Making Sense of Chaos

William & Mary Commencement Program, 1926Tasked 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?

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Written Memories of Three Generations of Women (1915-1966)

Photograph of the Caley FamilyThe 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.

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Pieces of a Past Life

Booth's Theatre. C.W. Carmer Scrapbook DetailA 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?

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A Voice from the Dead

As a graduate assistant in the Special Collections Research Center in Swem Library (Swem SCRC), I have had the opportunity to do a number of exciting things, from exhibit installation to assisting during special events.  One of the main things I have done this year, however, is processing collections.  Collections come in all shapes and sizes and contain material on a variety of subjects.  Many of the collections housed here have to do with the College of William & Mary and Williamsburg.  Often, alumni and administrators donate their papers to the College, allowing researchers a hands-on, first person look at the history of William & Mary.

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Sealed in Wax and Wrapped in Vellum

One of the intriguing features of working at the Special Collections Research Center is the variety of material that I have had the opportunity to work with over the course of my time here. Between August 2010 when I began working at the SCRC until now in April 2011 I have been able to work with, process, organize, and write finding aids for several collections with diverse subjects that have fallen into a wide range of chronological periods. Some of the collections I’ve worked with have included American Civil War letters from a Union soldier in the 1860s, love letter correspondence between a young couple in 1910s and 1920s Virginia, papers of an African American civil rights activist in 1960s Virginia, early twentieth century broadsides and announcements for traveling vaudeville shows from a small Virginia printing company, late eighteenth century sale receipts and legal documents from Rockingham County, Virginia (some of which referenced the Revolution or British rule under George III), and the papers of a photographic historian of the 1970s living in New York City. The collection that I most recently finished organizing and writing a finding aid for, however, contained by far the most interesting group of documents I had the opportunity to work with over the course of the past year – the Chester McNerney Collection.

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Applying Organization and Discovering Significance

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.

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My time in Special Collections

Throughout the past month, as a part of my graduate apprenticeship I have been working with the Johnson-Nance Family Papers, a manuscript collection from the early twentieth century at Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, at the College of William and Mary. My apprenticeship at Swem began in August 2010 briefly after I moved from Tucson, Arizona to Williamsburg in order to begin my graduate studies in early American history. One of my first tasks as part of my graduate apprenticeship at Swem was to create a lesson plan for the William Taylor Correspondence, a collection consisting of letters between Taylor and his wife during his service in the Civil War. This collection was one that had already been thoroughly processed in previous years, including a finding aid, transcriptions, and digital scans of each item. When I began work on the Johnson-Nance collection I was presented me a very different task as this collection had just recently been acquired in July 2010 and entirely unprocessed.

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