Monday, December 15, 2008


As I reported last time, I finally unearthed the stash of medals that were donated along with this collection. Many of these medals were made by Tiffany & Co., the company famous for both its little blue box and because of . . . that movie. You know which one I'm talking about.

You may remember from this post that Tiffany was a member of the Chamber and also designed many of their invitations in the early 20th century.

Anyway, as an early holiday treat, here's a look at some of my favorites. This one, made by Tiffany, commemorates the opening of the NYC subway in 1902, which the Chamber was an instrumental proponent of--I think the front was meant to be personalized:

This one, also by Tiffany, commemorates the opening ceremony of the NYCC's building on 65 Liberty Street in lower Manhattan:

This is some sort of acknowledgment of the New York Stock Exchange, though I don't know when it was made or what it was for exactly:

Most of these medals are engraved with the name of their maker, but only a few are still housed in their original box. The Tiffany medals sit in a velvet bed and the lining seems like silk:

And one last medal, from the Paris Chamber of Commerce:

I apologize for the spotty photo quality--it has been a rather busy couple of weeks! Does anyone else think its weird that people used to make commemorative medals all of the time? Does anyone still do this?

I will be on vacation for the next couple of weeks, so no more posts until the new year. I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday season.


Friday, December 5, 2008

The Beginning of the End

In lieu of a lengthy blog post today, I am posting this short post just to mark the occasion--today, we received our final 9 record cartons of unprocessed material from off site storage! Needless to say, we are very excited. We have been processing like mad all week in an attempt to get as much done as possible before the holidays, and we've made a lot of progress just in this past week. So I think we deserve a little pat on the back!

We did a quick survey of the new boxes this morning and finally found all the medals I remember seeing, way back at the beginning of the project. I'll try to post some pictures of some of the medals soon. At least two of them were made by Tiffany & Co., one marks the opening of the new Chamber building in 1902, and one marks the opening of the NYC subway (of which the Chamber was a major proponent). It was a very cool Friday morning discovery!


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Presentations and Portraits

The Researching New York 2008 conference was last Thursday, so Katie and I finally had our conference debut. It was kind of a whirlwind of a day--train to Albany early in the morning, quick lunch and registration at SUNY Albany, hour and a half presentation and panel discussion, and then right back to Manhattan so Katie could make it to class that evening.

Overall, it was a very good experience, and our audience responded well to the presentation with questions and interest and compliments. Our session was on "Records of Business" and we shared the stage with a woman from the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site who gave a presentation on 19th century ledger books from canal stores. It was striking when the moderator noted the difference in size between our collections--we began our project with over 300 boxes and her focus was on four ledger books. Of course, this meant that the scope of our presentation was much broader (not only do we have a large quantity of material, that material spans two centuries of history), while she was able to narrow in on more detail. I think it provided a nice contrast for our audience.

One of the cool things about presenting in Albany was that a curator from the New York State Museum was in attendance. Prior to the conference, we had emailed back and forth concerning the NYCC's portrait collection which was donated the NYS Museum at the same time that Columbia acquired the NYCC's paper records. Before the NYCC moved out of their home on 65 Liberty Street,

these portraits were hung in the Chamber building's Great Hall:

We didn't have time to check out the portrait collection in person while we were in Albany, but lucky for us and everyone, you can view digital images of most of the portraits online. We do have several pamphlets in our records detailing the history of the Great Hall and some of its most famous portraits.

According to a NYCC pamphlet, the hall was, "notable for its grandeur and rich detail . . . designed along lines similar to the early Guild Halls of London." Its main use was for member meetings and receptions. Because of the Chamber's many prestigious members and industry influence, many of those meetings and receptions welcomed distinguished guests, such as Edward, Prince of Wales, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Katie and I are still dying with curiosity to know what the Great Hall looks like now, especially since we know the portraits aren't there anymore. There are so many amazing historical building in New York, its frustrating that many of them aren't open to the public. Maybe one year the Chamber building will make it on the list for the openhousenewyork weekend and we can finally get a look inside.

Have a great holiday!


Monday, November 10, 2008

From Albany to Buffalo

I have realized that one major thing that I have neglected to write about here is how involved the NYCC was in the development of not only New York City, but New York State as well. Its members were instrumental in the realization of several key initiatives in the region - including the Erie Canal.

I was reminded of this last week when I read this article about how commercial shipping is returning to the Erie Canal, albeit slowly. The Erie Canal was first mentioned in the Chamber’s minutes of 1786, and the Chamber later issued a pamphlet expounding the advantages of the Canal. DeWitt Clinton, governor of New York at the time, was a member of the Chamber.

The Canal officially opened in 1825, after 7 years of construction, connecting Albany to Buffalo and allowing shippers to continue south to New York City on the Hudson River, thus sealing NYC's fate as the commercial center of the nation. The website for New York State Canals quotes Clinton as saying, "The city will, in the course of time, become the granary of the world, the emporium of commerce, the seat of manufactures, the focus of great moneyed operations. And before the revolution of a century, the whole island of Manhattan, covered with inhabitants and replenished with a dense population, will constitute one vast city.”

Here is a stereoscopic image of the Erie Canal from 1869, found in the NYCC collection:

The article doesn't mention the NYCC, nor does the Wikipedia article (though we may fix that). I think this illustrates how little researchers really know or understand about how fundamental this organization was to the history of New York.

But that will soon change! Processing is on track and progressing with lightning speed. We are currently working our way through an enormous amount of committee minutes, reports, and records.

In the meantime, you can relive your childhood music class and download an MP3 of "The Erie Canal Song (Low Bridge, Everybody Down)" which pretty much encompassed the entirety of my knowledge of the Erie Canal and New York cities as a kid. I'm sure you are familiar with it, although Katie claims to have never been taught this song in music class (why not, California State Board of Education?). Apparently the Dady Brothers love the Erie Canal enough to record an entire album devoted to it.

On a completely unrelated, non-archives note, last week was a great week to live in New York City. We cheered determined runners in the 2008 NYC Marathon which passed through my neighborhood in Brooklyn:

And we celebrated our country in homes, restaurants, bars, and the streets. This is the crowd that I walked my bike through on my way home Tuesday night:

Enjoy your week, in New York City and everywhere else!


Thursday, October 30, 2008

"Navigating the Air"

As I've said before, a really great way to get a feel of an individual's papers or an organization's records is to begin combing through correspondence files. In the case of an individual's correspondence, it is a chance to "hear" the person's voice in an intimate way that may not come through in that person's professional or public writing. In the case of an organization's correspondence files, it gives you a glimpse of the day to day routines and encounters of the administration and staff.

Last post, I mentioned that Katie and I had just uncovered a whole slew of "re-organized" correspondence files. Although many of these letters have proved to be interesting and important, so far my favorite find is this letter from J.F. Cameron (unsure if that's a correct interpretation of the handwritten signature):

As you can see, this letter was sent in June 1862, which is about 40 years before the Wright brothers successfully launched their Wright Flyer. I guess its just provides further proof that there were others out there testing "aerial ships" and "flying machines" well before Orville and Wilbur began their experiments. I think its interesting that this inventor would have written to the NYCC offering a demonstration; he says that he hopes to, "carry passengers and merchandise," so presumably there lies the connection to commerce and industry. I haven't been able to find any reference to this J.F. Cameron in relation to aviation (though I realize that I may be reading the name wrong), which leads me to wonder if he either wrote this letter before he was successful in flying his aerial ship, or if his flight was just never documented. He seems pretty confident about accomplishing this flight however: "I trust you will not condemn my petition because it seems marvelous. I am prepared and fully confident to prove my assertions." You would have to assume that this guy had at least gone through some test runs, right?

I don't know what the Chamber's reaction to this epistle was--we have no record of a reply. But I am hoping that, fascinated by the possibility of "navigating the air," they at least allowed the guy to give it a try.

Have a great Halloween!


Monday, October 20, 2008

"Famous People"

So, as we expected, the minute we finished putting together our presentation and resumed processing, we came across some really wonderful material that we wish we had found earlier! We've started processing some boxes labeled "Alpha Files" which have turned out to be mostly correspondence, but not just regular, boring, administrative, should-we-install-a-new-elevator-in-the-building type correspondence. No. This correspondence is all the really interesting correspondence that Katie and I have been waiting patiently to uncover since the start. This is the stuff that is going to make people say "Wow!" as often as Katie and I have been saying "Wow!" as we work our way through it (Read: a lot). Here are some of the big names: Thomas Edison. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. General William T. Sherman. Theodore Roosevelt. Et cetera, et cetera. Most of it (that we've delved into so far) ranges from the mid 1800s to the mid 1900s.

Ok, this is all pretty exciting, to say the least. But here's the bad news (and here is what points to a possibly major problem archivists may encounter while processing a collection): All of these items of correspondence were very obviously taken out of their original order. Katie and I are guessing that at some point (indicators point to the late 1960s or 1970s) someone in the Chamber of Commerce decided to comb through all of the correspondence amassed over the years and pull out all of the . . . well, really cool stuff. That person then decided to "reorganize" these correspondence files according to his/her own subject classification system. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that I don’t think this person was going by any sort of standard subject classification system. This 1970s person removed all of the "cool!" correspondence from their original files, re-foldered them in (acidic) folders, slapped a subject label on them and called it a day. Maybe some of these correspondence files were originally filed by subject and that subject was retained when they were re-foldered, but who can be sure of that? Not me, and not Katie.

Ok, so in most cases, this is not such a big deal. In most cases, the folder title "Statue of Liberty, 1886" (dated added by us) is perfectly fine. It's not the job of the folder title to point out that folder contains a letter by General Sherman; instead, it’s the job of the archivist to point out in the series statement that a researcher should be aware that there are some really amazing correspondents in the correspondence files, possibly noting that Sherman is one of them. So what's the problem, you ask? The problem is that sometimes the subject title given by this well-meaning 1970s person is inaccurate or inadequate. So we have to check and make sure we correct those mistakes. This turns into a bigger problem when you come across folders with no title, or general and ridiculous titles like "Famous People." Famous according to whom? What if we go through this folder and don't find a single name we recognize? Is it that our knowledge of American History is lacking (yes, in some cases) or is it that a person that was famous in 1899 is now just an obscure footnote in history (yes, in some cases).

Anyway, to cut a long story somewhat shorter, in order to fix this mess that this 1970s person left behind, we have ended up with several correspondence folders that are merely dated, rather than given a subject title. This makes things somewhat more difficult for researchers (hint to researchers: the "1890-1899" folder is pretty impressive) but it keeps us from subjectively imposing our opinions and guesses on to this collection. It also keeps us sane.

And now since you have so patiently read through my rant against the imagined 1970s person, I'll show you some of the cool stuff:

I'll bet zillions people over the years have had stationery that reads, "From the desk of . . . " But Thomas Edison's stationery reads, "From the Laboratory of Thomas Edison." How many people have stationery like that?

Roosevelt attended the opening ceremony and banquet for the dedication of the new Chamber of Commerce building on November 11, 1902.

Since the above letter is dated November 6, 1899 I'm not sure if this means that Roosevelt also attended the Annual Banquet for 1899 or if this is a confirmation way, way in advance of the building dedication.

That's all for today, but later I'll try to get around to posting some more from the correspondence files. Have a good week!


Friday, October 10, 2008

Researching New York 2008

As I mentioned in my last post, Katie and I haven't been as focused on processing the last couple of weeks as we usually are. I am very happy to report that we have been accepted to give a presentation on the collection at a state history conference, Researching New York: Perspectives on Empire State History, which is taking place next month in Albany. Sponsored by the State University of New York, the conference aims to bring together historians, researchers, archivists, librarians, teachers, curators, and filmmakers to engage in each other's work and research. In particular, the conference is supposed to act as a forum to highlight resources available to researchers and encourage new scholarship.

Even though the conference isn't until next month, we have to have our presentation ready for the commentator by next week. So, accordingly, we've been working like crazy on it--night and day, day and night. It's a PowerPoint, but hopefully a much more entertaining PowerPoint than typically presented--we are fortunate enough to have a fairly visually interesting collection.

So if you're interested in New York history, and if you will happen to be in Albany on November 20, check out the schedule and try to come to our presentation. If you can't make it, don't worry, you will probably see it in bits and pieces here over the next couple of months.


Friday, October 3, 2008

Smooth Sailing

Every once in a while an archivist will come across something completely unexpected in a collection in process. Although we've uncovered many aesthetically pleasing items in the sizable amount of NYCC boxes, we haven't seen too many items that seem strikingly out of place or unusual. Until we found this:

It was puzzling, to say the least. We found it in a box of arbitration records, as well as a mix of a few other items like photographs and building plans. We think that it is probably somehow related to one of the arbitration cases, evidence possibly. Maybe it is a game someone created? Maybe the two parties of the arbitration case acted out their dispute using toy ships, complete with toothpick sails? (There seems to be a name written on two of the wooden ships, so I think this is a distinct possibility, right?) Maybe this somehow just got accidentally mixed in with the records--maybe it was sitting on someone's desk and a secretary mindlessly packed it up with the rest of the records. We don't know the answer, but we were surprised and amused to find this little box of ships--and it’s a nice break from correspondence and committee reports.

Katie and I have been slowing down in processing as we focus momentarily on other things related to the collection--more on that later. We now have a student assistant who is dedicated specifically to helping us with the odds and ends of processing, and we are very luck to have her. So . . . we can see the end in sight! It will be so satisfying when this collection is finally accessible to the public.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Waning Influence

As I may have mentioned before, Katie has spent a lot of time processing the paper trail of the NYCC's Committee on Arbitration. I think she knows more about commercial arbitration at this point than she ever imagined possible, or ever really wanted for that matter. In anticipation of writing the finding aid, Katie has been keeping carefully detailed notes on the history and evolution of the Committee, like any good archivist would. The Committee on Arbitration was the first established committee of the NYCC, created at the Chamber's second meeting in 1768. It was the leading advocate of New York and US arbitration laws. Over the years the Committee's influence and significance grew as it continually played a key part in settling commercial disputes between businesses, both domestically and abroad. The Committee was dissolved in 1900 upon the death of Judge Enoch Fancher, who had become largely responsible for overseeing the arbitration cases. The arbitration cause was taken up again in 1911 when NYCC member Charles Bernheimer began to agitate for the re-establishment of the Committee. Bernheimer became Chairman of the Committee, and took a very active role in promoting arbitration courts nationally and internationally. If you take a look at correspondence sent and received during Bernheimer's tenure, you will find appeals from all over the world asking for advice on how to set up a local arbitration court and requesting a copy of the Handbook and Guide to Commercial Arbitration issued by the New York Chamber of Commerce (a copy can be found in the NYCC collection).

Ok, so Katie can speak much more eloquently about all of this than I can, due to her total submersion in these records for a number of weeks--its all arbitration, all of the time! I've pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I will never know as much about it as her, and I've appointed her arbitration expert for the rest of this project. But I found myself thinking about the Arbitration Committee last week when I came across an article in The New York Times, "U.S. Court is Now Guiding Fewer Nations." (Yes, I read the Times a lot.) If you don't have time to read it, its abstract states, "A diminishing number of foreign courts seem to pay attention to the writings of the Supreme Court justices." The article then goes on to describe how the influence of the US court on the rest of the world's courts is waning. Several reasons are cited as possible factors in this trend, including the rise of more sophisticated courts outside of the US, the growing conservatism of the Supreme Court, and the declining popularity of the US abroad. The author then goes on to say, "Sending American ideas about the rule of law abroad has long been a source of pride." That's one of the lines that made me think of the Chamber. It is quite clear from the Chamber's correspondence and publications that their educational outreach efforts, both domestically and abroad, were a huge source of pride--not just in arbitration matters, but also in aiding other cities, towns, or states in establishing their own Chambers of Commerce. They even got an award for it:

And therein lies the source of diminishing influence--their outreach efforts were so effective that eventually their aid was no longer necessary, which is part of what has happened to the US Court. As the Times article says of the US Court, "But as constitutional courts around the world developed their own bodies of precedent and started an international judicial conversation, American influence has dropped."

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting parallel, and a good example of the many lines of research opportunities that this collection offers.

By the way, Katie, who has quickly established herself as the world's greatest assistant, has been hard at work on creating a Wikipedia page for the NYCC. Please take a look when you get a chance; it relates a lot of historical details in a clear, concise way and hopefully will give anyone who's interested a good sense of the evolution of the NYCC.

One last thing: The debate tonight is on! Watch it, talk about it, and make sure you are registered to vote. There is still time!


Friday, September 19, 2008

Governors Island: Then and Now

A couple of weekends ago, I finally got it together and managed to take a trip over to Governors Island. I've wanted to do this since I first moved to NYC, but as they say, "the best-laid plans of mice and men/often go awry." If you don't live in New York, or even if you do, you may not be familiar with Governors Island, although its profile has been rising in recent years as it gains popularity. The New York Times just published an article about it, extolling it as, "a place rich with history and surprises." For most of the last two centuries it was home to a military base and owned by the federal government. It was sold to New York for $1 in 2003, and is now a haven for bike riders, picnickers, history buffs, and anyone who just needs to get away from the noise of the city. It's quite small--you can bike around it in about 15 minutes or so, and then you are free to spend the rest of your trip eating your packed lunch, wandering around the eerily uninhabited island, peeking into windows, and jiggling the handles of locked doors. If you haven't been, I would imagine that autumn will be an ideal time to be there, what with all the trees, falling leaves, and sprawling lawns. As the Times article notes, it really does look and feel like you are on the grounds of a New England college campus. I think this photograph by Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times proves that point:

Also, it’s a great place to get a close up view of one of Olafur Eliasson's "New York City Waterfalls" (which, frankly, I think are overrated, but to each her own I guess).

With memories of Governors Island fresh in my mind, I was pleasantly surprised to come across this 1912 missive from the NYCC to US Secretary of War:

I particularly like this line:

"The argument is that there is more wealth concentrated upon the lower end of Manhattan Island than probably anywhere else in the world, and the presence of the regular army at Governor's Island is an enormous protection of these vast property interests against possible riot, insurrection and other troubles."

That sounds like it could be hyperbole, and considering recent news, the current state of the economic power of the US, the falling value of the dollar, etc., I'm not so sure that argument would fly today in terms of an international scope, although certainly there is still an enormous amount of wealth concentrated in downtown Manhattan. On the other hand, in light of the attack on the World Trade Center and other terrorist activities in New York and around the rest of the world, it seems likely that there are people in this day and age who might get behind the NYCC's argument to have the military close by. At any rate, reading that letter reminded me of something I came across a while back. Consider these statistics on banking and money distribution, taken from a page in the NYCC Annual Report for 1909-1910, which provides good evidence for the reasoning behind the above quote:

The disparity between New York City and the rest of the country is quite striking, no? I'm curious about what those statistics would be nowadays, but that's a question I'll save for my reference librarian colleagues.

Anyway . . . that was then, and this is now, and now Governors Island is just a great place to relax on a weekend afternoon. It won't cost you anything to get there--the ferry to the island is free--so the only money you'd spend would be on your picnic lunch. So plan your visit now, New Yorkers, because soon it will be winter and too cold to enjoy it.

Who knows, this could be you:


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Remembrance of Things Past

As far as research value goes, I would say that the NYCC meeting minutes are pretty much the star of the show. There are two main groups of meeting minutes for the Chamber--the committees meeting minutes and the regular meeting minutes.

First, there are the committees meeting minute books. We've come across 14 volumes of committee meeting minute bound volumes so far, a complete set from 1864 to 1973. Though the majority of the volumes are dedicated to the meetings of the Executive Committee, there are some other standing committees minutes interspersed in several of the volumes. Even without the minutes of the standing committees, the minutes of the Executive Committee should prove to be a research gem. The Executive Committee was made up of an elected Chairman and the Chairmen of each standing committee; the Chamber President, the Executive Secretary, the Senior Vice President, the Treasurer, the Assistant Treasurer, and 9 members-at-large. These gentlemen were entrusted with managing the affairs of the NYCC; they were the movers and shakers of the organization. A researcher may wish to consult them in hope of getting a clearer understanding of the Chamber's overarching vision and goals. Most of the meeting minutes contain reports from each of the chairmen of the standing committees--of which there were quite a few over the years--which were formed in order to address specific issues of particular concern to the chamber.

The second main group of minute books record the minutes of the "regular" meetings (yes, that's how they are referred to by the Chamber). Supposedly, this collection holds a complete run of the regular meeting minutes from the very first meeting in 1768 up until 1979 when the Chamber merged with the Partnership for New York City. Since we still have about 40 boxes to comb through, I have yet to determine if that is actually true, but so far we have found a complete set from 1768 to 1933. These are recorded in 18 leather bound volumes, all of which are . . . large . . . heavy . . . dusty . . . and occasionally experiencing cases of proverbial red rot. I suspect minutes from the remaining years may be tucked away in folders or binders, rather than bound volumes, but as I said, that remains to be seen.

At this point, you may be wondering what a bound volume of meeting minutes from 1768 looks like, so here's a visual for you:

Yeah, I know, it seems like it has been through a lot. The inside is beautiful though:

You have here every detail of every monthly meeting AND annual meeting AND special meeting held by the Chamber of Commerce. The Who, What, When, and Where of it all, painstakingly handwritten in a lovely ink scrawl. Year to year, these books manage to maintain their great size, weight, and dusty accumulation, but the insides reveal a gradual change in style. Compare the above 1768 volume to this one which begins in 1868, one hundred years later:

Now, take a look at this one from 1968, another hundred years later:

Kind of boring in comparison, right? I think this is an interesting point to bring up because now that we are in the age of the personal computer (and beyond actually--these days, its more like the age of the personal hand-held device), typewriters have become romanticized icons of the past, one of those things people think of as they long for the way the world used to be--a time of simpler things, a slower pace, more focus, less noise (except for the sound of those keys clacking, I guess). But I am willing to bet that in 1968 someone was sitting around thinking the same thing about pen and ink. And I have to say, I agree with you, fictionalized person from 1968. I, too, long for those simple times of quill and blotter, those days of high marks for good penmanship, those stylized flourishes on the page that evince extra effort and dedication and care and pride. I am by no means a Luddite . . . I enjoy my laptop and streaming video and mp3 player as much as any NYC subway rider, but I do tend towards a romantic vision of the past. I do own a vintage typewriter, a 30 pound behemoth which I lugged from Texas to New York because it is the best gift I've ever been given and I like the look of it and the idea of it and its significance of things old and forgotten and world weary. Signifying slowness. Deliberateness. Confidence. (Those keys require more than a gentle tap.)

Anyway, this is turning into a rambling tangent, but I bring it up because I think its something interesting to consider as we in the present continually create our own body of documentation. I wonder if in the future the art of writing will only be considered in terms of its intellectual content, without noting the visual and physical aspect of writing, simply because that won't exist any more--corrections, additions, notes in the margins, explanatory drawings, impromptu diagrams, color coding, hand drawn decorative borders, tangible enclosures--when you are typing an email, embellishments come in the form of digital attachments, hyperlinks, and maybe an emoticon or two, but that's about it. If you were to donate your papers to an archival institution, what would they look like? And does that even matter?


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Room with a View

The name of this blog, "Notes from 2M11" refers to the room number of our office (I guess it also refers, in embarrassing cliché, to Notes from Underground, but that's so sadly first year English major, that I'm hiding it in parentheses). Although the RBML is on the 6th floor of Butler Library, Katie and I occupy this "satellite" location on the second floor mezzanine.

We are lucky. We have a window which we stare moodily out of when the sun is shining in a cloudless blue sky, watching Columbia students blithely enjoying their young lives. We can listen to NPR and shout at the inanity of commentators without bothering neighbors or students or passersby. We have quite a bit of floor space which is generally unheard of in this profession. We don't have luxuries like desk drawers or supply closets or water coolers, but we are content nonetheless.

Anyway, last week Katie and I came to a realization that if we didn't act soon, our office was going to be overrun. Archival boxes were piling up, spreading across shelves and desks like kudzu.

Exhibit A (in which you can catch a glimpse of our window):

Exhibit B (which kind of scares me, frankly):

So we assessed the situation, considered our resources, and then did what any similarly space squeezed archivist would do--we created a makeshift processing table in the middle of the room out of record carton boxes:

This mini-desk gave us just enough space to organize, reorganize, label, and barcode our "processed" manuscript boxes so we can send them off to off-site storage. We are at what is kind of the mid point of our processing. We've gone through almost 200 boxes of materials, and most of those almost 200 have been weeded, re-foldered, temporarily labeled, re-housed in archival manuscript boxes, and recorded on our work-in-progress finding aid. We still have quite a bit of work to do with this collection, but for now, clearing out about 80 MS boxes was quite a relief. So hurray for accomplishments, and hopefully we can repeat this send off again sometime soon.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Discards: A Love Story

Like many archivists, one of my favorite aspects of the job is throwing stuff away. The thrill of throwing out bags and bags and boxes and boxes of discards never quite fades. Its like that satisfactory feeling you get from cleaning out the garage or your closet. Here's a look at the discards that Katie and I have amassed during processing over the last week or so (two and a half bags of paper, one record carton of binders and bound volumes):

Ok, so most people that are not familiar with processing or archives are horrified by this. "But it's from the turn of the century!" they say. Or, "But look how pretty the design is!" Or, "What if it has some undiscovered research value?" they ask. So I then ask them to consider this: If you are a researcher and you are interested in using an archival collection that amounts to over 300 manuscript and oversized boxes, and you aren't quite sure what you are looking for or which materials are going to be useful to your research, will you be happy to know that every folder you search through contains an inordinate amount of duplicated material? Would you want to wade through countless daily memos that a secretary sent to the Vice President in 1912 that relates mundane information such as a meeting was cancelled or the location changed or an interview has been rescheduled? Would you like to open a box that should contain information related to an important conference, only to find that all of the folders are filled with receipts related to the catering of the conference? No, of course not. Most likely, you would be looking for information on the content presented in the conference, the attendees or speakers, speeches given, resolutions made, etc. So that's the stuff that we save, folder, box, and describe in our finding aids. The receipts however, are thrown out with much glee and satisfaction.

The Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia, like most institutions with archival holdings, has a processing guide for its archivists which specifies record retention guidelines that follow best practice procedures established by the archival profession. (It seems that there will always be some disagreement in this profession as to what should be saved and what should be thrown out, and I imagine that each institution's retention guidelines vary according to its own interests.) So don't worry, we aren't just randomly throwing out materials according to our own personal whims. Sometimes, we do tend to get a bit sentimental about things we are discarding, as I did when I came across these slim, smart looking bank account books the other day:

They date from the 1880s, are really lovely light tan leather, and feel not unlike a moleskine notebook in your hand. But, although it seems from the writing on the front that they were intended to be used to keep track of special fund accounts, they are blank on the inside. Meaning they have no real research value, at least in terms of the scope of this collection. So . . . we are discarding them, albeit with a slightly heavy heart. I guess no love story is complete without some trials and tribulations.

As a side note, sometimes we do hold onto discards. If something does seem to have research value, but is not pertinent to the collection that it came with, archivists often donate it to an appropriate institution. Occasionally, if a to-be-discarded item catches someone's eye--a button, or a flier, or an odd paperback--it may be rescued by that person or hung on an office wall. I should be clear though, that this is only after an item is determined to be a discard, and archivists' professional standards hold us to an objective view in that determination process.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Secret Transmissions

Katie, who is assisting me on this project, is still stuck in the mire of arbitration correspondence from the 1920s. She is always finding all sorts of weird communications--sarcastic replies, indignant feedback, or the occasional advertisement for curing baldness. Correspondence is really such a great way to get a feel for the spirit of an organization or a person, or to get a peek into how people really feel about things. But, yes, I know--a lot of it can be pretty boring, too. Anyway, Katie recently came across this Western Union telegram (or cablegram, I guess):

It's easy to discern that "Bernheimer" is the addressee and that "Tulloch" is the sender, but it's that line above "Tulloch" that catches the eye. What does that garbled message mean, you wonder? Well, just consult the code key:

The translated code is confirmed in the letter that follows:

One can only assume that the message was coded because it is related to a private legal matter; I guess it's similar to encryption methods used today. It makes me wonder though, how often was this coding method employed and how it was translated? Who came up with the code? Was a new one used for every case or incident? How does the receiver find out the key to the code? I like the idea of law firms and businesses sending out secret decoder rings to clients and associates,

or secretaries poring over confidential memos that lay out the key.

Any code experts out there, if you have some insight in to this, please feel free to let me know.


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Remembering the Alamo (and its library)

I've been on vacation for the last week and a half, so apologies for the lack of postings. I had originally intended to do a vacation post from the exotic locale of San Antonio, TX (where I grew up and where my family still lives), but that intention got lost in the shuffle of swimming, eating pan dulce, dancing at weddings, and enjoying the intensity of the Texas sun.

My mother is the Library Assistant at the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library at the Alamo. Yes, the Alamo.

The one of "Remember the Alamo" fame. The place where Pee-Wee Herman searched in vain for his beloved bike:

Incidentally, the library does have a basement though I think the Alamo itself does not.

And of course, it is the location of the famous Battle of the Alamo which took place in 1836 during the Texas Revolution. Ron Howard produced a movie about it in 2004, starring these guys as Col. William Travis, David (or Davy, as all children call him) Crockett, and James (a.k.a. Jim) Bowie:

Yes, I know, this has nothing to do with the New York Chamber of Commerce, but since I got a tour of the library and was shown some interesting things from the library's archives, it is technically archives related, right? Anyway, the library welcomes historians, genealogists, students, and general Texas enthusiasts from all over the world. Its collections document the history of Texas and it features a collection of rare books and Texas related publications, family papers, newspapers and periodicals, works of art, and other archival materials that range from photographs to correspondence to maps to lace mantillas to family bibles. Its staff is knowledgeable and accommodating, and I would highly recommend a visit if you happen to be in San Antonio and would like to conduct research on the Lone Star State.

And that is the post that I meant to provide while on vacation. Next post, I promise to return to the NYCC collection and the myriad of wonderful things we are uncovering as processing progresses.


Friday, July 11, 2008

65 Liberty Street

So the weather over the Fourth of July weekend prevented me from doing as much biking and picnicking as I would have liked, but I did manage to get a ride in late Sunday afternoon. I rode from my apartment in Brooklyn across the Brooklyn Bridge and found myself in Manhattan's financial district, that great labyrinth of towering skyscrapers and historic buildings that sits at the tip of the island. And of course, being the dedicated archivist that I am, the first thing I thought was that I would like to ride by 65 Liberty Street, former home of the New York Chamber of Commerce. It's an address that is now burned into my brain since I've read it about a million times now on NYCC correspondence.

This has been one of the true pleasures of working on this collection so far--living in the city that the collection documents and originates from allows me a ready knowledge of the geographical details of the collection. I wouldn’t say that I have an intimate knowledge of the financial district, but I've wandered around in that area enough to know what it feels like. I've stayed at the Waldorf Astoria, the hotel where the Chamber held many of their banquets and luncheons (I can't say I've dined or danced in the ballroom although I did have one very expensive drink at the bar). And when someone complained in a letter about having to trek from upper Manhattan all the way out to Brooklyn, I could definitely relate.

So when I rode up to 65 Liberty Street, I have to admit that I did get a tiny thrill from finally seeing the building, up close and personal. I'm not one of those people who carry around a digital camera, so all I had to document the occasion was a camera on my phone that I rarely use. I took a picture of the seal on the door that says NYCCI (which means the seal was made post-1973 when the New York Chamber of Commerce merged with the Commerce and Industry Association and became the New York Chamber of Commerce and Industry), only to realize later that I don't have whatever multimedia capabilities are required to email photos from your phone. Disappointing, right? So instead of showing you that, I will just point you to this photo of the building that I found on Flickr:

It's probably a much better photo than I could manage anyway.

Now the building is home to the International Commercial Bank of China. I'm pretty curious about what it looks like inside nowadays, and I'm wondering if there are any old vestiges that might be indicative of its former residents. If I ever manage to get inside, I will be sure to have a camera with me.

[UPDATE: After looking around online to see if there was a way to get a tour of the inside of the building, I came across this New York Times article. It says that when the Chamber moved out, the exterior of the building was designated as a historic landmark, but that the interior was not. I guess that means that its very unlikely I would find any traces of what the building looked like while it was occupied by the NYCC.]

As an aside, thinking about this post reminded me of the issue in the archives/special collections profession of keeping collections in or near the areas they originated from versus selling them off to the highest bidder or most prestigious institution, even if that institution might be far removed from the source of the collection. I'd be curious to hear thoughts from anyone who has an opinion on the subject. Personally, I am strongly in favor of keeping collections in close relation to their source, and I think working on this collection has only strengthened that belief. But I know there are dissenting opinions out there, so if you have one, feel free to share it.


Thursday, July 3, 2008

Mold: Humble Beginnings

I was at a loss as to what to write about this week. Then, while shuffling through yet another box of 1920s papers, I came across this letter to the Chamber from Edwin J. Clapp (click on the image to enlarge):

I'm sure many of you, like me, have never heard of Edwin J. Clapp. I did a little googling and quickly found that, as I suspected, the letter writer and the author of the "couple hundred copies . . . moulding away" are one and the same. I haven't read the "Port of Hamburg" or the "Port of Boston" and I have no idea whether or not they merit being stored away by the hundreds in a cellar. What was particularly interesting to me about this letter though, is the fact that anything is being stored away in the cellar at all. Ok, a surplus of books, I guess, is acceptable, especially if you have a few hundred copies. But what else is acceptable to store in a cellar?

I ask this question (rhetorically, but feel free to answer it) because it seems that along the way of the life of this collection, someone, somewhere decided that many things can acceptably be stored in a cellar. Books. Ledgers. Correspondence. Photographs. Memorabilia. An entire archive of an organization's history.

And that's a part of the background of the physical history of the NYCC collection. Some of it was stored in a basement. Probably a dank, dark basement--is there any other kind? (As a caveat, I'm from Texas where no one has basements. Or real attics, for that matter.) Some of it probably became damp from humidity, then dried, then probably dampened again. All of it got transferred to standard record carton storage boxes, and was then transferred to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where it was surveyed, checked for mold, mildew, and general grimey-ness, and was then shipped off to a long term storage facility where it waited until I was hired to process the collection.

This story sounds pretty standard up to this point. But sometimes mold isn't so obvious. Sometimes, you check for mold and it's not there, and then you check again and it is. Sometimes, mold appears, unexpectedly and to the surprise of the newly hired project archivist who is anxious to begin her project. Sometimes, that project archivist and three of her fellow archivists end up taking the 8AM train to a warehouse in New Jersey where over 200 boxes of materials have been quarantined to assess the mold problem and do some badly needed weeding. And that's when, as an archivist, I feel I can relate to Mr. Clapp's indignation on two points. First, who thinks it's a good idea to keep a "couple hundred copies" of anything (well, most anything)? Second, who thinks it's a good idea to store an archive in a cellar?

By the way, Gwynne wrote Clapp back to offer him the books, free of charge. He also concedes that these books should not be "reposing in our basement." If only more people had Gwynne's good sense.

Hope everyone enjoys celebrating our nation's independence this weekend. I will be riding my bike, playing badminton, and picnicking in the park . . . weather permitting, as always.


Monday, June 23, 2008

Monday Diversions

Since it's Monday and appropriately cloudy with rain in the forecast, I thought I'd take a break from meeting minutes and correspondence and turn my attention to something a little more entertaining--invitations. The Chamber of Commerce held a lavish banquet each year, presumably to congratulate themselves on another year gone and to honor various distinguished guests and members. According to a NYCC publication, for each banquet between the Civil War and World War I,

"an eminent Banquet Committee devoted painstaking attention to an appropriate design for the Program, which was then hand-engraved and colored by Tiffany & Co. Messengers delivered all invitations to the homes of members and their guests."

The NYCC collection holds some samples of these invitations and programs, which I've been organizing this morning. Here is the invitation for the banquet of 1889, held at Delmonico's (a New York restaurant which is still in operation):

Here's a closeup of the Tiffany & Co. signature in the lower right hand corner:

Impressive, no? It's especially interesting to contrast the 1889 invitation with this invitation from 1950:

Hmm. As an archivist, I think I'm supposed to maintain an objective view, and there's that whole thing about not judging a book by its cover, but if I had to chose one or the other to attend, I'm pretty sure I would transport myself back in time to 1889. These guys seem like they would probably agree with me:

That image is from the 1913 banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria where guests were treated to a six course dinner. We don't have the menu for that dinner, but I think it's safe to say that it was probably rather luxurious.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

"A Wonderful Adventure"

I just finished reading The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham. The novel is set in the United States and Europe in the early 1900's, and traces the lives of Americans as they faced the First World War, the market crash of 1929, and the aftermath of those events. One of its central characters, Larry Darrell, is a young man who at the beginning of the book has just returned from the war and is clearly scarred by his experiences. His childhood sweetheart wants to marry and his and her family and friends want him to either go to college or go into business, but he refuses, deciding instead to "loaf," which translates into traveling around the world, working odd jobs, meeting some sages and scholars, and reading lots of books--clearly Larry made the right decision here. But before he takes off to Paris, his girlfriend tries to convince him to stay by saying to him,

"Henry Maturin was saying only the other day that we were beginning an era that would make the achievements of the past look like two bits. He said he could see no limit to our progress and he's convinced that by 1930 we shall be the richest and greatest country in the world . . . There's never been such a chance for a young man. I should have thought you'd be proud to take part in the work that lies before us. It's such a wonderful adventure."

Larry replies with a laugh, which is exactly how I felt when I read that. I like the idea of young 1920s men looking at their future in business as "a wonderful adventure."

Katie and I are definitely seeing traces of that optimism and excitement in the correspondence and publications we've come across so far. What I am especially keen on finding though is documentation of the 1929 market crash. So far, the only indication of it is a skip in the meeting minutes of the Executive Committee of the Merchants Association of New York from September 1929 to January 1930. I'm not sure what I'm hoping to find--tear stained business letters, emergency meeting memos, frantic telegrams--who knows. We haven't really gotten to 1929 correspondence or records yet anyway, but I hope we find it soon. Meanwhile, Katie is diligently working away at processing the Chairman's and Secretary's correspondence from the early part of that decade. Apparently, neither of these men placed much importance on keeping an organized and tidy filing system--I guess neither of them anticipated that their records were going to be processed and archived 90 years later. Who ever does, though? So, we forgive you Charles Bernheimer and Charles Gwynne. I'm sure that at the time, keeping six copies of every day correspondence seemed like a good idea.


Friday, June 13, 2008


When people ask me what my job is, I tell them that I am an archivist. When people ask what an archivist is, my answer is either short and somewhat vague (I arrange and describe archival collections) or in depth and detailed (I physically and intellectually arrange archival collections in folders and boxes, and then create descriptive tools such as MARC records and finding aids to help researchers understand what forms of materials are in the collection, how to find specific things in the collection, the intellectual content of the collection, and how that content may be useful to their research). Then there are the follow up questions: What is an archival collection? What's a MARC record? What do you mean by "intellectual arrangement?

Actually, most people don't go that far in their questioning. Most people respond to my explanation with, Oh, you work in a library. But sometimes I explain all of that anyway. I've always thought though, that if people actually saw what I do every day, how archivists take dusty boxes of "miscellaneous" and turn them into acid free boxes of Series 1, Subseries 2, Folders 1-20, and understood all of the research and documentation that goes into writing the description, then people would be way more interested, not just in my job but also in the idea of archives in general. So here are two photos of typical boxes from the New York Chamber of Commerce collection, pre-arrangement.

What is in these boxes? How old are these papers? Why did the Chamber keep them? Where did they come from? Why would a researcher want to see them? At this point, I only have a few, vague answers to these questions. This particular archival collection has a long and storied history, one that it accumulated over the years since its original creation. The collection has been transferred from desk to drawer to cabinet to box, from office to storage closet to basement to warehouse. Along the way it has been exposed to humidity and varying temperatures, not to mention that it has been stewing in its own acidity since birth.

So what do we do when we get a box like this? Well, this is the part of the job that we call processing. It has a certain factory worker ring to it, but I think its usually the part that archivists like most about their job. This is the part where we get to go through boxes and exclaim over weird finds like carved wooden figurines or miniature handwritten journals or the occasional illicit image. We don't have time to read everything--nor would we want to in most cases--but we do get to see the finest details of every collection we process. Some are more exciting than others, but you always hope that you are going to find something unique and noteworthy.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Unexpected Finds in Business Correspondence

I've been processing the New York Chamber of Commerce records for about two and a half months now, not including the two days spent in a warehouse in New Jersey (an explanation of those two days deserves its own--forthcoming--post). In an attempt to start organizing what I'm guessing is going to be the biggest series in this collection, I've spent quite a bit of time looking at documents related to the Committee on Arbitration. When the assistant project archivist began work on the collection, I set her up to continue processing the series so I could take a much needed break from the arbitration committee and begin looking at all the "miscellaneous" boxes that had amassed unexpectedly. Of course, "miscellaneous" turned out to be mostly arbitration committee related. Specifically, it is correspondence from the 1910s and 1920s between Charles Bernheimer, then Chairman of the Committee on Arbitration, and various businesses, organizations, and manufacturers in and out of New York City.

I'll be the first to admit that I am not a history buff. Nor have I ever been much interested in business and industry. When my dad encouraged me to take business courses in college, I instead signed up for a course on 20th century European drama (Ibsen to Churchill) and one on women and Japanese fiction (the Tale of the Genji to Banana Yoshimoto). Needless to say, although excited about the challenges of this project from the beginning, I wasn't too sure that the content was going to be of much interest to me. Looking through Bernheimer's correspondence, I came across several letters from all sorts of companies and organizations that caught my eye, namely because they had some amazing stationery. Although stationery of today seems to rely mostly on abstract graphics, seals, or company logos, these letterheads were much more graphically interesting, usually advertising the business's products. The images below are examples of some of my favorites:

I'm sure that the majority of the researchers who use this collection will be business historians, New York City historians, and others with similar interests, but I thought I would point out that archival collections are often rich in graphically interesting materials, sometimes in places you wouldn't think to look. Letterheads, stylized posters, pamphlets, and drawings of all kinds . . . one of my favorite things to come across in a sheaf of administrative records are the doodles and cartoons of a bored note taker. In the age of CAD and digital cameras and Photoshop, it's nice to come across a really lovely hand drawing of an elevator shaft, isn't it? Anyway, even if you aren't interested in looking at architectural drawings or business pamphlets, a quick scan through letterheads of certain decades can turn up some nice finds. (By the way, that pin in the corner of the last letterhead is not part of the illustration, its one of the many fasteners used before paper clips and staples were the norm.)