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.