Friday, March 21, 2008

Dear Folks

Over the past few weeks the survey team has been working at the Presbyterian Historical Society. As Jenny mentioned, this has been a bit of an adjustment as we move from the papers and records of physicians and all things medical to those of missionaries and ministers. Within the first week we “traveled” to China, India, Brazil, Korea, Cameroon, and East Tennessee. Very different from what we saw at the College of Physicians. One week bones the next week bibles. Just one of the reasons this job is so interesting.

We’ve recently seen quite a bit of correspondence, much of it in the form of “letters home” from missionaries abroad. These are a bit like blogs. This is especially true for the letters addressed to larger audiences such as extended family and friends or congregations. While some letters comment on larger world events, the main focus is on the work of the mission and more local and personal concerns. Blogs, though, tend to be more frequent and posts are often very specific, in a way these letters usually aren’t. However, as a means of communicating to a large group with similar interests and who are widely distributed geographically, they are very similar.

Are missionaries currently posting blogs? A search online brought up a few missionary blogs, and it does seem as if the “letter home” has continued well into the digital era. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) website has a number of them posted from various missions around the world.

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.

Friday, March 7, 2008

You describe my back...

Recently Josie, our intern for the semester, and I surveyed a collection that reminded me of one of the hoped for outcomes of this project: that once people find out about some of these "hidden" collections we're surveying, they will want to use them, and that maybe they'll even want to assist in bringing them further into the light.

The particular collection that spurred these thoughts consisted of 140 feet of 19th and 20th century records of an prominent Philadelphia publishing house, the J.B. Lippincott Company. I'll admit I had been holding off on surveying it for awhile, because it seemed like, to use a highly technical term, a monster - more than 90 boxes of volumes and paper records, plus nearly one hundred volumes that weren't in boxes. We had an accession record, and some donor correspondence to work from, but it seemed like that was it.

Before we started surveying, however, our staff liaison brought another access tool to our attention. It turned out that within the past year a researcher had learned of the collection's existence and requested to use it. Undaunted at learning that there was very little description and that it would be difficult to use in its current state, the researcher worked out an arrangement with the institution whereby he would provide a preliminary assessment and listing for the entire collection. The result was a very useful (albeit skeletal) wordprocessed box- and volume-level inventory that will undoubtedly aid both staff and other researchers who request access in the future. (A secondary benefit for the PACSCL survey team is that a collection that could have taken the good part of a day to assess, got done in less than an hour.) (Update: HSP has posted a preliminary finding aid for this collection that combines the survey description and the inventory.)

In this era of movement towards minimum standards cataloging and processing and increasing pressure to make resources available more quickly, there is a lot of talk of what role user-supplied description could play and how best to encourage it. Some people seemed convinced that this is something far on the horizon, something that requires advanced cyberinfrastracture and a thorough understanding of Web 2.0 technologies. While I'm all for exploiting technology as much as possible to improve our service to and interaction with our researchers, this example is a reminder that we don't have to work out all the technological kinks to make user-supplied description a reality now. Something as simple as asking a researcher to give you a copy of that Word document they produced on their laptop over the course of their research visit can make access better -- and the lives of your friendly neighborhood surveyors a whole lot easier!