Teaching for a New Audience: One Archivist’s Adventure

This semester, I embarked on a new adventure: Teaching a Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI) class! From their website: “The Lifelong Learning Institute at Virginia Tech is a member-driven, volunteer organization that draws on the wealth of academic and community resources in the New River Valley to provide intellectual, cultural, and social experiences for curious adults 50 and older.” My course is called “Finding Hidden Treasures in the Archives” and its goal is to introduce the students to Virginia Tech Special Collections and University Archives, as well as learn the basic of archives/special collections generally. Since much of our instruction in the department is based around 1 session with students (2, if we’re lucky), this 5-session course with 9 students has given me a place to experiment and try out some crazy ideas! We started the first Monday in October and have one final session on the 29th. Each week, we’ve had a theme, a mini lecture on the theme & how it relates to our materials/how our materials represent the theme, learned about special collections resources, and gone hands-on with materials.

Here’s what we’ve been up to (in short form–more details in a moment):

  • Week 1: An Introduction to Special Collections and Archives–Who we are; What we do and why we do it; What we collect
  • Week 2: War and Conflict–a look at the home fronts and the battlefields of the Civil War, World War I, and World War II
  • Week 3: Hidden and Silent Voices–documenting and discussing underrepresented communities
  • Week 4: History of Science–a crash course in engineering, flight, aerospace, and technological marvels
  • (and coming up on Monday, for Week 5: Society and Pop Culture–celebration through song, advertising, food and drink, and fun locations–essentially, what people do with leisure time)
The cover slide for Week 2 featured a letter I’ve actually blogged about before, which contains a drawing of a bird (https://vtspecialcollections.wordpress.com/2017/11/20/ansil-t-bartlett-letter/)

Although I had some plans at the outset, I’ve also tried to be proactive and flexible. So, if the students were interested in a particular topic or had particular questions, I’ve tried to visit and address those through the materials and themes. As a result, some recurring “bits” have evolved. Each week, we talk about challenges to collecting materials around the theme (from the archives perspective) and challenges to researching around that theme (from the researcher perspective). So, for example, when we talked about underrepresented and minority communities:

Each week, we’ve also talked about the kinds of materials in we have that include representation of the theme. Of course, that can vary, but it’s allow us to talk about the wide range of formats we house in Special Collections. This past week, while talking about the history of science, technology, and science fiction, we looked at personal and professional manuscript materials, photographs, published books, secondary sources, maps, and even listened to part of recording of a 1969 “Face the Nation” interview with Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins (digitized from reel-to-reel). Since the Michael Collins collection also includes artifacts and even a painting, it was also a great opportunity to talk about some 3-D objects like this statue and our 19th century stove:

Each week, we’ve also talked about and looked at resources available through Special Collections: digital collections, finding aids, catalog records, and LibGuides. I’ve made up one “cheat sheet” for our resources and collections, and hope to have another done for our final session about locating materials online and at other archives and special collections. And as the final part of each week, we go hands-on with materials. Some of initial plans have gone out the window, but during our week on war and conflict, I tried something new. We had nine items (three from the Civil War, three from World War I, and three from World War II), one for each student. They had a few minutes to study their item and come up with some keywords. Using a whiteboard, we were able to list out some of those keywords and see where the similarities and differences emerged across and between conflicts.

The nice thing about teaching around a theme is that I’ve been able to look for–and find–connections between our main subject areas that I might not have otherwise considered. So, for example, when we talked about the history of science/technology, I started thinking about transportation. I pulled together a picture of a mule-driven team for hauling coal, images of railroad engines, and pictures taken of the lunar module from Apollo XI. The idea of getting from one form of transport to another was something I had certainly thought about, but never put together in this specific way to share with an audience. And the thing that has surprised me is how many questions the students have! (The “curious” part of the description of LLI is no lie!) There are lots of questions about the materials, but also many on the more practical, logistical, and functional aspects of archivists and archives (or what I lovingly call “how the sausage is made”). While I love to talk about these topics, when teaching a single 50 minute session, you don’t usually have time to get into those kinds of details. The majority of my work is behind-the-scenes, with a focus on making materials accessible, so it’s fun to able to talk about what I do in a day, show people the finished product, and share my enthusiasm for why I do it.

While we still have a week to go, I have had SO MUCH FUN teaching this course. I’m especially looking forward to our last week, when we’ll look at diaries, sheet music, photographs, ephemera from social events, a scrapbook, and food & cocktail history (among other things). There is a lot we have historically done with our leisure time, but we don’t often try to talk about all of it at once! So, I hope we get to talk about why we do them (what makes them “fun”), what these kinds of activities have in common, and how they differ. Instruction isn’t something I do too often, but I love engaging with students of any age, when it gives me a chance to be an advocate for archives. I really enjoy sharing our collections and connecting students (and researchers) to materials. With this LLI class, I think we’re all learning from each other….and having fun!

Students on the New River
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Altered Images and Words: A Call for Creative Submissions

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Make an animation. Make a gif. Make a collage. Write some microfiction. Write a poem. Get out your digital black-out marker to create some redacted poetry. Make something entirely unique that was inspired by an image or string of text. Remix and stretch your creativity. Archives are here to inspire!

Archives matter. They preserve records of human history and offer glimpses into the past. Historians mine them for the sources that make up their books and artists, musicians, and writers pull inspiration for their creative works. Genealogists seek out threads of family history and alumni find scholastic treasures.

October is American Archives Month and to celebrate special collections departments everywhere we’re holding an Archives Remix event all month long. Take some inspiration from the Virginia Tech Library archives and stretch your creative muscles by producing a visual or written work that uses one or more of the VT Special Collections images that are posted above.

Share your work on social media (Twitter or Instagram), tag #VTArchivesRemix and @VT_SCUA, and let us know which image(s) inspired your work. We’ll be sharing your artwork and written pieces all month long!

Send us your creations:

Crumbling under the weight of words:
Send us a piece of microfiction inspired by one or more of the images. Economy is key, so make sure to exercise efficiency of language. Submissions should be 200 words or less.

Altered images:
Use one or more of the images to create a new visual work. Think beyond boundaries and remix the images with your own work or repeat elements of the same picture to create something entirely new. Stills or animations, collages, videos, photographs, memes—we want to see it all.

Brief and bold:
Poetry is the ultimate in brevity and elegance of prose–no room for stray words or useless turns of phrase. Take inspiration from a fleeting image or line of text. Redact words on an existing page to unveil something entirely new. We can’t wait to read your poems, written or redacted.

Choose from the following images to inspire your own works:


Need a little extra inspiration?

  • Read this incredibly moving microfiction piece, Sticks, by George Saunders.
  • Explore eleven amazing pieces of microfiction.
  • View some collages and gifs from the Mid-Atlantic Region Archivists Conference (MARAC) and from the Library of Congress.

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  • Learn about redacted poetry and read some phenomenal examples.
  • Delve into practice with this Atlantic article about the process Lydia Davis uses to create her very short stories. It’s worth visiting just to read her 69-word composition In a House Besieged.

Check out the following link if you want to see more images and consider also entering the Virginia Archives Month 2018 Archival Oddities Remix Contest.

We can’t wait to see what you produce!

Osborne 1 Portable Microcomputer

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Osborne 1 Microcomputer in portable configuration
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Osborne 1 Microcomputer in operational configuration

We recently received an Osborne 1 Portable Microcomputer as a donation from Virginia Tech alumnus, Bob Sweeney. We asked him some questions about his background and this computer. Here are his answers:

Q: Tell us a little about your background as it relates to computing in the 1970s-1980s.

A: At the time, I was a technical writer for a software house that developed products for the HP-3000. We were a small company and I could not always get access to a terminal to access the LARC-3000 word processor I used (Los Altos Research Center – chosen because it spelled Larc, as in “Going out on a larc.”). I was an experienced TW, but this job was the first that allowed me to us a WP.  Well, allowed is the wrong word. My buddy – Steve White, VT Class of 1962 – was our head of sales. I mentioned to him that I was ready for my manuscript to go to the typing pool. He replied, “Bob, we’re a computer company.  You use the computer.” (I never wanted to do it any other way again.  I’d spent 2/3rd of my time proofreading!)

Q: What initially attracted you to the Osborne 1?

A: The Osborne 1 ads showed people carrying the machine in elevators, buses, through an airport. At $1600 with a printer and a bundle of software, this was an affordable machine. When I bought the O1, for instance, a business man was buying a comparable machine (same printer, same processor, same drive, same memory) and he paid twice as much for his IBM. By the by, you probably can find one of those ads online.

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Osborne 1 ad c.1981

Q: What was your experience with the computer? Did it work as advertised?

A: It was great! I used its WordStar WP to do my stuff at home and prepare files for the HP. (LARC-3000 was an embedded-command WP. For example, like HTML, <b>….</b> for bold, <p>…</p> for paragraphs.) I could encode the files for HP. With a simple application (included) I could conduct work as though the Osborne was a terminal to the HP. Best of all, I could save my files on a floppy, allowing me to work at home, offline!

I loved the Epson printer, too. In fact, I had trouble reloading the paper one day. I got out the manual and was surprised to find no loading instructions! In frustration, I tried again. The path was so simple, if you just stuck the paper in, it would load properly! I’d thought too hard about it!

Q: The computer was advertised as portable, did you transport it from place to place like one would with a modern laptop?

A: Yes, I carried it from home to work and back. But best of all, we were working on a proposal with a customer in Boston. We took the Osborne up with us on the plane and that night updated the propsal!

Q: What was your favorite thing about this computer?

A: That flexibility. WordStar was easy to use. There was also Basic and VisiCal, although I used neither much. We did do several proposals and business plans using the Visicalc and its links to WordStar (A mail merge function). (If I remember, VisiCalc was the first spreadsheet for microcomputers. We could probably dump it into LARC-3000, too.)

Q: What was your least favorite thing?

A: As you’ve seen, the screen is small! I got a magnifier for the screen, but my nephew – with good eyes – threw it away!

Q: Why did you decide to find a home for the computer rather than recycling it as many would do?

A: It has no value, so I just couldn’t send it off to some beach in India. It was my first and started me out on a career of the future. I still marvel at how any writer did it in the old days! You spent twice as much – possibly three times as much – of your days proofing than writing. (Of course, we also had to learn a new skill – usually from several hard experiences – backing up.

Q: Is there anything more you would like to share about the Osborne 1 Computer?

A: Not as famous as the Apple, but the Osborne 1 was an important step for businesses in the computer revolution. They would be better known if they’d developed an IBM clone. They did have a machine with a larger screen, but it was still CP/M.

Some Computer History

When looking at history, we often ascribe specific importance to that which is first. For example, in 1911 Roald Amundsen from Norway was the first person to reach the South Pole and in 1926 he was recognized as the first person to reach the North Pole. Regardless of the objective truth of these claims (whether indigenous people reached the North Pole before him) he is granted a certain cachet by being recognized as the first. You can find an entire list of similar firsts on Biography Online‘s site.

What does all of this have to do with the Osborne 1 portable microcomputer? Well, it is one of those special things that is special because of its status as first. The Osborne 1 was the first portable microcomputer. For those not familiar with computing history, this was the first (type of) computer (the woman, not the machine):

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Computer at her work with microscope and the Friden calculating machine. (NASA).

After human computers came large room-sized machines such as the Harvard Mark 1 in 1944.

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Harvard Mark 1 room sized computer. 1944. (computerhistory.org)

As the world of computer technology progressed through the later half of the 1940s and through the 1950s and 1960s, improvements to computer technology were developed and introduced. Punch card input gave way to keyboard input. Components got smaller, leading to “microcomputers” which are just computers that are small. The term generally refers to computers smaller than room sized. Screens were added. Networking via phone lines was added. New and exciting programming languages were created.

As the 1970s progressed, we saw the introduction of the first personal computers (meaning small machines that were within the grasp of an individual to own/operate) from companies such as IBM, with the IBM 5150 Personal Computer being released in 1981. The 5150 followed a great deal of work by IBM in developing a commercial personal computer. Their main competitor was Xerox who introduced the Xerox PARC Alto (a computer that we would recognize today – with a monitor, mouse, and keyboard) in 1974.

In 1976, Apple released the Apple I and then followed with the Apple II in 1977. That year, Tandy Radio Shack (TRS) released their TRS-80, Atari released their computer gaming console, and Commodore entered the market with the PET. Computers were entering the public consciousness and it wasn’t unheard of for people to have a computer at home. It was also becoming much more commonplace to have one at work. During this time, the subject of portable computers was a hot topic and there were entrants to the space as early as 1973 (HP-9830A). Still, an affordable, easily portable personal computer was something that remained mostly a dream until the Osborne 1 was announced in 1981.

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Osborne 1 ad: Afghani Mujahadeen posing with the Osborne 1. c.1981

The Osborne 1 was billed as revolutionary, hence the ad featuring the Mujahadeen. It was the first really portable computer. It weighed 24 pounds and came in a case designed to absorb the inevitable knocks it would receive being transported from place to place. It was the first product of the Osborne Computer Corporation, named for its founder Adam Osborne, and known for lending its name to the Osborne Effect – a company going out of business by announcing a new product too soon and killing sales of their current product. Despite its demise in 1985, the Osborne Computer Corporation succeeded in producing a viable portable computer

The corporation had effective marketing and certainly grabbed the attention of the computer-savvy business professional of the early 1980s.

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BYTE magazine, March 1982, page 33
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BYTE magazine, August 1981, page 35

And, Interface Age magazine whose tag line was “published for the home computerist” named it an “outstanding buy” in November of 1981.

Our Osborne 1 is the first of what we hope will be many classic computers housed in Special Collections and available for the public to interact with. If you want to see this piece of computing history, stop by Special Collections in Newman Library anytime Monday-Friday 8:00 AM-5:00 PM.

Trajectories of an Architect’s Design Sensibilities: From Student to Practitioner

Model of architectural design project.
Austellungsbau—Variabel—Transportabel, Architectural model, 1962

The beginning of the fall semester and the nearly overnight return to a bustling and lively campus provides a good opportunity to reflect on the essential thing that we do, which is to educate. Student works are common discoveries in the collections that form the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA) and can tell us either about an architect’s own practice or their methods of classroom instruction. This post will focus on the former, with an eye to the role that archival collections can play in examining design sensibilities within the context of a developing architectural practice.

Drawing showing elevation and site plan sketches.
Concept drawing, Bahamas Nursing School, c. 1985.

One of the most profound ways to understand the progression of the aesthetic sensibilities of a creative professional is to examine their works (including inspirational materials, writing, and sketches) across their career. Looking at materials that span years—or even decades—offers a glimpse into how their style evolved, was refined, stayed constant, or in some cases shifted radically. With architects it is possible to trace the development not only of their design considerations, but also the changes in drawing techniques, enhanced observational skills, and a deeper understanding of spaces. It is often possible to see how they refine and expand their understanding of the outer world, visual culture, and the impact of spaces on the people who inhabit them.

Photograph of architectural model.
Austellungsbau—Variabel—Transportabel, Architectural model, 1962

The Exhibition Hall—Variable—Transportable project was completed by Dorothee Stelzer King while she was an architecture student at the Hochschule fur Bildende Kunste in Berlin, Germany. Completed the same year that she received her degree, the project was based on a first-year design exercise involving the enlargement of a simple shape to create a complex design without adding extra material to the final structure.

Document outlining requirements and development of the project.
Description and requirements of the award-winning portable exhibition hall project.

 

Drawing showing interlocking shapes.
Concept drawing showing how a basic triangle is repeated and extended to create interlocking stars and circular forms that in turn interlock to create flexible, modular shapes.

 

Elevations, site plans, and details.
Elevations, site plans, and detail drawings for Austellungsbau—Variabel—Transportabel.

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The Dorothee Stelzer King collection also contains works that the architect completed at various points during her professional career, allowing researchers to study the progression of her designs over time. The series of concept drawings and plans for the Bahamas Nursing School in Nassau, Bahamas, shows King’s attention to understanding how educational spaces and their inhabitants interact. While the drawings show a move away from the more experimental design work seen in Exhibition Hall—Variable—Transportable, they showcase a greater understanding of the practical nature of educational facilities and the importance of proper acoustics, seating, structural elements, and paths of movement through interior spaces.

 

Site plan drawing.
Location plan, Bahamas Nursing School, April 16, 1985.

 

Construction photos.
Construction photographs showing exterior and interior spaces, including structural elements, of the Bahamas Nursing School project.

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Many other student and professional design projects and records can be accessed in the Special Collections Reading Room at Virginia Tech. The finding aid for the Dorothee Stelzer King Architectural Collection can be viewed online at Virginia Heritage. The collection is currently being digitized with funding from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) and will be available in full through the Virginia Tech digital library.

N. B. White, Reporting from Boliver Heights

In October of 1962, Private N. B. White was at Boliver Heights, not far from Harper’s Ferry. White is likely N. Berdett White, a private in Company B of the 145th Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry. On the 19th of the month, he wrote a letter to his cousin, Darius, in reply to one received on the 12th. Like many soldiers, he offers an account of mutual acquaintances and fellow soldiers: who has fallen ill (measles was making the rounds), who was on picket duty, who has or hasn’t written (or should write more!), a request for news, and even an apology for his spelling (“I dont know that I can think of eny more for my bad writing and spelling”). Like many other Civil War letters from soldiers, it offers us a snapshot of White’s days in mid-October. But in the middle, he has a rather interesting story to tell. First, here’s the letter itself. We’ll get to that story…and a transcript…shortly.

Around the start of page three above, in the midst of telling his cousin about his own sickness and a recent fight, he suddenly states “there was a grate explosen the other day.” That, of course, might catch someone’s attention–as it did ours here at Special Collections. He goes one: some of the men built an arch to cook on. there was fore cooking the other day and there happened to be a shell in the dirt under the arch and when they built the fire the shell bursted and kild fore men.” White then goes back to talking about who his cousin got a letter from and who he wants to write him. He skips right over the lessons we might learn from this story: Always look where you dig? Don’t light a fire until you know there’s nothing under it? Don’t stand near a cooking spot someone else built? It seems like there could be several takeaways. White, however, seems to place it in a different context. And “context,” I think, is the key word.

To us–or to me, at any rate, as someone who spends too much time around food history–I find this surprise story fascinating. What did this cooking arch look like? What was it about that particular spot that seemed appropriate to build one? Was there any hint of something beneath the surface? What where they planning to cook? What kind of supplies did this Union regiment have relatively early in the war? For White, this was an off the cuff mention. After all, wasn’t the news of the recent fighting, in which no one was killed and only seven wounded, far more important than an accidental explosion and death of four men? Isn’t it better to focus on who is still alive, rather than think about who has died, especially during wartime? In the context of the time and his letter, most certainly. And of course, White had no idea his letter would last 156 years and I would have questions about this incident and he may not have had the details himself. He may have simply included it because it was an event of note or because it was something different to report back home.

If you’d like a little more context for this collection, the finding aid is available online. As a final note, this letter came with a transcript, so here’s the content in its entirety (I just didn’t want to spoil it before). Enjoy!

Announcing a New Look for the Special Collections Website

If you’ve been to the Special Collections website recently, you already know – it looks brand new! If you haven’t seen it, please visit it at https://spec.lib.vt.edu/.

Here are screenshots comparing the old (left) and new (right) Special Collections website designs:

We’ve been discussing a redesign of the website for a while now, but with the rebranding of the Virginia Tech website, the University Libraries have been working all year on putting its pages into the new VT design theme. And now, Special Collections is part of this new design!

The new website aims to make finding materials easier by including a search box on the main page for digital content, such as digitized letters and photographs from our collections, and for finding aids, which describe our manuscript and archival collections. Menus at the top and sidebars on each page organize the content of the website into specific areas and minimize the number of pages you have to click thru to find the information you need.

We’re still planning on some minor additions, such as changing images in the banner on the main page and adding smaller images on some of the other pages. If you have any recommendations, please contact us with ideas!

New ImageBase website

On a related note, our ImageBase website has also been redesigned to fit into the new theme. If you haven’t seen it, please visit it at https://imagebase.lib.vt.edu/.

Here are screenshots comparing the old (left) and new (right) ImageBase website designs:

The organization and content of ImageBase remain the same, but the design fits in with the Virginia Tech and University Libraries’ new design. The old logo has been retired, and we are currently working on a new banner for the main page, similar to that on the new Special Collections website. If you have any recommendations, please contact us with ideas!

Barn Raising: Documenting an Architectural Transformation

Architectural documentation evolves throughout a project’s life-cycle: ideas are conceptualized and committed to paper for the first time in the form of rough sketches, then iterated through during the collaborative design development phase, then, after meticulous research and calculation, transformed into construction or working documents and specifications. Designs are refined, change orders made, and construction and as-built photographs shot. What’s left in the end is a mass of records that instill in the viewer a sense of the design process, ideally.

To illustrate this cycle, I’ve put together a gallery of images from one of Eleanore Pettersen‘s projects, in which she transformed a dilapidated barn into a residential and studio space for her own use (the project did not, in fact, involve any actual barn raising, as my title may have confusingly suggested!). Looking through these pictures, her achievement really feels remarkable – I can’t help but admire the execution of her vision and wonder at this dramatic metamorphosis. Please, peruse at your leisure!

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Rough sketches on legal pad paper, with particular attention to spatial details and measurements

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Photographs showing the space before undergoing renovations
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Sketches refined throughout the design development phase of the project

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Precisely defined and unambiguous detail rendered beautifully
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Reproductions made for site work
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Spotlight on the project in The American Home

 

 

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Photograph of Pettersen in her converted home