Legacy Finding Aids

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…A File By Any Other Name???

Friday, May 16th, 2014
Letter found in Boggs' correspondence.

Letter found in Boggs’ correspondence.

Archives coursework doesn’t prepare you for the fact that legacy file names may have multiple personalities. Local naming conventions sometimes resemble nicknames rather than a folder title relevant to a future researcher.

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art we found a number of opportunities to wrestle with this. In a museum there is the added challenge of the exhibition process itself: exhibitions may start with a conceptual title (French Decorative Arts), move through a development phase with a shorthand title (the “Exchange” exhibit) and then, often after several years, finally end up with a formal title (such as, “The Second Empire: Art in France under Napoleon III”). We found a great example of this in the Jean Sutherland Boggs records and the Directors’ Exhibition records, where we encountered many different file names for an exhibition that was ultimately called “Manifestations of Shiva.”

In the Boggs records, the early files discuss an India exhibit, and the documentation is mostly in files associated with the curator, Stella Kramrish, and filed under K. As the exhibit developed, it was filed under Shiva or Siva, and documents are filed under S.

We agreed to defer to the spelling of the deity’s name preferred by Kramrish, an authoritative scholar of Indian art and mythology. “Siva” was what we stuck with until we came across a 1980 memo addressed to all PMA staff from the director’s office addressing what had evidently been an ongoing conversation at the time too. Jean Sutherland Boggs herself had spoken and she said:

Memo from Boggs regarding the spelling of "Shiva".

Memo from Boggs regarding the spelling of “Shiva”.

“Dr. Kramrish has decided, with my approval, that we should spell the god, “Shiva”. From now on, it will be Manifestations of Shiva”

And so it was for us too.

The legacy files didn’t really became more consistent. Ultimately, as the exhibition process progressed, the formal name of “Manifestations of Shiva” was used more often, and although the legacy system still had many files in the S location, now files were in the M run as well. We successfully avoided the impulse to create a false consistency—and, in the end, felt that the many-titled folders actually tell a story of their own.

The PMA Directors’ Exhibition records has traditionally organized exhibitions by their opening date and then by their formal exhibition name (so for the above, the primary location is 1981 March 29, and the files read “Manifestations of Shiva”)—working titles are always changed to formal exhibition titles in this collection. As an additional finding aid, the Archives maintains a master list of preferred exhibition titles and their opening dates.

Publicity materials for Manifestations of Shiva.

Publicity materials for which Shiva exhibition?

However, a puzzle, related to the “Manifestations of Shiva” files, appeared in the Directors’ Exhibition records where we encountered “the ‘Exchange’ exhibit,” often interfiled with “Manifestations of Shiva” materials. At first we thought this meant that “Manifestations of Shiva” became a loan exhibit, but a little research uncovered the fact that an exhibit called “Masterpieces of Modern Art from the Philadelphia Museum of Art” was an exhibition of paintings from the PMA collection sent to India in exchange for the loan of significant artifacts for the “Manifestations of Shiva” exhibition. In this case, we did correct the folder titles to meet the policy of filing exhibitions by formal name.

In a way, the changing name of this exhibit provided a perfect storm for the way naming conventions in legacy collections can be a fluid and sometimes messy challenge. As Alina and I discussed this we noted that one of the greatest benefits of creating an electronic finding aid for this type of legacy filing system is the magic of keyword searching—offering the possibility of finding resources no matter the number of different file names they may have accumulated.

“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?

Excel to EAD-XML to AT—the spreadsheet from heaven.

Monday, March 19th, 2012

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Although it seems like a million years, it actually was not so long ago that our students were processing at the Independence Seaport Museum.  While we were there, we were faced with one of the limitations of our minimal processing time frames.  The archivist there, Matt Herbison (now at Drexel University College of Medicine Legacy Center) had a few spreadsheets detailing information on ships’ plans—information that made the collections truly useful to researchers.  Problem was, there were thousands of entries in the spreadsheets and we knew that our processors could never re-key or copy/paste that information into the Archivists’ Toolkit in the time allotted for the processing.

Because we knew that this information would really make a difference for users, we thought and thought of ways to make this work, but our best solution involved saving the spreadsheet as a pdf and linking to it from the finding aid–not very elegant. And then Matt, who really is extraordinarily techie, created this amazing spreadsheet that solved the problem.  To sweeten the deal even more, he offered Courtney and me the use of the spreadsheet for the project.

I will now make a very bold statement:  this spreadsheet made it possible for us to finish the project within the time frame.  Not only did we use it at the Seaport, our processors used it for original data entry at repositories that had spotty internet connections, technical troubles, and/or did not adopt the Archivists’ Toolkit.  Our Archivists’ Toolkit cataloger used it as a starting point for almost all electronic legacy finding aids.

Matt has offered to share this spreadsheet with everyone.  It is available here and we have created a guide for using the spreadsheet.  In a nutshell, each column in the spreadsheet maps to specific field in the Archivists’ Toolkit.  It has three levels of hierarchy below the collection level, so it not the tool of choice if your finding aids has sub-sub series and items, but for most modern finding aids, it is the ticket.  I should say, though, that it is not necessarily a quick process if you are starting with existing data … time needs to be taken to combine columns, format data, and check for errors.  If you know how to use regular expressions, you can really streamline some of this work.  If you are doing original data entry, the use of the spreadsheet is incredibly efficient for getting container lists into the Archivists’ Toolkit.

This means that anyone with knowledge of MS Excel can create finding aids and take legacy information from an electronic format to xml.  Pretty awesome! I will say that a little knowledge of EAD is very useful and understanding the Archivists’ Toolkit will make decisions in data entry easier.  Many of our students preferred working with the spreadsheet rather than the Archivists’ Toolkit, but it is a matter of preference.  I think it is a little harder to see the hierarchy when using the spreadsheet, but it is a thousand times easier fix error in Excel than in the Archivists’ Toolkit.  Check it out, try it out and see if it changes your life.

Yes, I did say that … I think it could change your life!

Thanks SO much to Matt Herbison!

Legacy finding aids: a trial (by any definition)!

Monday, February 13th, 2012

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77 “substandard” or legacy guides are now in the Archivists’ Toolkit and final editing is underway.  And I am happy about that … however, almost none of these look as good as they could or should.  Garrett Boos, Archivists’ Toolkit cataloger, and I spoke many times about the limitations of this part of the project.

We decided that there were several problems:  working remotely from the collections; the format, structure and quality of the finding aids that were given to us; and, to be perfectly honest, our own expectations for the final product.

Before Garrett started, I decided that working remotely was going to be the most logical way to approach this part of the project.  Garrett worked in our office at Penn and entered the collections into our own instance of the Archivists’ Toolkit.  We then exported the finding aids from his AT and  imported them into each repository’s instance of the Archivists’ Toolkit.  I decided to have Garrett work at Penn primarily because of logistics—otherwise, he would have had to work at 18 different repositories and, as we have learned, technology and space are two of the greatest challenges of the project.  Not to mention the instances when security clearances would need to be run, etc.  However, now that Garrett is done with the project, I have been trying to decide if it would have been better for him to work on-site and I am torn.  On the one hand, it would have made a lot of factors easier—especially checking on locations, vague titles and missing dates, to name only a few.  On the other hand, it would almost certainly have stopped being a “legacy finding aid conversion” project and turned into a “reprocessing” project. So I guess I need to stand by my decision to work off-site, even it was limiting.

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The reason I say that it would have turned into a “reprocessing” project is because Garrett and I think that at least 60% of the collections should have had some physical and intellectual work before the finding aid was considered final.  As with all aspects of this project, the legacy finding aid component was an experiment and therefore, the grant allowed repositories to send us any “substandard finding aids.” This resulted in several types of “tools.”  Garrett took them all on:  lists, card catalogs, databases and more traditional finding aids.  The biggest problem we found was that very few of these guides were organized hierarchically which meant that we had to do a lot of guessing—was something a folder, or was it an item?  Should the paragraph connected to a folder title be added as a scope note or was it actually part of the folder title?  What to do with the information about the contents of a letter, or the condition of the material?  What happens when there is no biographical/historical note and no scope and content note?  Thank goodness for email and helpful repository staff! 

I should say that there were a number of finding aids that came to us in absolute perfect shape … putting that finding aid into the Archivists’ Toolkit was a piece of cake and the resulting finding aid was beautiful. Others that were written before finding aids were standardized did not work nearly so well. Because we forced non-hierarchical guides into AT, a system designed to organize information hierarchically, some of the finding aids are actually less user-friendly than the originals. Many of these legacy guides had item level description, something our stylesheet doesn’t handle well, resulting in what Garrett and I have termed, “really ugly finding aids.” Moreover, of 77 finding aids, only 15 did not require some enhancement of biographical/historical or scope and contents notes–which is pretty tricky when working off-site. Titles and dates almost always needed to be reformatted for DACs compliance. Our primary goal was to maintain every bit of information that was in the original, but it worries me that we have created online guides that are potentially overwhelming and off-putting to researchers.

Some repositories have told me that I should not worry—that getting the guide online is enough.  Others, though, I know are really disappointed with the result. We surveyed our participating repositories about the effectiveness of the project and their satisfaction, and while we have not heard from all, the component of the project that proved least satisfying is the legacy finding aid component. I know that it is, by far, the part of the project with which I am least pleased.

Does this mean that you should not do a legacy finding aid conversion project?  No!  Do a legacy finding aid conversion, but do it with some structure and guidelines!  In order to have a successful legacy finding aid conversion project, we learned that repository staff will have to do some (or alot of) front line work prior to unleashing the guide on the cataloger.

Before handing over a finding aid, repository staff should identify (in pencil is okay):

• Folder title (underlined in one color)
• Folder date (underlined in another color)
• Box number
• Folder number
• If there is additional material, into what field in the Archivists’ Toolkit/EAD should it be entered?
• Biographical/historical note (does not need to be narrative, but the information should be provided by an “expert”)
• Scope and content note (same as the bio note)

If, as you go through this process, it becomes obvious that reprocessing is necessary, take the collection off your conversion list and place it on a priority list for processing.  Processing the collection may be quick and speedy and your result will almost certainly be better! In fact, I think, in some cases, we spent more time forcing data into AT than it would have taken to reprocess the collection.

Identifying these essentials should result in finding aids that are more standardized and allow researchers greater access to your awesome stuff. Don’t count on it being a quick process, however: the prep work is time consuming, the conversion is time consuming, and the proofing and editing is REALLY time consuming. This is not a task that can be placed only on the person converting the finding aid … even after the finding aid was in AT, Courtney and I, with fresh pairs of eyes, found lots of mistakes in spelling, hierarchy and grammar which would have been embarrassing and, even worse, would have potentially prevented people from finding that for which they were looking. Which is, of course, the whole point of all our work!

Efficiencies and Access at Haverford College Quaker & Special Collections

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Written by John Anderies, Head of Special Collections, Haverford College

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Haverford College Quaker & Special Collections was one of the first institutions to be treated to the excellent work of Holly, Courtney and the fabulous student processors (hi, Forrest and Leslie!) hired for the Hidden Collections project. As a semi-official Guinea Pig, we really benefited from the extra time and attention given us by the PACSCL processing team.  All involved did first-rate work and brought some much needed order to 10 of the high-research-value collections in our backlog.  Participating in the project also jumpstarted our adoption of Archivists Toolkit to process new collections, has inspired us to find additional ways to open our holdings to researchers, and has provided our staff with ample opportunities to debate the pros and cons of minimal processing!

Today, we now record all accessions and process all new collections in Archivists Toolkit.

For accessions we record all gifts no matter the format (manuscripts, archives, books, photography and fine art) and any purchases that are not reflected in the acquisitions module of our ILS (such as manuscripts and photography).  Eventually we hope to include retrospective accessions in AT too.  In addition to the original 10 finding aids produced by PACSCL, we have completed 19 more in AT, all of which now reside on the PACSCL EAD Repository hosted at Penn, in addition to our local web server.

Our instance of Archivists Toolkit is installed on a Tri-College server located at Bryn Mawr College and serves the needs of four individual repositories across the consortia: Bryn Mawr Special Collections, Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, and the Peace Collection at Swarthmore College.  Accessions and Resource (or collection) records for our four repositories are partitioned within AT.  However, we do share the tables for Subjects and People, which is very useful when the topics of our collections overlap, which they frequently do.

In addition to moving ahead on creating new finding aids in AT, we have spent the past year making our legacy finding aids more accessible.  Previous efforts at moving our finding aids into the 20th century had produced only a handful of fully searchable guides online and a mish-mash of Word files, PDFs, XML files, Excel files, ASCII text files, and Filemaker Pro databases living on a single staff computer, inaccessible to our researchers without the direct intervention of staff.  A decision to “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good” finally freed us from our paralysis and has produced extraordinary results.

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When the PACSCL crew left us in 2009 we had—in addition to their 10 finding aids created in AT—approximately 45 other finding aids online. By agreeing that it was better to supply our researchers with something “quick and dirty” than nothing at all and through the dedication of our students and staff, we turned all of the other finding aid formats into PDFs and mounted them on our web server.  These are listed on two web pages in both Collection Name and Collection Number order and the complete lot of nearly 250 finding aids is searchable using a Google Custom Search.  The results lists are not always pretty and neither are some of the finding aids, but for the first time the majority of our materials are discoverable online and our researchers seem pleased with the access.

As the work of the PACSCL team has discerned over the course of the grant, there are those collections which work well with minimal processing and there are those that do not.  Historically, we have never given the same level of attention to each of our collections.  Personal and family papers have often received more detailed processing than business papers and archival records.  While we have not adopted an MPLP approach at Haverford, we are interested in discerning ways of saving time and money while still providing rich access to our researchers and offering fulfilling and educational opportunities to our student employees and interns.  In the coming months we hope to try our hand at an “iterative” approach at enhancing collections by revisiting selected series within some of the collections processed to a minimal level under the PACSCL project.  And we aim to improve the remainder of our online finding aids bit by bit.

As one of the first institutions to dive into the PACSCL Hidden Collections project, we are pleased to see it wrapping up and hope that the other institutions who have participated have been as pleased and inspired as we have.

Idiots, imbeciles, and morons

Monday, January 10th, 2011

One of the more interesting finding aids to come my way in recent months was the finding aid for the Elm Hill Private School and Home for the Education of Feeble-Minded Youth records, from the College of Physicians Historical Medical Library. If you think that name isn’t politically incorrect enough, it was originally called the Institution for the Education of Idiots, Imbeciles, and Children of Retarded Development of Mind. The name of this institution generated a lot of discussion between Holly, Courtney, and me on how the meanings of words have changed over time. Elm Hill was founded in 1848 and closed in 1946 with only one name change. This means that feeble-minded was still a legitimate term in the mid 20th-century. Once I started digging into the different clinical terms that have been used over time (including the most recent terms: intellectual and developmental disabilities), I became even more interested.

First, the terms feeble-minded, idiot, imbecile, and moron were all clinical terms that were in full use at the turn of the century. Idiot, imbecile, and moron corresponded directly with a patient’s “mental age.” “Mental age” is an intelligence test score that describes the patient’s ability in terms of what is an average level for a certain age. This concept is still alive and well in different games such as Brain Age, a game for the Nintendo DS that tests players with different math games, and even Sudoku.

Now back to idiots, imbeciles, and morons. In the early 1900s, Dr. Henry H. Goddard proposed a classification system that linked the terms idiots, imbeciles, and morons to specific mental ages. An idiot was the lowest with a mental age of less than three years. An imbecile was next with a mental age of 3 to 7, and a moron was one with a mental age of 7 to 10. These terms also corresponded with IQ score ranges. Idiot was below 30, imbecile was between 30 and 50, and moron was between 50 and 70.

What’s interesting is these definitions survived with different clinical terms. Idiot became profound mental retardation, imbecile became severe mental retardation and moderate mental retardation, and finally moron became mild mental retardation. The IQ score ranges have been shifted slightly to account for the extra term. I couldn’t find a year or time period when the terms began to fall out of use but it seems to be in the 1950s. During the 1960s, the term “retarded” began to gain some of its derogatory connotations.

While doing some research on these terms, I came across the Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 64, Issue 19, which dates from 1915. In the “Queries and Minor Notes” section, M. T. from New York asked, “What is the correct usage of the word ‘feeble-mindedness?’”

The Journal’s answer gave a small history of the use of the term. It said that feeble-mindedness has been used freely to describe mental defect and only in the beginnings of the 20th century did anyone attempt to give it a standard definition. In 1904 the British Royal Commission for the Feeble-minded recommended that the term be used to describe all “mentally defective children who needed institutional care, in the three ascending grades of idiot, imbecile, and feeble-minded proper.” As we have learned moron came to replace “feeble-minded proper” as the clinical term of choice. It was the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-minded that changed feeble-minded proper to moron in 1906. The Journal also noted that moron was still not completely adopted by the medical community even in 1915.

Over the past few decades, mental retardation has been slowly fading in favor of “mentally challenged,” “intellectual disability,” and “developmental disability.” Although this discussion has been going on for about thirty years, only in 2006 did the American Association on Mental Retardation change its name to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

So to sum up, “feeble-minded” was the umbrella term used to describe individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, with “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron” as the three degrees of disability. This concludes a state-of-the-art psychology lecture from 1906! And I think I will stick with the long, unwieldy terminology of today!

Ringing in the New Year … end of year report and future plans

Friday, January 7th, 2011

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With the end of 2010, the PACSCL/CLIR Hidden Collections Processing Project has successfully processed 83 incredible collections! The project also had to say goodbye to 3 outstanding processors who graduated with their Library Science degrees and are therefore no longer able to work with us. We will very much miss Megan Atkinson, Megan Good and Forrest Wright (our longest-serving processor of 1 year & 2 months) and we wish them luck as they begin their “real” careers as archivists!

With the help of these three processors, current processor Christiana Dobrzynski Grippe, and former processors Leslie O’Neill, Laurie Rizzo, Eric Rosenzweig and Becky Koch, during the first 15 months of the project we’ve processed more than 1500 linear feet at an average of 2.8 hours per linear foot. Many of these finding aids are available on the PACSCL Finding Aids website, and processing at 13 repositories is complete. Garrett Boos, our Archivists’ Toolkit cataloger, has been busy too! So far he has converted 53 finding aids from paper, database or some form of Word into EAD. These finding aids are under revision and should soon be available for research!

While we feel pretty good about these numbers, there is still much to be done … starting January 11, we will begin processing again. We will be at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Presbyterian Historical Society, Temple University Special Collections (we are nearly finished with Temple’s Urban Archives), and the University of Delaware. We still have more than 2500 linear feet to process. (Yes, that number makes me a little sweaty—and my heart is pounding!)

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However, to help us with all this work, we have hired 7 new processors. We are happy to welcome Celia Caust-Ellenbogen, Dan Cavanaugh, Michael Gubicza, Devin Manzullo-Thomas, Jenna Marrone, Sarah Newhouse, and Brian Stewart who will join our returning processor Christiana Dobrzynski Grippe. We trained these talented (and excited) processors from January 4 to 6 at the Presbyterian Historical Society, and they will jump right into the processing of collections next week … as the numbers above indicate, we do not have a moment to lose. Processing of all collections needs to be completed by August!

So, do we think that minimal processing works? YES! Absolutely—it makes collections available to researchers sooner and faster. Does minimal processing have its drawbacks? YES! Absolutely—while the task of arrangement is frequently not too tricky, thorough description is much more difficult in a minimal processing environment. To be fair, we are working with collections ranging in date from the 17th to 21st centuries—and collections with hand-written documents suffer, in minimal processing, far more than collections with typed documents. We also have a goal of processing twice as fast as minimal processing often recommends. It is very important to note that these collections are “physically processed” in 2.8 hours per linear foot, which does not include the work that was completed by the survey, or the creation of processing plans by Courtney and/or myself. It also does not include the significant amount of time Courtney and I take to edit the finding aids. Without these efforts, collections absolutely could not be processed in the time frame, and regardless, Courtney and I feel strongly that 4 hours per linear foot is a far more realistic time frame than 2 hours per linear foot—but the bigger the collection, the bigger the payoff of processing at this speed.

If two years ago someone showed me the finding aids we’ve created and told me they came from processing at a rate of 3-ish hours per linear foot, I would not have believed it. Our project—and specifically, our processors—have not only adopted the spirit of minimal processing, but have also been working at breakneck speed. Courtney’s and my role has been to provide double (and triple) checks to the process, guaranteeing the highest-quality product in the time allotted. I cannot express how incredibly proud and appreciative I am of every member of the project team for their hard-work, dedication and excitement in the process of making collections ready for research.

Overall, I am happy to say that, with only one or two exceptions, every collection has significantly benefited from our work. If these collections had been traditionally processed, many of them would still be sitting on shelves untouched and unavailable to researchers. At the end of training yesterday, we asked our new processors if they felt that the collections on which they worked had been minimally processed and they all answered yes–they had not had the time to look at every item in the collection and did not feel that they had absolute control over the contents of the collection. However, when asked if their collections were more intellectually and physically accessible after processing, they all responded with a resounding, “Yes!” I am absolutely confident that researchers will be able to use these collections in their minimally processed state, and since making hidden collections accessible to researchers is the goal of this project, I am happily claiming this project as a success!

Drexel University College of Medicine legacy finding aids: Parcelsus and Mary E. Walker

Friday, August 6th, 2010

Of all the different collections I have created finding aids for in Archivists’ Toolkit, two from the Drexel University College of Medicine stand out.  They are Hering’s Paracelsus Collection and the Lida Poynter collection on Mary E. Walker.  I had to do a fair amount of research to write detailed biography notes for each of these collections.  Hering’s Paracelsus collection is Dr. Constantine Hering’s personal collection of books that were first donated to Hahnemann University Hospital.   The collection is composed of books on, about, or written by the medieval doctor, scientist, and alchemist,  Philip Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, who is best known now as Paracelsus.  The Lida Poynter collection on Mary E. Walker is composed of the research notes and a draft of Poynter’s unpublished biography on the suffragist, feminist, and Medal of Honor winner Dr. Mary E. Walker.  These two collections show the variety of material that can be found in just one archive.

Hering’s Paracelsus collection’s finding aid provided many challenges.  First it was a card catalog that had to be converted into a finding aid that would fit nicely in Archivists’’ Toolkit.  The cards were scanned and then made into a PDF that was then made into a Word document from which I could cut and paste the information.  As many people know, the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) process creates some mistakes in the text.  Also, only one or two cards were in English.  Through the process, which was actually sometimes more entertaining than tedious, I became well acquainted with old German and I enjoyed the chance to practice some high school and college Latin that I haven’t used in a long time.

Once the container list was entered, I began to do some research on Dr. Hering and Paracelsus.  Dr. Hering, the “father of homeopathy in America,” was interesting in his own right and he is the topic of another collection at DUCOM.  The breadth of activities in which Paracelsus was involved make him a fascinating topic, and there is a surprising amount of information that has survived about him.  He lived his short life in the early 1500s, a time period when people considered the ancient Greek and Roman doctors, Hippocrates and Galen, the authorities on medicine.  Paracelsus challenged many of the assumptions and established practices of the time, and helped bring medicine as a science beyond the ancient traditions.  He is credited with being the first one to say “it is the dose that makes the poison.”  Understanding this about Paracelsus makes it easy to see why the “father of homeopathy in America” wanted to learn everything he could about him.

The Lida Poynter collection on Mary E. Walker is about an equally fascinating individual.  Mary Walker was born in 1832 and died in 1919.  Her father had all his daughters work in the field with him and his son.  Since they were working in the fields, he wanted his daughters to be able to move freely and comfortably, so he banned his daughters from wearing heavy dresses and corsets.  He was also an amateur country doctor who believed most women’s fashions at the time were bad for their health.  This idea stayed with Mary and she devoted much of her life to dress reform.  She first experimented with trousers underneath dresses, then short skirts, eventually she abandoned the dress altogether and wore men’s suits that she altered to fit her frame.  She even wore a short skirt over trousers and a frock coat at her wedding in 1855.  She also had the word obey removed from the service, which in 1855 was remarkable.

Her father encouraged Mary to study medicine when she showed a talent for it.  When Mary was old enough to go to college, she went to Syracuse Medical College, the first medical school in the country to admit women.  She graduated as an M.D. and went on to open her own practice, which was not very successful.  At this point, the Civil War was getting underway and this is when her life gets even more interesting.

First she served in Washington D.C. as a volunteer in the army hospitals.  The doctor in charge was so impressed with her ability that he recommended that she be appointed an assistant surgeon, but she was repeatedly rejected because she was a woman.  After leaving and then coming back, she was finally given a commission and sent to Tennessee as the first female doctor in the Union army.  While serving on the front lines, she would often go unescorted and unarmed into enemy territory to offer medical aid to civilians.  She believed by doing this she would help turn the civilians to the Union cause.  She was also acting as a spy for the Union and reporting Confederate troop movements.  Eventually she was captured by the Confederacy, and later released as part of a prisoner exchange.

For her work with the Army, she was the first, and only, woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor.  In 1917 her Medal of Honor was rescinded along with 910 others when the requirements for receiving the Medal were changed.  She refused to return her Medal and wore it until her death in 1919.  Often police would stop and question her because she wore pants and was considered to be impersonating a man.  During these encounters when they would ask for her name, she would point to it on her Medal of Honor that was always pinned to her lapel.  In 1977, after many years of work by her grand-niece and a distant relative, President Carter restored her Medal of Honor.  This blog post only scratches the surface of this amazing woman’s life.

Legacy Finding Aids

Monday, July 12th, 2010

For the past two months I’ve been entering legacy finding aids into Archivists’ Toolkit.  So far, most of the finding aids I have entered have been from the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania.  I have also worked with finding aids from the Drexel University College of Medicine, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and I just started on a couple finding aids from the City of Philadelphia Archives.

The Penn finding aids were all electronic documents that I could easily cut and paste into the appropriate fields in Archivists’ Toolkit.  The finding aids were complete with extensive biographical/historical notes, scope and content notes, and detailed container lists.  I began with these because they were so complete and posed few obvious problems.

While the PACSCL/CLIR project is using MPLP to process collections at the individual repositories, the legacy finding aids that I am dealing with are for collections that have been processed to a variety of levels.  At Penn, all the finding aids are for collections that have been processed to the folder and sometimes item level.  The problems that did come up with these finding aids resulted from how detailed they were.  One collection had a 45 page biographical note.  Archivists’ Toolkit would not save this massive note and kept showing a bug report.  Thinking it was a formatting issue, I copied and pasted a few pages at a time and saved each time, until it produced the error report.  I then typed the note in Archivists’ Toolkit and saved until it produced the same error report.  This way I was able to confirm it was the size of the note that was producing the problem.  Another problem, with the same finding aid, was footnotes.  This was a very detailed biographical note and it referenced items in the collection.  Archivists’ Toolkit’s text entry is very basic and keeping most formatting that is in the original document is very difficult.  I was able to solve this by making the footnotes endnotes.

Drexel University College of Medicine’s finding aids often had detailed container lists with clearly identified series, so the data entry was rather straightforward.  However, each finding aid had only sketches or timelines for their biographical notes so I had to do some research and expand on them, which turned out to be a lot of fun, and I want to talk about them at greater length in a future post.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s finding aids are a mix of standard finding aid, narrative description, and inventory.  So far, I have only worked on three collections.  The finding aid for the Mutual Assurance Company records, better known as Greentree, was fairly complete.  The problem with this collection was that it was written as a narrative rather than as a standard finding aid.  Many of the paragraphs began with a box number and a general description, and then finally, a list of what was in the box.  It was fairly easy to extract the box number, a general title, and the container list.  However, because it was a narrative, what would typically be the biographical note was spread throughout the entire document.  I was able to go through it and put it all together for a more traditional note.  Some of the other finding aids are more or less just container lists and I will need to write notes for them.

One thing I have learned over the past couple of months is that standardization is strongly needed in the archival community.  Learning about different attempts at standardization and standards that have been created is one thing, but this experience has shown me why it is needed.  That being said, it has also shown me how and why it is so difficult to create standards for archival collections.

Legacy finding aids entered into the Archivists’ Toolkit thus far:

Drexel University College of Medicine

  • Lida Poynter collection on Mary Walker, 1850-1946
  • Longshore Family papers, 1819-1946
  • Northwestern University Women’s Medical School records, 1870-1947
  • West Philadelphia Hospital for Women records, 1889-1932
  • Women’s Hospital of Philadelphia records, 1861-1964
  • University of Pennsylvania

  • Musical Fund Society records, circa 1820-1994
  • Musical Fund Society Supplementary records, circa 1820-2004
  • Mahler-Werfel papers, circa 1880-2004
  • Edward F. Fry papers, 1947-1992
  • Learned Collection on German-Language Theater, 1832-1898
  • The Records of the Women’s Health Concerns Committee, 1974-1984
  • Collection on the Physician’s Forum, 1939-1998
  • Paul Lowinger collection, 1951-1986
  • Historical Society of Pennsylvania

  • Mutual Assurance Company records (Greentree), 1784-1995
  • The records of the Second Baptist Church of Philadelphia, 1803-1972
  • Boies Penrose Pictorial Philadelphia collection, 1855-1992
  • These collections will be available for research soon!