 16 different repositories over the course of one year.  In addition to 12 veteran participating repositories, we welcome four new institutions to the project, including two non-PACSCL members. With this project, we hope to refine, confirm, and better establish guidelines for applying minimal processing to a wide range of collections and types of institutions and creating high-quality finding aids for our ever-expanding collaborative site.

Surveying at Germantown Historical Society.

Surveying at Germantown Historical Society.

As you may recall, this project builds upon the predecessor processing project lead by Holly Mengel and Courtney Smerz from 2009 to 2011. Having served as one of the processors on that project, I began my work as Project Manager already very familiar with the “PACSCL” methods and approaches established by the first team. My familiarity with these approaches, along with additional archives management experience, gave me a bit of a running start, but I immediately found that I have my work cut out for me. More about the challenges and lessons I’ve learned so far will be chronicled in later posts.

In August, I quickly got started by surveying the collections selected for the grant that had not been surveyed previously by the fabulous PACSCL Survey Initiative Project. I followed and expanded upon the guidelines already previously established in earlier projects to assess these new collections. In September and October, I was able to assemble a fabulous project team of six processors and one assistant, who all attended the bootcamp training week designed to establish a good overview of the PACSCL approaches to minimal processing and the Archivists’ Toolkit. After training, I assigned pairs of processors to our first three repositories (Temple University, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Union League of Philadelphia) to kick off the year’s-worth of processing work ahead of us.

First day of processing at Temple University.

First day of processing at Temple University.

Already with many challenges and successes along the way that will be detailed further in the coming weeks on the blog, we hit our six-month mark this week right on track! At our halfway point in the project come mid-April, we will have processed an approximate total of 762 linear feet for 22 collections in 9 repositories, at an average rate of 3.45 hours per linear foot. Please stay tuned as we continue to add more frequent updates about our progress, lessons learned, and interesting finds!