Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Diary Project - First Stop. Biddeford, Maine

Last week I posted about The Diary Project. After finding a very detailed diary covering 6 months in Maine during 1882, I decided to embark on a research adventure. Last week, my seven year old accompanied me to Biddeford, Maine. It is one of the towns mentioned in our diary. I have been unable to pinpoint exactly where the person who wrote the diary resided. I have never been to Biddeford and he mentions it a lot. so, we decided to start there. (I will refer to the diary writer as a man unless I discover otherwise. He talks of buying a suit and an overcoat, so I am banking that it is a guy.)

We began at the public library searching for names in the diary. There are many full names listed, so city directories seemed like a good bet. I explained to my daughter what a city directory is and how it lists people by names, addresses and occupations. We had a hit on the first person, George Grant. The excitement was palpable, but our bubble of enthusiasm began to dissipate as we struck out with the next ten names on the list. "Well honey," I said, "George Grant is a very common name. I think we've got the wrong George Grant."

An Appalling Accident - B&M Railroad
January 6, 1882 in Wells, Maine
So I quickly moved her to microfilm. At first glance, microfilm is exciting to a kid accustomed to a digital world. I held the film of an 1882 local newspaper up to the light to show her the image and showed her how to use the machine. She was uncomfortable with the streaks on the page and the inability to easily read the words, but when we found the first appropriate article there was excitement. Our diary mentions a train crash and there in The Union and Journal, 4 days after the accident (quite fitting for a weekly paper), was an article titled "Appalling Accident on the Boston and Maine Railroad in Wells." My research partner ran to her notebook to write the information while I printed the article.

It took about half an hour to find the next related article, but such a long time between "finds" caused my research partner to lose interest. She very much wanted to participate, but microfilm was not her bag. I sent her to look through books  listing marriages in the town. We wanted the name of a particular minister who was mentioned as the person who married and buried a few people in our diary. When his name could not be found and the name of the people who were actually married couldn't be found, she was growing frustrated. While she searched, I continued to dig up articles related to some local deaths of people mentioned in the diary. Another exciting group of finds was articles about a court case related to a doctor being brought up on charges for a botched abortion. There were also more train crash articles.

Kennebunkport Scandal - February 17, 1882
After two hours of searching, we went for lunch. The enthusiasm did not return after some nourishment, so I took my daughter to the kids' room to find books, but my voracious reader didn't want them. "I want to help you mommy!" We tried for another half an hour to do some more research, but she was clearly done and I did not want to push it. I will see if the papers have been digitized and placed online (doubtful, but some towns are doing projects such as this). I will see if the next town in which we stop has the same paper, or I may need to return to Biddeford on my own one day to make my way through the rest of the microfilm.

I learned two things on this trip and they were things I set out to learn.
1. Our diary writer was not from Biddeford. Based on the articles and death notices, I now believe the gentleman is from Wells or Kennebunkport, Maine.
2. My daughter is not ready for exactly this type of research yet. I suspected that. Knowing her personality, I also suspect she will want to try again when I start finding directory information. She has an inbred librarian gene and will enjoy looking up names when they are easier to come by. In the meantime, I have devised a new path for her end of the project. We are going to research the B&M railroad. She is going to make a map of its route through Maine, identifying local towns and diary landmarks such as the bridge into which the train crashed. Then she will dig into her crayons to decorate it. When enthusiasm wanes, teach little kids with craft projects!

Thank you to Renee and Sharon at the McArthur Public Library in Biddeford, Maine for your help.

Next stop: Kennebunk! Woo Woo!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Diary Project Begins

On this blog on May 6th, I introduced a diary I found in a local antique shop. The diary covers a six month period in 1882 and includes the names of many people, places, and events in Southern Maine. My elementary school aged daughter and I are about to embark on a summer history project. We hope to uncover the name of the person who wrote the diary and to find out more about this person's life.

I spent a few weeks typing a transcript of the diary. My daughter's copy is to the left. She has spent some time highlighting the names of people, places, events and objects (important artifacts) mentioned. [She wanted to make sure I wrote "important artifacts" in this blog. She feels this conveys to the value of knowing items such as the instrument that our diary writer played.] This year my daughter learned how to make map keys in school. She locked onto the idea of making a key for the transcript. She has five highlighter colors. We just decided this morning that the fifth color would be for diseases she will identify in the diary. (It is very important for an eight year old girl to use all the colored markers at her disposal!)

I have triangulated our diary between the areas of Biddeford, Saco, and Portland. The writer speaks of townspeople traveling among these areas. We have done just a little bit of Internet research to get us a started. Our diarist mentions the newspaper "Eastern Star." I keyed in on that to see if the publication was produced for one of the towns the diarist mentions. A paper by that title was indeed produced in Biddeford (and three other unfamiliar locations.) So, we are going to start in Biddeford.

I contacted the reference desk at the MacArthur Public Library in Biddeford to plan our trip. It is a little strange being on the other end of an archives reference question. I introduced myself as an archivist and writer. I told one of the reference librarians about my project, asked questions about the hours that the local history collection / archives was available, and made sure that my proposed schedule would jive with them. The librarian seemed as excited about the diary as I. (It's so much fun to share a passion for information.)

As I write this, my daughter is decorating a folder with stickers. She labeled it "Diary from Maine" on the front and has labeled each folder slot. She plans to put the "diary transcript" on one side and "diary research" on the other. Incorporating arts and crafts with research will probably be one key in keeping our project interesting for her. She is reading over my should now and asked if we can do more arts and crafts as we go. I said "Absolutely!" and here's what I am thinking...one of the places identified in our transcript is "Boothbys Bridge." If we can find more about it -- perhaps even get a picture of it -- we can make a likeness out of popsicle sticks. Perhaps we can make a collage with images of townspeople. We can make a mind map of the diseases we discover with information about them....I think the possible activities are endless.This project can take us on many great information adventures.

I look forward to sharing these adventures with you too!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Professional Organizers and Archivists - Practicality, Longevity, and Understanding How People Handle Records

I love professional organizers with creative ideas to help people get clutter under control. I love how their work dovetails so nicely with that of archivists. Their expertise is under-appreciated. The potentials for cross-professional collaboration between organizers and archivists is generally overlooked. We each have important expertise to give to share with the other profession. We are missing out on alternate ways to accomplish our goal, and I would say that we are even making mistakes in how we do business and care for resources because we tend to ignore the other group. I recently read an organizing newsletter that made the mistakes quite clear. I don't want to put the onous just on the organizers, because both professions can learn from each other and I hope this blog post can show that.

Organizers have their fingers on the pulse of American society. They are brought into homes to look through personal belongings. They often establish close relationships with clients. They learn people's reasons for collecting what they collect. They help individuals organize thoughts and things to better ground them and to allow them to function more efficiently. Organizers know what people have and help them determine why they have it and if they can let it go. Many often come across historical records that deserve a place in a professional repository. They see documents that archivists never get to see. Organizers could help archives repositories fill gaps in collections by connecting their clients with cultural heritage institutions when appropriate. They can help archivists understand why people do the things they do with their records and how we can better reach individuals with unique historical items before the materials are lost or discarded. I often promote the need for archivists to more actively pursue community records. Professional organizers can play an important role in strengthening our community bonds.

For the benefit of organizers, archivists can play a vital role in helping organizing clients let go, while getting them grounded in thinking about their legacy and the importance of their materials for a larger community. We offer a place for people to comfortably donate their family papers. Furthermore, archivists have expertise in preservation that can help professional organizers give their clients proper information about the care of their materials.

This is where the newsletter that I recently read comes in. In a recent issue of Organized Assistant blog carnival, organizers talk about organizing memorabilia. I've picked just four examples of advice that could be more accurate to better help organizing clients.

  • One writer talks about keeping things in stylish bins and important docs at the bank. I like the idea of stylish bins for material without historical value, but for something you want to keep permanently, preservation needs to take precedence over style. I love keeping my sewing in a beautiful basket. I keep mail in one too. In fact, I can find hundreds of things I keep in lovely containers I pick up at Home Goods and other stores to keep me ordered and to make me smile. I keep my memorabilia in archives boxes purchased through reputable archival suppliers. This is very important to emphasize with people who want and expect their items to last for a long time.
  • Similarly, another writer talks about keeping memorabilia in plastic bins. While this is efficient, it is detrimental to the longevity of your memorabilia. I use plastic bins for carrying my presentation materials. I keep my swimming supplies stored in the basement in bins between seasons. Memorabilia can be greatly harmed by these items. The length of time it will take for items to deteriorate varies, but enclosed plastic bins will speed up the process of deterioration. Papers are organic and will deteriorate over time. It is our job to slow down this deterioration as much as possible for items with long term value. 
  • One author on the right track talks about avoiding acids, but mentions nothing about other harmful factors. We must also avoid lignin, PVCs and other harmful elements. Avoiding acid is just one piece of the puzzle. 
  • One writer mentions keeping things in a bank vault. However, there are not necessarily climate controls in such a space. In addition to the storage supplies we use, we must be aware of the environment in which we keep items. It should be stable. It should not heat up above around 65% and humidity should remain between 30 and 50 percent.
I hope that archivists and organizers can find ways to get together and share ideas. I hope that we talk more about our similarities and explore how our diverse specialized knowledge can benefit the other group. This post is just the tip of the iceberg for collaboration potential.

This blog includes more information on preservation. Search "preservation" in the sidebar. Or see the "Preservation" section on the ArchivesInfo web site.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Professional Until the End: Neighbors Never Knew Quiet Woman was a WWII SPY - Guest post by Rebecca Price

Periodically on the ArchivesInfo blog I post articles by guest bloggers. In the past, Linda Norris, Sarah Brophy, and Greg Lawrence kindly shared their thoughts on these pages. In an effort to promote one of ArchivesInfo's strongest goals, to  "encourage collaboration to ensure the security of a wide-range of cultural heritage resources," I feature writers who specialize in diverse aspects of cultural heritage. This month, I offer to you the writing of Rebecca Price, who runs the fabulous Chick History blog. Rebecca chose this piece about a WWII spy to share with my readers. Originally posted on the Chick History blog on November 11, 2010, the post discusses the role archives played in highlighting the fascinating legacy of one fearless female spy. Thank you Rebecca for sharing!


Professional Until the End: Neighbors Never Knew Quiet Woman was a WWII SPY

Secret Agent Woman
In September this year, Eileen Nearne died of a heart attack in her Torquay flat in the county of Devon, England. When officials cleaned out her apartment and were searching for contact information for her next of kin to arrange the funeral, they found instead medals, papers, and an extraordinary life. Eileen Mary Nearne, a.k.a. Jacqueline Duterte, a.k.a Alice Wood, a.k.a Rose, was a spy for the British army during WWII who worked behind enemy lines in Paris and was captured by the Germans in 1944.

Eileen was born in 1921 in London. Her father was British and her mother French. In 1923, the family moved to France where she lived until WWII broke out. When France became occupied by Germany, Eileen and her sister obtained British passports and moved back to England in 1942, leaving their family behind. They applied for work at the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Because they were native French speakers, they were recruited for undercover work and were trained in wireless techniques. The plan was to receive messages in the field and then code, transmit, and destroy said messages.

In March 1944, Eileen was flown into Indre, France for her assignment. For the next four months she coded and transmitted over 100 messages in German-occupied France back to England. The majority of her transmissions were instructions and arrangements for weapon shipments into France for the resistance movement in and around Paris. In July, she was detected and arrested by the German Gestapo – the secret police of Nazi Germany. She was interrogated and tortured using water torture, but gave up absolutely no information on her real identity. She convinced the Gestapo her name was Madamoiselle du Tort and that she had no idea that the businessman she was “working” for was actually British. She was sent to a concentration camp and later transferred to a labor camp. During these ten months of imprisonment she was tortured, threatened at gunpoint, and her head was shaven.

In April 1945 she was transferred again, and this time she escaped with two other French girls into the woods. She evaded SS Officers once again, insisting she was a French volunteer, and stayed on the run for two weeks staying in abandoned homes and churches. When the American troops rolled in, she ran to them for assistance. Alas, they didn’t believe her story either, and kept her in a camp for the month of May until a British officer arrived and confirmed her identity and repatriated her. Yeah, she’s with us.

I'd like to take this moment and point out that Eileen was 23 years old at this time.

Images of the codes Eileen was responsible
for transmitting back and forth between
London and Paris. These, among other
fascinating material, were made available
by the United Kingdom National Archives 
in October after Eileen's death.
Not much of her life after service is known publicly. Later interviews indicate she missed her days working as a patriot for her country and found civilian life unsatisfying. She participated in a documentary on British Spies for the BBC in the 1990s, but she remained in disguise, speaking French, and using her code name Rose. A clip from the interview shows her in a wig recounting her capture and escape. I mean, once a spy, always a spy.

After her death, the British National Archives released the papers they had on her, which include photographs, newspaper articles, letters, and first-hand accounts of her training, services, arrest and escape. You can download these for free at the National Archives website.

These primary sources from the 1940s offer an incredible window into the time period and views of women about their service and capabilities. They also tend to reveal more about the person doing the describing than they do about the person being described.

A male Major assessing her training described her "as very 'feminine' and immature; she seems to lack all experience of the world and would probably be easily influenced by others. It is doubtful whether this student is suitable for employment in any capacity on account of her lack of experience." Two months later she was deployed to France.

The American officer who couldn’t see a trained British spy gave the following thoughtful conclusion: "Subject creates a very unbalanced impression. She often is unable to answer the simplest questions, as though she were impersonating someone else." In her version of the interview, Eileen Nearne states she withheld information to American officers because she didn’t want to give too much away. She was, after all, working for the British on convert military operations.

My favorite is the glowing recommendation SOE Officer Vera Atkins gives her when trying to find her a civilian job after ten months in a German concentration camp. “She is completely untrained, but she is extraordinarily reliable and thorough in any job on which she is keen.” This was a letter to a beauty salon.

If by “extraordinarily reliable and thorough” you mean able to code and transmit sensitive military operations, withstand torture and imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp, and escape and invade capture in the woods, then YES, she is qualified to be a beautician.

After her return, she was recommended for and received two military honors, the Member of the Order of the British Empire and the French Croix de Guerre. Once her true identity was discovered after her death, she received a full military funeral with honors. Hundreds attended to pay respects.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Encounters with the Original

There is nothing like encountering an original.

In the 1990s, while working as a full-time archivist in a local repository, a fabulous donation came across my desk. I remember opening an envelope and pulling out letters written by Thomas Jefferson, General Lafayette, and other famous men from United States history. My hands shook. My whole body shook as I kept myself from running across the library to the office of my boss to tell her of our acquisition.

I touched history and it was electrifying.

Letter by Marquis de Lafayette dated 1831 with translation.
Courtesy Waltham Public Library, Waltham, Massachusetts.
Touching the original gave me a physical connection to the amazing characters I had read about in texts. Imagining these men sitting at their desks and putting their quills to these pieces of paper stimulated my senses. Thinking about how these papers survived time in someone's attic to arrive on my desk almost 300 years later was mind boggling. They were simple letters of thanks, politics, and an order for supplies. Things change. Things stay the same. We are all tied by a common thread of humanity highlighted in the day-to-day activities that keep us all going.

I was reminded today of the value of encountering the original, though in this case it wasn't actually physically touching a unique piece of history. An article announced that the "Final set of Tudor and Stuart state secrets goes online today." Then I found an article announcing that among these materials are Henry VIII's Love Letters to Anne Boleyn. I grew woozy again. I wanted to run to my someone to tell them of my remarkable find. But, alas, I work in a home office and no one else was home. I had to satisfy myself with tweeting and Facebooking. (If "archive" can be used as a verb, as in "archiving," so can Facebook!)

Henry VIII has always been a fascination of mine. I cannot say that I am a "fan," but his unique life and the distinct changes in society that took place after his reign have excited my brain cells for years. I had never seen a letter written by the King. I had never thought to look for them quite honestly. The good archivists at the National Archives of the UK, like so many forward thinking archivists, were busy preparing their treasure trove for easy access through digitization. Seeing Henry's beautiful handwriting was indeed a treat. Thinking about his "love letters," despite the unusual circumstances of the affair, invited parallels once again to that thread of humanity I envision. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago I tweeted about a modern set of love letters that has been digitized by the Houston Library. (Ah, l'amour!)

Perhaps one day I'll get to touch an actual royal letter. For now, I'm satisfied with getting to see it.

Monday, June 6, 2011

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - What's Old is New

One of the most wonderful things about archives is their ability to connect the past to the present. Consider this nineteenth century postcard of two women sharing letters. As soon as I saw it, I thought of my best girlfriends. They are the women who are always there for me and who love me for who I am no matter what. They are the ones who always make me feel comfortable and at ease. They are the people with whom I share a laugh and who can make me happy even when I am in a terrible mood. Women's relationships have not changed all that much, have they?

This image reminds me of passing letters back and forth to high school pals, giggling over confessed secrets and prizing an unspoken understanding between us. I feel as if  these women and I are part of some exclusive historical club of female bonding that is only separated by time. I was pleased to turn over the card to see written in pencil "my girlfriends May Doyle and Inez, Rose - Pearl Brown." Attaching names to faces, even if it never brings me more information than that, gives me another connection to these sisters from the past.

Lately, I have been talking a lot about communities as my colleague Sue West and I grow our "Life in Context" program. In addition to my connections to my girlfriends and to these women of the past, there is another connection at work with this image. I bought this postcard from an online site. I am a regular buyer here on this site, so I feel a community connection to it. Another thing I get out of this postcard is a connection to the particular woman who packaged it. She always packages my purchases carefully, includes a nice handwritten note, and puts a few "freebie" images inside the envelope for me. When I open the envelope, I get a whiff of a pleasant floral fragrance that reminds me of my grandmother. I wonder if the woman's house smells like this scent or if she specifically spritzes items that leave her possession as a little extra something special (This is not good from a preservation standpoint, but lovely from an old-fashioned, reminiscing, making something more personal standpoint.)

Archives have the ability to make us feel part of things larger than ourselves. I wish that I could meet these women, but I already feel as if I know them.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Inspired by Diary of a Girl Abroad, I have made a list of things I am currently "obsessed" with. Unlike Girl Abroad, this list is not a personal one. (Though if you must know, I am currently obsessed on a personal level with multi-colored long red hair, hydrangeas, pretty and yet comfortable shoes, sharing Harry Potter with my daughter, kickboxing, vintage clothing, meditation, rainbow colored foods, and scooters.) Here is a list of  current cultural heritage related trends and favorites on my radar. (This brings me back to my teenage days of making lists of my favorite things in the backs of my notebooks. I hope that you have fun with it too!):

Current experiment: QR codes

Current documentation method: Lifestreaming

Current up-and-coming professional colleagues: "Community Archivists" (which I have been told is an "in" thing to be at my alma-mater)

Current favorite archives web site: The National Jukebox

Current preservation project: Copp's Hill Cemetery in Boston

Current social media project: Ask Archivists, June 9

Current fundraising tool: KickStarter

Current share site: Flickr

Current documentation project: Food Memories at Life in Context

Current connecting with the public: Civil War Sesquicentennial

Current chapter: Recording Unrecorded History (upcoming book "The Unofficial Family Archivist")

Current tool: Scanner (for "More Finds at the Local Antique Shop" blog posts and presentations. It beats out my all-time favorite tool, the microspatula, by just a micro-smidgeon for this list.)

Current crazy news story: "Astonishing" Google news 

Current fabulous find: Rhode Island Charter

Do you have a current trend or favorite to add?