Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Can a "boring" collection have high research value?

We regularly host group training sessions for people in the institutions participating in the survey project to acclimate them to the survey method before we start work at their institution. One of the highlights of these sessions, for them and for us, is when we do hands-on surveying of some collections in small teams. This includes discussing and assigning ratings for the collection characteristics assessed by the survey: Condition, Quality of Housing, Physical Access, Intellectual Access, Documentation Quality, and Interest (these last two combine to make up the Research Value Rating, or RVR, for short).

We pick sample collections to use in these sessions both for their ability to be surveyed within a limited period of time by people with little previous experience of the survey method as well as because they demonstrate various challenges inherent in the survey process. One of the collections we've used in all of the training sessions so far is the Mary Bainerd Smith diaries, a collection of 64 diaries from 1894 to 1957 held by The Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The two-sentence description on HSP’s website sums this collection up quite accurately, if succinctly: "Philadelphia diaries of Mary Bainerd Smith on the domestic concerns of the Smith family and their friends. There is little commentary or mention of public affairs." This collection always provokes debate in our surveying teams -- and often amongst the project staff after the training session is over!

Each day Mary Bainerd Smith wrote a few sentences about her and her family's whereabouts and activities, generally in very dry (and adjective-free) language. Mary Bainerd Smith clearly wasn't giving contemporaries Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons a run for their money, as you can see in such archetypal entries as "Mother and father to church." "Rain almost all day." "Extension phone installed in bedroom." "May out to lunch and supper." (For most of the years, there's no "I" in the diaries, but the writer is "May.") When she wasn't available, a family member stepped in, writing in the same minimalist style (in fact, a family member records when May goes into a coma, and when she dies, in daily entries in the last diary); occasionally a household member writes at the bottom of an entry to note that the back heater has been turned on or that a household repair has been made. Every once in awhile, an obituary or wedding announcement is pasted in, and there's a list of Christmas gifts given and received in the back of many of the diaries, but otherwise there is little deviation from the established pattern. There's almost nothing about this woman's likes, dislikes, hopes, fears, or responses to the many changes in the world that took place over the seven decades spanned by the diaries, and we know little about Mary Bainerd Smith aside from what she wrote in these diaries. Unlike Ronald Reagan's diaries, which a recent New Yorker review described as also having a "quotidian quality," intrinsic interest based on the prominence of their creator is not a factor, so we must judge them on their merits alone.

Research value isn't the only rating we discuss, but it is the one that tends to elicit the most debate, so, from the perspective of surveying, what is the value of these diaries for research? On the one hand, we have dry, opinion- and detail-free entries about social calls, household deliveries, and the weather from a woman about whom we know very little. On the other hand, we have a comprehensive data set for over 60 years of a woman's (and a family's) life. Is the fact that there is so little insertion of personality itself of interest? Does that say something about women's lives during this period, or does it simply tell us that this particular woman was dull? Is this an unusually complete set of diaries, or was it fairly typical for each household to have such a recorder? Would more descriptive diaries kept for a shorter period of time, or correspondence between family members over a period of years that exhibits a range of viewpoints, be a richer source, or is this particular source plenty rich just as it is?

So far there's been little consensus in the training sessions about the research value of Mary Bainerd Smith's diaries. Groups have given the collection ratings across the spectrum, from those who think that the monotony of the entries and the insularity of the life they describe cancel out the potential value derived from their comprehensiveness, to those who see them as a rare and remarkable record of the life of an "ordinary" woman. People's take on this collection tends to be very dependent on what they know and value coming in, the types of research and related primary sources with which they are familiar, and what the word "diary" connotes to them. If they approach the collection with Samuel Pepys or Anne Frank in mind, they're bound to be disappointed; if they view Mary Bainerd Smith's collection more as a household log, they're often impressed by the indefatigability of her recordkeeping and various facts that might be gleaned from it.(Fortunately for the project team members and the preservation of harmony among us, this collection was surveyed during a previous survey project at HSP, so it’s not up to us to affix a number to it.)

We use this collection in the trainings not to demonstrate that it is impossible to come up with a meaningful research value rating, or to suggest that there's a right or wrong lens through which to view this particular collection, but rather to point to our understanding of the research value rating's inherent subjectivity and the importance of doing our background research and talking with the staff at the different institutions about the current and potential research use of their collections. The more information we have, the more confident we will be in assigning a particular rating. Not because there's one true rating that will definitively settle the everlasting research value of a collection, but because we want to make sure that the rating we give it reflects the values of the institution and the research community at large at the time we surveyed it as much as possible.

As in any appraisal task, we're making our best faith effort, given the information we have about current values and what we can predict about the future. We greatly appreciate all the assistance staff in the participating institutions lend us in this difficult task, and we feel fortunate to be involved in a project where such a wealth of knowledge and expertise is made available to us.

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