Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Large Collections in Small Facilities - Archivists as Teachers

The biggest challenges community archives face usually relate to finances and staffing. Professionals who set out to help these institutions must be creative to help them care for collections in a professional manner. Local historical societies and museums often hold valuable collections that are essential to creating an accurate historical record of society. Even when professional staff is not employed, small institutions can often rise to the challenge of properly caring for valuable archival collections. Such institutions seek guidance from professional associations or professionals at larger facilities (such as local universities), or from consultants. It is worth the professional's time to take stock of the local small institutions in their area; to see how their assistance may help build strong archival programs; to support institutions that may hold materials vital to their own work.

A bundle of letters from the Frank Lawton collection.
Small bundles like this gave me some clues to a rational
organization of the materials.
One layer of correspondence among the Lawton Papers
A number of years ago, I was brought on as a consultant at the Shirley Historical Society in Shirley, Massachusetts. My task was to survey their collections. Shirley has a very strong Historical Society thanks to a number of volunteers and one very strong director who volunteers A LOT of her time to making the facility work. It is usually through the dedication of passionate citizens that such institutions create a strong local history collection and drive exciting educational programs for their communities, raising appreciation of their sense of place and the value of archives.

Unbound letters in need of cleaning
The Shirley Historical Society has a dedicated building that was erected for the purpose of supporting local history and collections. Right from the start, the Society enlisted the help of volunteers, having them help with building construction. Shirley recognizes its valuable history. It was the home of Earl Tupper of Tupperware fame. The town was also the residence of the famed MacKaye theater family, including Benton MacKaye who diverged from the family business to create the Appalachian Trail. I was luck enough to process the family papers as my second consulting project for Shirley. Dartmouth College holds a collection of MacKaye Papers that dovetail with those in Shirley and we made a connection with the College to let them know about Shirley's holdings so that researchers could be referred when appropriate.

One of about sixteen neat boxes. The collection will grow
as letters are unfolded and interleaved. My time on the project
did not allow for me to do that.
Work in progress. Things usually get messier before they
get neater.
This past week, I worked on another interesting collection in Shirley. The papers of the local Lawton family consist mainly of correspondence that reflects the life of early twentieth century antique dealer, Frank Lawton and his family. Lawton is known for selling a large number of antiques to Henry Ford. The Shirley Historical Society director made a connection to the Henry Ford Museum to tell them about the collection and Dearborn, Michigan's tie to a small Massachusetts community.

The Society received a grant for the project, which covered about half of the consulting fee I would have required to fully process the collection. So, instead, I gave the disorganized collection some structure, gave a volunteer some instruction on preservation and what is needed to continue the project after I'm gone. I wrote up a small report providing additional  information to assist them and will return to the Society in a month to see what progress has been made - where the project is succeeding and where volunteers may need a little extra help.

Over the past ten years, I have always been impressed with what Shirley can accomplish. A few other communities with which I have worked have also managed to accomplish incredible things with grant money, dedicated volunteers who can whip up passion and support for their work, and a little professional guidance. These institutions do not run like "traditional" archives and need the support of flexible and creative archivists to guide them. I invite my fellow archivists who don't do so already to step outside the box and see what they can do to help lift their small local archives. In so doing, I assure you, you will be boosting our profession by expanding our purpose and value. It also feels amazing to "click" with volunteers and watch their eyes light up with the knowledge that they have the capability of building something for posterity.

visit the Shirley Historical Society's web page at www.shirleyhistory.org

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the kind words Melissa. Anyone who reads this and would like to visit the Shirley Historical Society Museum and see what we have done and what we have yet to do, is more than welcome.
    Meredith Marcinkewicz
    Shirley Historical Society