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.

War/History/Claiming Voice

This week, I am working on finishing up the John Rutter Brooke Papers, the first collection I am processing as part of the Digital Center for Americana.

J.R. Brooke

J.R. Brooke

The collections that are part of the project were chosen because of their Civil War-related content, so imagine my surprise when I realized that the Brooke collection has much more to do with the US Army’s “Sioux Campaign” in 1890-1891, which culminated in the slaughter of many hundreds of Lakota Sioux men, women and children at Wounded Knee.  Brooke also sat at the helm of the military takeover of Puerto Rico and Cuba in 1898-1899.   I spent more time than I should have reading through some of the letters about the military movements and directives leading up to Wounded Knee, but I couldn’t help myself.  Knowing the outcome of the situation already, I read these letters with a pounding heart as the communications increased between December 26th and  29th.

photo taken by the 3rd Infantry division

photo taken by the 3rd Infantry division

When I am working with material dealing with the nastiest chapters of our nation’s history, I am filled with a sense of sadness and heaviness as my worst feelings about the historical legacy of the United States are confirmed before my eyes.  I felt this in my last processing project, when I was reading through papers dealing with the Chew family’s plantations and the enslaved people who suffered without assurance of adequate food or clothing or the prospect of freedom.

I struggled to maintain a sense of objectivity about the people who created this record of history.  I wondered how to give a voice to those people whose voices were silenced through their enslavement.  I tried to give their names when I knew them, so that their stories could be uncovered by researchers and ancestors.  I feel this same sense of struggle when reading about Wounded Knee.  How can the real stories of these events be told?  My instinct directs me to contact indigenous groups who are documenting their own history so that they know about these papers and can use them to tell the story of their people.

As an archivist, I know my job is not to tell my version of history, however true and real it may feel to me.  I know that my sympathies lie with the people whose voices have rarely been heard in history texts, yet my job is to present descriptions of materials without bias (as much as that is possible for anyone).  These issues were brought to the forefront of my mind at the Chew event on October 14th, which was billed as a celebration of the end of the project.

I wanted to educate the event’s attendees about how many topical areas are covered in the collection, how rich the material is, and how much it can offer to scholars and researchers.  This “celebration” turned into a contentious discussion during the Q&A (read Matthew’s post for a more detailed perspective on the evening), but it got me thinking a lot about the view we bring to our work, and the language we use to describe what we have in front of us.  It matters–all of our biases and personal views and resistances are there in the way we choose words, the way we focus our attention, and the ways we are willing (or not) to engage in debate about these issues.  The fact that these issues are in the forefront of my mind now is extremely valuable, especially as I begin to describe another collection filled with painful, and potentially volatile, material.

We have much to heal in this country–prejudices related to ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, disability, and many other things do divide us.   These collections offer us an opportunity to work toward healing these divisions by giving the power of interpretation back to the public, and offering groups whose history has been erased or covered over the chance to reclaim some of their story.  While I bear a heavy burden when it comes to the choices I make in description, by making the papers accessible and available to researchers, their voices eventually become the conversation and my voice becomes more of a background hum that tells you where to find that paper with a date and name.  I do my best to provide access points and hope that groundbreaking and thoughtful histories come next.

A controversial event

Anyone who says that people don’t care about history should have been at HSP last Wednesday night (October 14). Over 150 people attended an evening program to celebrate the successful completion of our two-year Chew Family Papers Project. The discussion at this event was lively and at times contentious, centering on how HSP has dealt with the Chew family’s involvement in slavery.

Many of you may be familiar with the Chew project through HSP’s earlier blog, “Processing the Chew Family Papers.” Archives and Conservation staff wrapped up work on this 288-linear-foot collection in July and placed a 650-page finding aid to the collection on our website. The Chew papers are an exceptionally rich collection that documents a wide range of historical topics, including land speculation and settlement, legal history and estate law, slavery in the mid-Atlantic region, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, family relationships, women’s history, children’s history, national and international politics, farming, trade, industrialization, health and medical care, surveying and city planning, and material culture, among others.

Given that the Chew family was one of the largest slaveowning families in the northern United States, this aspect of the family’s history has recently attracted a great deal of attention from African American community groups in Philadelphia that are addressing the legacy of slavery, including the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) and Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC). Both of these groups have been working with Cliveden of the National Trust, the non-profit entity that maintains the Chew family’s ancestral mansion as a historic site, as Cliveden develops interpretive and educational activities about the Chews and slavery.

The October 14th event was titled “A Chew Celebration.” The notice for this gathering read in part, “Join HSP as we celebrate the completion of the Chew Family Papers project, a two-year project to process and preserve one of the society’s most significant collections. The papers span 300 years and provide a rare insight into this elite Philadelphia family as well as into the lives of workers, slaves, servants, and women from early America.”

In a flyer distributed at our event, Minister Ari S. Merretazon, N’COBRA’s Northeast regional representative, responded, “This should not be portrayed as a moment to celebrate, but an opportunity to heal from the trauma of the crimes against humanity committed by Pennsylvania’s ‘elite.’… The Chew family legacy, whose wealth is built with torture, terrorism, and possibly homicide, cannot be celebrated in a city where the African-American population is still suffering due to the outcomes and impact of that legacy.” Merretazon’s leaflet concluded by calling on HSP and the citizens of Pennsylvania “to work collaboratively to help repair the damage done to African-Americans by the colonial system of chattel slavery by launching an educational initiative to tell the whole story.”

This leaflet highlights some of the gap in perspectives that contributed to the conflict. Given that many people (and specifically many African Americans) in Philadelphia associated the Chews with slavery, calling the event “A Chew Celebration” was not the best choice on HSP’s part. But as our publicity made clear, we were celebrating the completion of the Chew project — not the Chew family legacy — and it’s unfortunate that N’COBRA chose to equate the two.

At the event, Project Archivist Cathleen Miller gave an overview of the project, including some general background about the Chew family and the papers, explained some of what it means to process and conserve a collection, and outlined the wide range of topics represented in the collection. She then fielded questions and comments from members of the audience. (I assisted with moderating the discussion during this period.)

While some audience members asked specific questions about the project or offered positive comments about HSP’s work, others criticized Cathleen and HSP about the treatment of slavery. Several people objected to the use of the word “slaves” to describe human beings (on the grounds that it dehumanizes people by reducing them to a condition that was forced on them) and argued that “enslaved Africans” is more appropriate. Some also latched onto her use of the word “sad” to describe the Chew family’s internal conflict and decline during the later 19th century, asking why she expressed sadness about the Chews but not the people they enslaved. One woman said she wished that the Chews had been killed. Minister Merretazon spoke at some length about the need to condemn slavery and tell its story from a critical perspective.

In responding to these criticisms, Cathleen emphasized that her role as archivist was to describe the collection and make it easier for researchers to use, not conduct historical research or analysis. She said that she had struggled with the question of appropriate language around slavery. She acknowledged that the term “slave” is problematic, but said project staff used it in the finding aid (along with “negro”) to reflect wording used in the original documents and to facilitate keyword searches by researchers. Cathleen also pointed out that language is in constant flux, and terms that are considered appropriate today might not be in ten or twenty years, which further complicates efforts to describe the collection. Regarding suggestions that she was sensitive only to the Chews’ pain, she described how she was shocked and moved by papers in the collection that vividly document the buying and selling of human beings. (For more on this, see Cathleen’s earlier blog writings about slavery and the Chew papers.)

This was a difficult event and I have mixed feelings about what happened. I think that some of the comments and criticisms were inappropriate or unfair. For example, in her talk Cathleen rarely used the term “slaves” and almost always said “enslaved people” or “enslaved workers,” a point which no one in the audience acknowledged. Several of the people who spoke had clearly planned their statements in advance and were not responding to the actual presentation.

Underlying the evening’s conflict was a basic gap in expectations about archivists’ role — we were there to talk about a multi-faceted collection and our efforts to make it accessible to researchers, while many audience members expected or wanted a historical analysis and critique of one specific topic. Note that HSP has sponsored a number of programs dealing with the history of slavery and racism, and two events dealing with the anti-slavery struggle are planned for November 9 and December 2. (See HSP’s events calendar.) After the group discussion period, one African American woman I spoke with expressed thanks for all of the care and attention HSP had put into the project, and commented that a lot of the criticisms around slavery seemed to be a matter of shooting the messenger.

At the same time, I think the evening had several positive aspects. It’s great that so many people turned out for the event. Despite the tension and discomfort, we were able to hold an extended discussion as a group, followed by many individual conversations between HSP staff and audience members. I am hopeful that we can find ways to build on and continue this dialogue. HSP staff members have also been discussing how we can learn from the event, for example in our use of language and advance planning with community organizations. Even in our role as archivists, we need to be clear that our work reflects our particular perspectives – not some imaginary place of pure objectivity – and be sensitive to the limitations and pitfalls this imposes. Partly for this reason, the Chew event also highlights the importance of further developing relationships with many sectors of the community and strengthening the ethnic diversity within our organization, including our staff and board.