Thursday, June 21, 2012

More Finds in the Local Archives

I regularly write a "column" in this blog called "More Finds at the Local Antique Shop." It usually discusses inferences I make about photos and ephemera that I find. I try to apply context to orphaned items. Today, I am going to share ephemera that has context and explain how the material fits into the collection I know.

Lawton Collection, Joyeux Noel
(Happy Christmas)
Shirley Historical Society
My last post discussed my work on the Lawton Collection in Shirley, Massachusetts. Within the collection, I found the two pieces of ephemera mentioned in this post. One outstanding feature of the Lawton Family Papers is a box of Christmas cards covering about a decade in the life of the family. The cards illustrate early twentieth century greeting card design and reflect the tastes of the times. Like today, cards were written by family, acquaintances, business associates, and long lost friends (maybe people one hadn't heard from since the previous Christmas.) I chose the card to the left as my sample for its beautiful color and unusual design. It seems more like an illustration for Little Bo Peep than a Christmas card, yet I find its simple illustration very appealing.

I found myself wondering how many people keep years worth of Christmas cards. I usually keep a year's worth. I review the previous year when I replace them with current ones when the holiday ends. Unlike birthday cards, I do not keep any old Christmas cards. I find them impersonal, even with long letters describing recent events in the lives of those I know; those letters about family that say the same thing to all its recipients. I am guilty of sending such correspondence too, but it strikes me as very ephemeral. I expect the recipient to read about what is happening in my life and then throw it away. 

As antique dealers, did the Lawtons treasure these items from a whole different perspective than I? For one, I wonder, did the Lawtons keep their ephemera because rather than weighing the materials for personal or historical value, they judged it on a monetary level?  Seeing a decade's worth of cards is certainly fascinating and when we are through reviewing the collection, I think we are likely to find it has historical merit for research purposes. Did the Lawtons recognize the value of keeping their correspondence in bulk? While I do value this card on its own, it is certainly much more interesting when seen alongside the others in the collection.

Lawton Collection,
Shirley Historical Society
The second item I am sharing is an invitation to the child of Frank and Anna Lawton. Shirley Lawton would have been about ten when she received it. A friend invited her to a party. I admire the friend's neat handwriting and the quaint image. Lately, my own child has been invited to parties via email or evites. As much as I love my digital correspondence, I think we've lost something in this iteration of human relations. The personality that shines in the above note brings me right into the context of Shirley's life. This is certainly not a card sent by "Harriet B"'s mother (as my email invites are.) I picture little girls in a simpler time with simpler non-themed parties. This particular piece of ephemera not only shows us Shirley's life context, but clearly shows how her time was different from our own.


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

Sunday, June 10, 2012

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - Fiction Story Based on Orphan Photos

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenI just read an interesting fiction book called Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. For me, it was an entertaining light read. Aimed at a young adult market, the book is a fantasy that mixes supernatural and mystery. It focus on the relationship between a boy and his grandfather, who was full of fanciful stories from his past that left his family wondering about their veracity. Despite the fiction genre, the story prompted me to think about how family legends grow from untested stories and we are left to pick out the truth among the tall tales.

The aspect of the book that I found most interesting was a use of "authentic, vintage found photographs." The author seems to have used real, unusual pictures to mold his characters. Fitting in with my "More Finds at the Local Antique Shop" theme, the book is a perfect demonstration of how imagination can be stirred by abandoned orphan photos.

Author Ransom Riggs thanks those private collectors who contributed images for him to complete his first novel. He writes about the images at the end of the book, "They were lent from the personal archives of ten collectors, people who have spent years and countless hours hunting through giant bins of unsorted snapshots at flea markets and antiques malls and yard sales to find a transcendent few, rescuing images of historical significance and arresting beauty from obscurity - and most likely, the dump. Their work is an unglamorous labor of love and I think they are the unsung heroes of the photography world."

I look forward to Mr. Riggs next book and hope that he sticks with this writing method. Here is another Cultural Heritage Collaborator to add to our list. A fiction writer steeped in a love of primary sources can be a great friend to archivists. Such a person can sing the praises of cultural heritage resources and help the world realize their beauty and value.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - Jubilee Related Ephemera

On the heels of the Queen's diamond Jubilee, I thought I'd post this charming piece of ephemera related to her father.

King George VI is now well known here in the United States because of the recent movie "The King's Speech." I was especially excited to watch the movie last year when I learned that it had a connection to this souvenir I picked up while in Bermuda many years ago. Though it's not a unique piece of history, it is a beautiful and thought provoking one. 

Cartophily is the hobby of collecting cigarette cards. Beginning in the late 19th century, cigarette companies began including cards of popular subjects packaged with their cigarettes. Creating sets of a variety of subjects ranging from sports heroes to flowers, the companies encouraged people to collect them all. They eventually created books, like the one pictured here, so that people could paste their collections in them for safekeeping and easy viewing.

Though not "archives" in the strictest sense of the word, items like this have an important place in family collections and special collections. The story behind this coronation book tells a lot about me. The item itself was mass-produced and is not unique, but its context in my own collection is. I love items related to England. My great-grandmother was English. I most especially love reading about the period of Henry VIII (which is probably very American of me) and I have a bookshelf filled with books about him. I cruised to Bermuda about 15 years ago as a young bride. It was a wonderful trip. Finding a cute little antique shop on the Island was icing on the cake. Finding this book and discussing with my husband whether we should purchase it or not is a vivid memory. Put alongside photos of the trip and this short story about it, this item illustrates a special time in my life.

The item is in very good condition except for a few rusty staples holding it together and some bleeding from the cards onto the book paper. Red is not a very stable color and the beautiful crimson on the cards edges has leached across pages. (You can make that out in this picture if you look carefully.) I am sure that the Bermuda air and open door policy of the antique shop didn't help. The item is now appropriately boxed with archival supplies. I've interleaved thin sheets of acid free paper so that if the bleeding continues it will leach on to the loose papers rather than harming the book itself. I check the papers periodically to see if they are turning red. If they were, I would exchange them for new papers, but they are not. My stable storage environment seems to have done the preservation trick. I've left the rusty staples in to keep the book intact, but I'm keeping my eyes on those too and will remove them should that become necessary. 

I wonder the provenance of this book. How did it get to the Island? Who owned it before the antique shop? But I'm sure that is one mystery I'll never solve. There are no clues as there were with my 1882 diary.

We all keep souvenirs that are important to us and that help shed light on our personal narrative. One should give them similar attention to the letters, diaries and other unique items in our collections.  Make an effort to tell your story about them and use proper supplies to keep them just as I've done here.


For more on the Queen's 60th anniversary see her official website. I think it's a little amazing to think that she has an official web far we have come in 60 years!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Local Government Records and Archives Consultants

This long (but hopefully not long-winded) post provides information I gave at a Massachusetts' Town Clerk's conference  over a decade ago. I thought this might be interesting to a wider audience and decided to post it here. I know it has been helpful to clerks. I think it will also be helpful to those considering pursuing work in archives consulting.


Archivist - The "mess" fairy
The biggest concern many of my clients have had when they brought me in to look at their archives is that their collection must be the messiest I have seen.  Everyone is concerned that they have the one collection of important records in the state that has received no attention and no funding for care up until this point.  

I just want to start by saying that every collection I’ve seen that is receiving attention for the first time is disorganized.  Most collections are dusty.  Most collections have been housed in attics, basements, abandoned buildings and warehouses.  I am not fazed by this and you shouldn’t let it bother you.  Archives consultants should expect to find records in these conditions.  

You shouldn’t be embarrassed or upset about bringing consultants in to see your materials.  That’s why you hired us.  We don’t expect things to be neat and orderly.  I’m impressed that you have the guts and foresight to choose to take care of the materials now rather than let them go to pieces.  It doesn’t matter what happened in the past.  We are all short on funding and time. We are all now working together now to save our history and information.

Additionally, I want to let you know that when you hire consultants, we are coming in to give you constructive criticism.  Nothing we say is meant personally.  We are not blaming you for letting your records get to the state they are in.  We just want to tell you how to fix the problems.  So if I come in and say “These records need to be moved out of this damp attic that has holes in the roof exposing it to the elements.”  I am not saying.  “How could you keep your records in a place like this?!!!”  I also don’t expect that because you brought me in that you now have the time and resources to spend focused only on the care of these collections of records.  “You will now drop everything else because this is a priority!”  A consultant should create a plan for the future care of your records that you are comfortable with.  She should make recommendations as to how you can find the money and time to care for the records as best as you possibly can.

Today I’m going to discuss the stages of evaluating your records, organizing them, preserving them and making the public aware of what you’ve got.  We’ll discuss why a town clerk should be involved with a project like this, what you can expect from your consultant and what your consultant will expect from you.

Why take care of your information? 

How do you justify this to your municipality? And of course this overlaps with, why should the town clerk be involved in this?

  • Save money in the long run – cut down on space requirements, supply needs with records and forms management
  • Save time – easier access to organized material
  • Ensure safety of vital records and information - Avoid fire hazards
  • Remain in compliance with state law
  • Promote your town, government, or your own position
  • Get your historical commission, historical society and other town organizations to work together 
Okay so you’ve got mess… 

And you’ve decided to take care of it…now what? It is not necessary for you to go it alone.  Consider hiring a consulting archivist to help you plan for the future of your information

What an archivist can do for you:

  • Conduct a records inventory that will give you a good idea of the types of records you have, how they should be organized, how much space they take up, what types of preservation / conservation is needed
  • Give tips on preserving your materials while making recommendations for proper storage
  • Help move your collections to proper facilities by properly labeling materials and ensuring its safety
  • Organize your collections and create finding aids
  • Create and implement a records management plan
  • Perform outreach to advertise your now wonderful and neat collections to the public and give your town the attention it deserves
There are grant resources available that may be able to assist you with hiring a consultant. [Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation supplies information about getting an archival project started, including grant funding that may be available for your town.]

Records Inventory

What does a records inventory do?  This is the first thing that a consultant should do for you.

  • Helps determine which records belong to whom and were created by whom.  Helps with tracking and maintaining provenance (documents the origin and life of the collection), determining record groups, series and subseries
  • Determines space needs
  • Determines current storage environment and preservation needs
  • Documents conditions of the collections with before and after pictures
  • Helps you locate all of your materials.  Gets you thinking about if other buildings or collections in town have your materials. Over time, many public documents have ended up in private hands – may want to get back your public records from a historical society for example (delicate issue that should be addressed with outreach.  Begin thinking about a collection development plan if you don’t already have one)

  • Consultant will explain storage needs from facilities to proper boxes, folders, cabinets etc.
  • Will point out preservation problems with current storage
  • Can provide a list of suppliers and types of materials needed for your specific collection
  • Can write an in depth preservation plan can also include a disaster plan once new housing is found a disaster plan should be a priority

Records Management

Records management involves creating a plan to control records from their creation to disposition.  Paper in offices is often overlooked when a town decides to tackle its preservation and records storage needs.  But it is important to consider materials that will one day be “archival” as well as the materials that are currently ready for the archives.

Why is records management important?:

  • Clear up office space
  • Ensure that archival materials are identified for future housing in the Archives
  • Make sure records are periodically cared for and thought about
 How do we get started with records management?

  • Archivist / Records manager can meet with individual departments to help them create individualized retention schedules so everything is clear
  • Follow state retention schedule – the records manager is the specialist, can work with an archivist to ensure disposition is smooth and efficient include this when creating your individualized retention schedule
  • I recommend hiring a permanent archivist on your staff to oversee accessioning of records into the archives.  If funds are tight, for now, consider appointing a current staff member to annually follow up on the retention schedules laid out for each department by a consultant.
  • Work with the state records office and a retention schedule before discarding anything

If you spent all this time and money to care for your archives and records, advertise your good work to your community. Flaunt it!

  • A consultant can create a web site or brochures advertising your organization, materials and services
  • Go to historical society meetings and other places where you can speak about your collections and good work or ask your consultant to do it for you.
  • Make your taxpayers feel good about what there money is going towards

What to expect from your consultant

  • Can provide references, MLS, MA, and / or Certification
  • Your consultant should keep you informed about what is going on every step of the way
  • Present your plan (written or otherwise) to your consultant.  If you don’t have a written plan (which is required for outside funding of your project) your consultant can help you create one.  
  • I am most comfortable going in and viewing the situation.  I do a brief survey of the collections and listen to the client / employer.  Then I write my preliminary observations to make sure we are all on the same page
  • Final Report – handed to client then followed up a couple of weeks later with a meeting to make sure they understand my comments and suggestions
  • Your consultant should complete things when she says she will, should be on time, but not expected to punch a clock.  Expect them to show up when they say they will, when you need them and to finish your project on the agreed time barring any unforeseen changes or complications.
 What your consultant may expect from you

  • May want a contract or written letter of your agreement
  • A consultant is an outsider, but may need access to things town employees have access to.  Make yourself accessible in case your consultant needs assistance or has questions.  Don’t expect your consultant to punch a time clock
  • Keep open lines of communication and be honest.  Let the consultant know your feelings and thoughts about the project.  Do you think things are going well?  Do you have any qualms about the process?
  • May need you to explain about different types of records – archivist’s specialty is in organization, preservation, planning, research and outreach – she may or may not have worked with your specific types of records before and the project may not be long enough for her to learn about every type of record you own.  Different states / towns call similar materials different names and the names of the materials may change over time.  In Westminster, tried to figure out which records belonged to which department and then sat down with each department head and asked questions
  • Pay your consultant on time.  Treat them with courtesy.

Keep up the good work! 

Don’t let it all fall apart once your consultant is no longer under contract.  Consider hiring a permanent archivist or make sure your consultant will be available (and willing) to assist you if / when you need more help.  I am always willing to answer quick questions by phone.  Consider hiring a consultant for different phases of the project.  My most successful client have completed their projects in manageable steps.  You may want your consultant to do a records inventory and advise on preservation needs. You may want hire them again to come back in a year to do arrangement and description once you’ve moved materials to a safe environment. Or, you may want her to help you move materials to that safe environment once a new building has been constructed.

Consider hiring specialists for different phases of the project if necessary.  Hire a records manager familiar with state retention schedules or a cataloging archivist who is especially good at automating collection information.  You can even hire someone who specializes in the type of records you have.  For example, if you work in an historic mill town, you may consider hiring someone who knows about mill history or records.  However, a good generalist can usually serve your purposes.  A good generalist will know the basics and knows where to go to find out more about the details.

If you have a records "problem", there is no time like the present to resolve it. Handle your paper records and then prepare to tackle computerized material. Be prepared to cross from hard-copy to the next generation of resources by caring for your public records now, no matter in what condition we might find them.