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!


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