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.