Friday, March 21, 2008

The spice of life

Variety is the name of the game with this project -- we're visiting 22 institutions and seeing thousands of collections, so a range of subjects is to be expected. Most of the time, though, there's a relatively smooth progression of topics from one collection to the next one. We might, for example, go through a number of personal papers and then work our way through a series of institutional records. At the moment, for example, we're looking through personal papers at the Presbyterian Historical Society. Many of these are collections of letters and reports from missionaries. Even though we're jumping around geographically -- from India to Korea to Cameroon to Iran to China -- there is a fairly consistent format and tone to the materials. However, there have been a few times when moving from one collection to another has made me sit up and notice how odd the juxtapositions can be.

The first wild jump in topic that comes to mind comes from fairly early in the project, when we surveyed collections at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (one of the institutions where depth of coverage of a particular discipline is the norm, and where, for a non-chemist, the differences between collections can be a bit subtle). This shift in subject matter can be explained by the fact that they have a collection that's pretty far out of their normal collecting scope: the records of the National Democratic Club in New York City. We looked at this set of scrapbooks of club activities and minutes of various committees right before we surveyed the records of the Advisory Council on College Chemistry. One minute I'm scrounging through scrapbooks looking to see what big politicos attended the club's dinners and the next I'm reading reports on how to revise the chemistry curriculum for the college student of the 1960s.

At many of the other PACSCL institutions, diverse subject matter is more to be expected, but seeing what collections fall next to each other in the survey order can still be entertaining and informative. At Bryn Mawr we surveyed a collection of materials compiled by Susan Braudy as part of the research for her book on the radical Kathy Boudin, who was convicted for involvement in the Weather Underground and Black Liberation Army robbery of a Brinks truck in 1981. This collection contains court transcripts, copies of FBI files, transcripts of police radio transmissions, and clippings of contemporary news accounts. After this taste of counter-culture and the American justice system, we went on to more traditional cultural fare with the papers of the Philadelphia artist Ben Wolf. (Wolf also appeared in national print media, but it was his artwork that showed up, not his mug-shot). The papers document Wolf's career as an artist, illustrator, and critic, but more interesting to me was the collection of Sherlockiana among his papers. He was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars and provided illustrations for the dinner menus of the Sons of the Copper Beeches (a Philadelphia "scion society" of the Baker Street Irregulars), and he collected all sorts of programs, articles, newsletters, photographs, and ephemera about the brilliant detective.

At Temple University, another institution with quite a wide range of subject matter on the shelves, we ran into what in retrospect looks like a very similar pairing of diverse subjects. This time it was Fred Zimring's research materials on Barrows Dunham, a chairman of the University's philosophy department who was dismissed from his position for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating him on charges of subversive activities and alleged membership in the Communist Party. Just the day before we were browsing these interviews about the reach of government into academe during the red scare, we had been steeped in motherhood and apple pie, with the Emilie Mulholland baseball collection. Mulholland had worked for both the Philadelphia Athletics and the Pittsburgh Pirates, and she amassed a pretty impressive collection of memorabilia: baseballs, photographs, programs, a couple of jerseys, and a variety of elephants (the mascot of the Athletics). Mulholland was also a dedicated scorekeeper, and her collection includes years' worth of scorecards.

Consideration of these shifts subject, and shifts of geography, discipline, time period, and weightiness of the matter at hand (not to say, of course, that baseball isn't a very weighty matter...), reinforces for me how interesting this project is for the surveyors. Digging into one collection and savoring its contents (albeit for a short time) is one of the primary joys of this job, and being served a brand new dish with the very next collection is another.

No comments: