On Friday, the 25th of September, 1942, Hilda Haworth, her husband Walter, and many others left the English Channel island Guernsey for Germany. The diary details life in the camp for a little over a year, and was immensely fascinating to read through. While I knew that the Nazis had set up internment camps for various populations during the war, I had never encountered the story of the Guernsey, which is located off the coast of Normandy, France and was surprised to find that the Germans actually brought many Guernsey residents to camps in Germany.
Tracing the histories of oppressed groups is notoriously difficult as their members may have been prevented from attaining educational or material resources that would allow them to keep records of their experiences. Or their existence may have been deemed so inconsequential that they were simply excluded from or misrepresented by larger data sources like census records, upon which researchers often rely. Consider the especially elusive nature of historical records that detail the lived experiences of nonhuman animals in a society where they are largely regarded as objects, property, or pests.
Tasked with processing the Rosina Bowers Papers series of the Hamilton Family Papers, I opened two boxes of photographs and papers as one would expect to find them in someone’s home, rather than what you would expect in the stacks of an archive. I had two initial reactions to the yet unprocessed collection. I felt privileged to work with such intimate family items, but overwhelmed. Ordinarily, when processing a collection, an archivist considers the original organization of the collection upon its arrival. So how does one go about processing two boxes of undated, unidentified photographs and personal papers that lack any organization?
The Caley Family Papers in Swem Library’s Special Collections consist of letters and diaries spanning almost seventy years and three generations of Caley female descendants. From the 1940s through the 1960s , all three generations of women lived, with no male presence, under one roof or within close distance of one another in Sierra Madre, California. The Caleys were devoutly religious, middle class white women who maintained extensive correspondence with numerous friends and family members. It appears as though none of them had employment outside the home during the last twenty to thirty years of life. They seem to have supported themselves with rental income and stock dividends.
A popular means of documenting personal interests and life events, the practice of scrapbooking dates back centuries. In contrast to the modern practice of pasting family photographs and vacation mementos onto brightly colored paper, early scrapbooks were often compilations of newspaper clippings, artwork, hand-copied quotes, and letters. In addition to being aesthetically interesting, old scrapbooks provide unique insight on the lives of their creators. What did an individual decide was worthy to keep? How does ephemera reflect personal, local, and national events?
In addition to an impressive archive of rare books, periodicals, photographs, and other physical documents, Swem Library’s Special Collections manages the W&M Digital Archive that includes both digitized versions of some parts of the physical archive (like the Flat Hat collection) and documents unique to the digital realm. This semester, I have had the privilege to further develop the digital archive by conducting, recording, and uploading oral histories.
Following my work on the Johnson-Nance Papers which I discussed in my last post, I began processing the Georgia Ragsdale Curtis Papers which I worked on during the months of November and December 2010. After this I organized a couple smaller collections before beginning work on the William Welling Papers, a collection I processed during the months of February and March 2011. Both the Ragsdale Curtis and Welling papers had similarities in the fact that they were both large, unorganized collections of documents created by or collected primarily by single individuals. The bulk of the material in both collections also dated to roughly the same time period, the 1960s and 1970s. The main parallel I drew between the two collections didn’t have to do with the documents they were made up of, though, but how I approached processing them and the transformative meaning they took as I worked my way through them. When I first started working with both the Ragsdale Curtis Papers and the Welling Papers, it was unclear what their significance was, most of the papers in each pertaining to seemingly mundane aspects of their lives. As I worked through the organization of each collection and wrote up their respective finding aids, however, I came to construct a clearer portrait of Georgia Ragsdale Curtis and William Welling and their individual importance.
At some point most of us have pondered this question. Life would just be so much easier if everything was scanned into a big database, streamlined for our convenience, and text searchable. Trust me, as a scholar in the middle of doing research for my master’s thesis, I completely understand the frustration. Sometimes the thought of trekking hours away to look at printed copies of a newspaper or becoming blinded by the dull screen of the microfilm machine reinforces the idea that digital is always better.