Further thoughts on processing and the Greenfield papers

Arranging work on the Albert M. Greenfield papers is almost done but we have lots of work to do to complete the finding aid. This collection is very large, so it’s taking us a lot of time to input the collection’s data into Archivists’ Toolkit, the software we’re using here to create EAD finding aids.

Originally the collection consisted of 547 boxes, most of which were cartons holding between 35 and 50 folders, depending on their size. Since these cartons were too heavy, we needed to transfer everything to letter size boxes sorting first through documents that did not fit into the new boxes in order to house them separately. These are now in legal tall boxes or in custom boxes and enclosures made by Leah Mackin, from HSP’s Preservation Lab staff. The remaining folders, once rehoused, were given new numbers according to their sequence in the new boxes. We now have approximately 1,148 boxes and an estimated total of 18,000 folders. All these folders have individual titles and, one by one they need to go into our database. It’s a pretty straight forward but time consuming task.

This work has brought a thought I’ve been struggling with for the last month: how do I achieve a balance between the ideal way in which a collection should be processed (and here I’m thinking not only about archival standards but also about the pride one takes when finishing a good product) and the need for researchers to access a collection right now?  After all, as archivists and librarians our main goal is to provide access to collections. You could argue that if that is not done – no matter the reasons, arguments, and excuses to “justify” that a collection is not available – then you are straying from the ultimate goal of what information providers are supposed to do.

Time is one of the main reasons we can’t have all collections beautifully arranged. (Of course there are also monetary reasons. Budgetary constraints, especially these days, sometimes put limits on what we would like to accomplish. Additionally, the time issue is directly affected by money, as any archivist can attest to.) Philosophical arguments against processing collections in detail are also part of the equation. However, I am of the opinion that in some cases where collections are processed using the “More Product Less Process” approach, access to the collections is improved even though some may argue that MPLP is far from the ideal way to process a collection.

If we put aside time, budget, and MPLP, how do we achieve a balance between what we think needs to be done and the pressure from researchers to have immediate access to materials not available anywhere else? (Let’s not forget that one of the main differences between an archive and a library is that, in theory, the former holds unique materials – in most cases manuscripts – and the latter features printed items published in high quantities that may be available either in other libraries, in bookstores, or through interlibrary loan services). I do think and work under the assumption that everything we do has to have the researcher as the crucial element when making decisions regarding the collection. This is also the reasoning behind my opinion on how extensive and deep our narratives about the collection should be. Is it our job to interpret or just to describe? What happens when describing entails interpretation? But this is for another post.

The problem in achieving balance arises when you have to make decisions in order to provide access knowing the physical and/or intellectual state of the collection is far from ideal. Fortunately, my experience in the humanities side of academia have taught me researchers interested in a subject will not care if collections are not ideally arranged as long as they have access to them. This fact should ameliorate the problem at least a bit. I do not pretend to oversimplify a situation that encompasses far more circumstances than the ones I’ve mentioned, but I have a feeling that archivist’s reputations are not going to suffer if we put access before the desirable organization of the materials. At least until we have the time and money to do both on a consistent basis.

What constitutes a draft of the U.S. Constitution?

Posted on behalf of Lee Arnold, HSP Library Director

What constitutes a draft of the U.S. Constitution?  This sounds like a rather simple question, but it is actually very complex.  The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) is home to millions of documents.  Of these, we have considered six of them Constitutions.  HSP has what we call the First and Second Drafts (both in James Wilson’s hand),  Edmund Randolph’s copy of the First Printed Draft, Jacob Broom’s copy of the Second Printed Draft, one of the “official” copies printed for the Constitutional Convention, and the Pennsylvania Packet printing of the Constitution (the first public printing of this document).

The first page of the first draft of the United States Constitution

The first page of the second draft of the United States Constitution

Recently a researcher, examining the second volume of the James Wilson Papers, came across a document (we’ll call it Mystery Page 63) which she believes is not only part of a Constitutional draft, but is actually a page two of a third draft of the Constitution. Here is where it gets tricky.  On the backside of the second sheet of Wilson’s First Draft, there are three upside down paragraphs with the opening wording “We the People…”  Scholars have always been aware of this “upside down” text. They have also known about page 63. The text has been published and used by scholars for a century, since Max Farrand published a transcript of this document, and even linked it with the “upside down” text in 1911. Generally, scholars have described this document as more notes from the Committee of Detail than as an actual draft.

The "upside down" paragraphs on the back of the second sheet of Wilson's first draft

The researcher who called our attention to Page 63 of the Wilson Papers believes that the “upside down” text is really the first page of another Constitutional Draft (and Page 63 being the second).  What do you think?

Front view of page 63

Front view of page 63

Back view of page 63

We have provided links to several of these documents as well as soliciting Constitutional scholars for their thoughts.   Whether folks believe this is a new found draft or simply notes from the Constitutional Convention, there is one point both sides can agree on.  HSP’s collection of Constitutional documents allow researchers to study the entire process of the making of this great document: from Wilson’s first pass at pen to paper all the way to the first public printing in the Pennsylvania Packet newspaper.    The role of the staff at the Historical Society is to keep these documents in a safe, archivally secure environment and to facilitate research.  We have been doing so since 1824.  Your support of HSP allows us to continue to do so for another 186 years.

We welcome your thoughts.

Read the 2004 article “Treasures from the Founding of the Nation” covering different versions of the U.S. Constitution held at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Transcription of page 63:

from The records of the Federal convention of 1787, Issue 2  By United States. Constitutional Convention, Max Farrand, pg 151from The records of the Federal convention of 1787, Issue 2  By United States. Constitutional Convention, Max Farrand, pg 152

What use is a blog?

Spurred by a spate of positive comments about, first, the Chew blog and now Fondly, Pennsylvania, I have been thinking a lot about how readers use the information they gather from following our blog offerings.

I was really pleased to know that Seth Bruggeman has been using our blogs in his Public History and American Studies classes at Temple, and equally excited to have Timothy, one of Seth’s students, blogging with us here.  I know that several other professors have used the Chew blog in their history courses, and I recently heard from Matt Herbison that Susan Davis has also used the Chew blog in her archives courses at Drexel.  All of this leaves me cheering.  I have connected with other archives bloggers about what they’re doing, and it has helped me to shape my ideas about how to use this valuable resource.  This whole digital community idea seems to be unfolding beautifully.  The only part missing is direct feedback from users.

How do we know what will mean something to you, our dear readers?  How can we keep you reading along?  How can we serve up the most interesting, tantalizing behind the scenes views from our shop?


I guess, in many ways, this is always the problem with information management.  We provide many tools to our users, but it is sometimes difficult to know which ones serve them best.  So we do user studies or solicit feedback from our patrons.  Or we just guess.

Up until now, we’ve just been guessing here at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  We’re putting out the stories of what we’re doing, and people seem to be reading along, but we don’t really know why.  Is it because we have a nice look about us?  Do you appreciate our sometimes serious, sometimes silly approach?  Or is it really the collections that grab you?  What pleases you?

No, really, I’m asking…

I would love to hear from you–any and all of you–about how you use our blogs.  Please leave us a comment to tell us what you love, what you wish there were more of, and even what you could really do without.  Tell us what you do with the information you gather here–is it sheerly for pleasure?  Are you an archivist, conservator, or historian who likes to keep up with the field?  What use is this blog to you?  I would especially encourage those of you who were followers of the Chew blog and have now migrated to Fondly, Pennsylvania to respond.  I really look forward to hearing from some of you.

Thank you for reading, and for your thoughtful feedback.

Fondly,  Cathleen

The Fruits of Our “Ghost Writer”

Followers of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s Question of the Week may already be familiar with Albert J. Edmunds, HSP’s former cataloger and (alleged) resident ghost. From 1891 to 1936, Albert was responsible for describing and subject cataloging HSP’s diverse set of collection material, creating many of the handwritten and, later, typed catalog cards that are still used to access our collections today—and perhaps still typed today by Albert’s spirit, as goes the local folklore.

Haunted Library Catalog Card

Albert cataloged his own work, which details a supernatural experience.

HSP Collection

The HSP staff in 1903; Albert is seated at the right in the back row.

While some may find HSP’s continued use of a card catalog quaint (or perhaps as a de facto tribute to Albert himself), others cannot deny its limited nature as an information access tool. Certainly this was recognized in the late 1990s when HSP worked with a vendor to digitally convert over 250,000 catalog cards (only those related to our print and genealogical materials) to MARC records. These records were ultimately migrated to our current OPAC (Online Public Access Catalog) system, where remote and on-site users, as well as staff could much more easily and time-efficiently conduct their research via the Web.

Today, HSP’s 565,700 remaining catalog cards (i.e., those relating to our manuscript, broadside, music, African American, and graphics collections) exist in physical format only. However, as part of the Digital Center for Americana project, the 17,400 graphics cards will ultimately enter the digital realm via our soon-to-be-adopted Digital Asset Management System (DAMS). By adding the graphics catalog cards’ content to our DAMS, patrons and staff will have the ability to search and retrieve, for example, a photograph’s descriptive information alongside a digital reproduction of the photograph itself, bringing access to HSP’s visual material to an entirely new level. HSP will achieve the catalog conversion by again working with a vendor to digitally reformat the cards, the content of which then will be exported to CollectiveAccess, an open-source, web browser-based software that will manage all of HSP’s extant and future digital assets, including digital surrogates of physical collection material and born-digital collection objects. The catalog conversion work is expected to begin in the next few months. Adoption of CollectiveAccess is expected to take place in early 2010 and will initially showcase HSP’s ~3000-image digital collection, most of which were created to fulfill external reproduction orders throughout the years. The Digital Center for Americana project will yield approximately 5,000 new digital images. And digitization of our graphics collection material is expected to be ongoing and added to the DAMS regularly.