Friday, March 20, 2009

One Last Note

Here it is guys, the last note from 2M11. With the finding aid done, we've been taking care of last minute details this past week, and are now nearing the finish line. Thanks to everyone for reading and occasionally commenting. I hope you enjoyed reading the blog as much I as I enjoyed writing it! The email address for the blog account is so if you have any questions about the blog in the future, you can address them there. Otherwise, you can visit the RBML at Columbia University to finally see all of the stuff I've been writing about in person (or send an email to There are many wonderful archivists and librarians there waiting to assist you.


Friday, March 13, 2009

"'The time has come,' the Walrus said . . . "

Its been a very long while, it seems, since I've had a chance to catch up with this blog. The past couple of weeks around here have been mostly devoted to writing . . . . THE FINDING AID! With two hundred years of history to cover, and 24 series and sub-series statements to write, not to mention the usual LC subject headings hunt, description, linear feet calculation, abstract, etc., etc. . . . it obviously took a while. But just this morning I dotted the last "i" and crossed the last "t" and now you only have a few weeks (at most) to wait until you can see the description in all its multi-page glory. For those unfamiliar with the Archival Portal on the Columbia Libraries website, here's a screenshot for you (click on the image and it will take you directly to the portal):

When you arrive at the page, you can do a search for "Chamber of Commerce" and the finding aid should pop up for your viewing pleasure. But, like I said, you'll have to wait for a few more weeks before its available. In the meantime, I thought I would just share some images from the collection that I scanned during the course of the project for one reason or another, but that I never managed to post on this blog:

1950s cover of a folder stuffed with NYCC promo materials

Photograph of winners of an essay contest held by the NYCC, circa 1950s

Reproduction of a handbill announcing the formation of the NYCC in 1768

Fraunces Tavern, the first headquarters of the NYCC, date unknown

Textiles found with an arbitration case from the late 1800s

Monthly meeting in the Great Hall, circa 1960s

Now that the finding aid is finished, Katie and I have the whole next week to devote to wrapping up loose ends, and most importantly, boxing up all of our oversize volumes in their newly arrived, specially made boxes. Then we will send off the last of the boxes to our off site storage facility, where they will wait with the rest of the collection until researchers ask to see them.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Definition of Terms

This week, I should be getting the last of our materials back from the Conservation Lab. I never got the chance to take a course on preservation and conservation when I was working on my MILS at Pratt, but I always wished that I had the chance to do so. Both preservation and conservation are enormously important to the archives profession, and this project in particular is a prime example of why.

Probably because I never took a class on preservation and conservation, I always get the two terms mixed up! So for those of you who can't keep the definitions straight either, here's are the definitions, pulled from the Glossary of the Society of American Archivists:

n. ~ 1. The repair or stabilization of materials through chemical or physical treatment to ensure that they survive in their original form as long as possible. – 2. The profession devoted to the preservation of cultural property for the future through examination, documentation, treatment, and preventive care, supported by research and education.

Notes: Conservation1 counters existing damage, as distinguished from preservation2, which attempts to prevent damage. Conservation does not always eliminate evidence of damage; restoration includes techniques to return materials to their original appearances (which may include fabrication of missing pieces). – However, conservation2 is often used to include preservation1 activities.

n. ~ 1. The professional discipline of protecting materials by minimizing chemical and physical deterioration and damage to minimize the loss of information and to extend the life of cultural property. – 2. The act of keeping from harm, injury, decay, or destruction, especially through noninvasive treatment. – 3. Law • The obligation to protect records and other materials potentially relevant to litigation and subject to discovery.
– preserve, v. ~ 4. To keep for some period of time; to set aside for future use. – 5. Conservation • To take action to prevent deterioration or loss. – 6. Law • To protect from spoliation.

Preservation2 is sometimes distinguished from conservation1, the latter describing treatments to repair damage. However, preservation activities are often considered a subdiscipline within the profession of conservation2. – Preservation3 is used in many public records laws to distinguish records from nonrecords; records are those materials that warrant preservation, that are set aside (usually by being filed). Materials that are not set aside for subsequent use do not fall within the scope of that legal definition. In this context, preservation is roughly synonymous with filing, with no connotation of permanent preservation.

In case you prefer to skip over those long definitions, I'll just note the part that pretty much sums it all up: "Conservation1 counters existing damage, as distinguished from preservation2, which attempts to prevent damage. Conservation does not always eliminate evidence of damage; restoration includes techniques to return materials to their original appearances (which may include fabrication of missing pieces)." In other words, we use preservation techniques, like photocopying acidic newspaper clippings or slipping items into acid free Mylar, to preserve the content of those clippings for the future. And we treat damaged items so that researchers can handle them safely and without contributing to further damage.

As I said, this has been especially important with the NYCC collection—as you may have gathered from previous posts, there has been A LOT of material in the collection in need of some major TLC. A large portion of these records were stored in unfavorable conditions and that was evident to Katie and me as we pulled out stack after stack of dirty, dusty, grimy material. Since archival documents are unique, and often times old, acidic, and fragile, they necessitate careful handling and storage in a climate controlled environment—otherwise you end up with a moldy, crumbling, unpleasant mess. There are some conservation and preservation issues that archivists can easily handle themselves: photocopying acidic paper, placing potentially damaging materials between acid free sheets of paper or in some kind of protective encasement, or using cleaning pads and powder or soft bamboo brushes to safely remove dirt from documents.

For anything that requires some really serious damage control (and when you have items that date back to 1768, you've got a lot of damage to control), we send items down to the talented, capable staff in the Conservation Lab. They deal with stuff like red rot on leather bound books

and board replacement on volumes with covers missing. They also relax tightly rolled documents, clean the truly dirty stuff, create special encasings for fragile materials, and generally make everything old and gross look new and pretty again. In other words, they do magical things to save materials that come to them in a sad state and make an archivist's job a little easier and a lot cleaner.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

This is the story of the merger of the Chamber of Commerce

Collections come to archivists in a variety of conditions and a wide range of sizes. Sometimes you are lucky--you find yourself facing a well organized, color coded filing system, complete with labels, guides, and dates. (Ok, I think you would have to be really lucky for that scenario to occur!) But more often than not, you find yourself staring down row upon row of disorganized chaos--spineless books, torn and folded papers, illegible handwriting, crumbling newspaper clippings, and the sticky residue of labels that have long since peeled away and disappeared. This is especially daunting if your collection's inventory, like ours, can best be described as "bare bones."

And so begins one of the core elements of an archivist's job--research. There are a seemingly endless amount of questions to be answered as an archivist attempts to make sense of the vast sea of records before her--everything from basic background research into an organization's history and significance to what makes up the duties of the Executive Committee to quarantine stations in New York in the 1800s to the regulation of usury laws. Since no definitive, in-depth histories of the NYCC have been written yet (which makes it especially compelling to researchers), Katie and I have had to do a lot of legwork trying to discern the story of the Chamber. Our biggest hurdle in conducting our research would have to have been figuring why we seemed to have the records of not only the NYCC but also the Merchants Association and the Commerce and Industry Association. Since the organizations were obviously similar in motive and ambition, we assumed it was only natural that each would have the publications and notices of the other; we were more confused by the fact that the NYCC collection contained so much material from the other two organizations, material that we imagined that those organizations should have wanted to keep themselves. Our confusion continued until we began coming across materials labeled, "MERGER."

And then of course, it all made sense.

It took us a while, but we were finally able to piece together a timeline for the evolution of the NYCC, up until it ceased to exist in 2002. I came up with this handy chart to explain the timeline for our presentation in November:

Mergers between the Chamber and other commercial organizations were under consideration as far back as the 1920s when the Chamber began losing members and influence. Our records indicate talk of a merger with the Commerce and Industry Association began sometime in the 1950s and continued throughout the 1960s, resulting in several extensive studies conducted by both organizations to assess the pros and cons.

Because we ended up with the records of both the NYCC and the CIA, we have documentation of the process from both sides, which I'm sure some enthusiastic research will have a fantastic time comparing.

By the time the NYCC officially merged with the New York City Partnership (a philanthropic organization formed by NYCC member David Rockefeller) to form the Partnership for New York City, the offices had long since moved out of its building on 65 Liberty Street, and its membership and administration had severely dwindled. The organization lived out its twilight years functioning more like a typical civic organization; long gone were the days of the Chamber's power and prestige.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Crossing Disciplines . . . Or, Reaching Across the Aisle

I will admit it--I am a bit jealous of the librarians at NYPL! Why? Because they get to participate in a really cool video series called Design by the Book. It is a collaboration with a well known, New York based, design blog called Design*Sponge which invites New York artists to view books and special collections at NYPL and use those materials as inspiration for new works. The third part of the series was recently released (I think there will be five episodes), and I highly recommend checking it out.

I was particularly delighted by something mentioned by one of the artists (you can catch it around the 5:00 minute mark). She said that the librarian who showed her items from NYPL's map collection remarked to her that maps are where art meet science--something that is immediately evident to anyone who has had the pleasure of viewing any old printed or hand drawn maps. I was really struck by that observation because that is precisely one of the things that prompted me to start this blog--that special collections, archival collections, rare books, etc., are not just noteworthy for their content necessarily, although that is of course a huge and valid aspect of their draw. They are also remarkable for their aesthetic qualities because many of these materials are designed/produced/printed/presented in ways that are no longer common. You can read some of my past entries to see what I mean. Librarians and archivists are always looking for ways to attract new researchers to use their institution's collections--that's why the hot topic at libraries and archives everywhere is Web 2.0 technologies. However, I think one mistake is that people in our profession sometimes seem to assume that the only people who would be interested in these materials are the standard academic researcher; there seems to me to be not much outreach to potential researchers who may fall outside of that scope--visual artists, designers, marketing professionals, activists, fashion editors, and who knows who else. I think this is a shame because we have so much to offer! I am continually amazed at the things I have found just in the NYCC collection alone. Hopefully, as technology makes it easier and faster to access unique collections, more and more communities will know about and use these materials. I mean, who knew you could find something like this in the records of a Chamber of Commerce?

Anyway, I took just over a month hiatus from this blog for two reasons: 1) Vacation. 2) Have you ever tried to resume your normal routine after a 2 ½ week vacation and it just didn't work? It didn't work for me. I came back, realized the enormity of the collection, thought about all I have accomplished so far, thought about all I still have left to do, had an anxiety attack, and then decided to take another vacation! Well, kind of. I did come back and feel a bit overwhelmed by the hugeness of this project, so I decided to put my nose to the grindstone and begin tying up all the loose ends that had been bothersome lately. Then I did take another vacation--a much shorter one and kind of last minute. I ended up in Washington, DC for the inaugural weekend, along with about a zillion other out of towners. I hadn't planned on going--I was perfectly content to watch it on Jumbotron kindly provided by Columbia University on the main campus. But I ended up tagging along to DC with someone who had to work an event. Being in DC, and being an archivist, my primary interest was in seeing either the Library of Congress or the National Archives, of course. Unfortunately, due to the timing of the trip both places were closed the entire time I was there--closed on Sunday, closed on national holidays, closed for the inauguration. I was disappointed, but I did manage to take this picture out front on Sunday night:

But that was the only disappointment in an otherwise exciting weekend, where I got to be part of a historic moment rather than just archiving pieces of historic moments.

Now, back to the collection . . . One part of the project that I have been working hard to finish up is the Publications collection.

There are just over a hundred publications total in the collection; most of these probably qualify as rare, and several are in pretty bad shape physically. They reflect a wide range of subjects--histories of the Chamber, manuals on business practices, and detailed notes on the annual banquets. Once we realized how many publications were included in this collection, I knew that something different was going to have to be done to make them accessible. A list of the titles in the finding aid seemed a bit cumbersome and not so helpful, a separate finding aid seemed silly, and creating catalog records for each one seemed labor intensive and impractical. During a visit to the Avery Library to drop off some building blueprints, I learned from their curator how they manage to make collections of blueprints accessible--they create a catalog record for the collection which includes a link to a read-only spreadsheet that itemizes each blueprint. It's sort of an unconventional way of doing things--not quite a finding aid, not just a MARC record, but I think it's a stellar idea. So that's what we decided to do with our publications--create a separate record for the Publications collection which will be linked to the record for the general collection. These publications will be going off-site with the rest of the collection but they can be recalled individually just as a manuscript box can. In the end, I think it will make more sense to the researcher, make titles easier to find, and is space efficient. So, thanks Avery!

By the way, most of the smaller publications--leaflets, pamphlets, booklets, handouts--will stay with the general collection in the Printed Materials series.

That series contains all sorts of interesting finds like guides to New York City, tributes to members, and my personal favorite, "Let's Arbitrate!," a manual on arbitration. Doesn't that sound fun?