For nine and a half years, I’ve been working at Special Collections and have been doing instruction just about since I started. After being an observer for one class and anticipating my own first class to follow shortly, I asked myself a basic question that I remember quite well. “What do I want to communicate about Special Collections to a group of students, most of whom have never visited an archival repository before or worked with original primary sources?” Yes, yes, the rules are different here. Explain why. That can lead nicely into a general description of the kinds of materials found here. Sure. No appointment or invitation is necessary. We’re a friendly bunch, after all. Talk about primary sources. What’s a finding aid? All of these came to mind, along with various other important details, all to be ordered in a clear, comprehensive, and understandable way. Describe the materials kept here and how to find them. Talk about collecting areas. All good. All necessary, but, taken together, insufficient.
We also want to give students the experience of interacting with primary sources: to see them up close, to hold them (carefully), to get a sense of how they might be useful in research, to judge the challenges they may present, or to be startled by the surprises they may hold.
So, we assemble an exercise in which all members of the class get to choose from a selection of largely unidentified items from various collections and spend a few brief moments with the material they’ve chosen. Most likely, it’ll be from a manuscript collection, that is, it’ll be some kind of unpublished primary source. After those few moments, they’ll be asked to talk a bit about the item(s) they’ve picked. The hope is that with as many students as possible talking briefly about the materials they’ve chosen, everyone in the class will leave the session with a better idea about the kinds of materials held at Special Collections.
That may be the low bar of an adequate objective, but it’s not all we really want to encourage. What we really want is to present an opportunity to create a connection between student and primary sources, broadly considered, through an initial, singular experience.
Sometimes that experience depends on pure happenstance. A student beginning work on rationing on the homefront during World War II drew a folder that contained rationing materials that belonged to a nearby Giles Co. family and included a small box of Office of Price Administration (OPA) Red Point ration tokens. These tokens, used for change when buying meats and fats with ration stamps, were first issued in 1944. She was thrilled to see these for the first time, to have the actual materials in front of her.
Another coincidence involved a member of the Corps of Cadets who happened to choose a folder containing a single sheet of paper marked “Reply by V . . .-Mail” at the bottom and “Lt. J.W. Monteith” written in at the top as the sender. The date on the letter is May 27, 1944. I swear that I did not give this particular folder to this fellow, whose eyes lit up and jaw dropped with the recognition that he was holding a letter written about ten days before Monteith, a cadet at Tech in the late 1930s, took part in the assault on Omaha beach during the Normandy invasion. Lt. Monteith was killed that June 6th day and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. Like many (all?) cadets to this day, the cadet in the class knew Monteith’s entire story. I’m guessing, this was not what he expected from a class session at the library!
Honestly, situations like this happen quite often. Both of these incidents happened within the last couple of weeks. Ideally, we’d like students to experience these kinds of connections. Sometimes a connection may occur on the basis of an interest; sometimes it may be more emotional, or anywhere on a scale between the two. In that connection is an initial understanding of the potential power of primary sources. This is what we hope to communicate, especially to students who have not previously had the opportunity to work with these kinds of materials, for example, letters, diaries, journals, correspondence of all kinds, family papers, even legal and business records.
Some instances do depend on luck, as is the case with the two examples above. The right person choosing the right document, though even having one classmate describe a document meaningful to another can have the same effect. Who knows which student will be stirred by the first commercial announcement for the new Lime Jell-o (1930, for all of you who care) or by a police blotter from the Bowery district of New York in 1861. I am still absolutely wowed by a 27 July 1969, post-Apollo 11 letter from Charles Lindbergh to astronaut Michael Collins!
Then, there are some documents that, hopefully, have a wider impact.
Take a look at this document. Don’t even read it. Just look at it. (Click on each image to get a closer look.)
What do you see? It’s a letter, yes. Is it just me, or isn’t it beautiful to look at? The handwriting is gorgeous. Even if you’re not used to reading cursive writing, it’s clear and easy to read. The paper is accented with a red rule on the top of the first page and blue one down the side of that page. Maybe you couldn’t help but notice the date, January 28, 1863; the location, Philadelphia; or the formal salutation, “Dear Sir.” Now read that first line:
I have just received through your kindness the painfull intelligence of my son’s death.
The beauty of the letter as an object and the foreign quality of the language in that first sentence anticipate the power of its meaning, which comes that much more powerfully precisely because of those two prior elements. The son of Isaac and Elizabeth Carver (she wrote the letter) has died. He’s not named and the circumstances of his death are not specified, though the date and place provide likely clues to both. Charles Carver, 19 years old in 1860 and, in 1862, a private in G Company, 121st Regiment, Pennsylvania Infantry, was wounded at Fredericksburg and died some five weeks later. Like so many documents, this letter raises more questions than it answers and invites the reader to discover its stories while delivering an emotional blow that all can understand.
Written some sixty-six years earlier is another document I often use in the classroom.
Here the writing is more difficult, as is the language. The date may be the first thing to jump out at a reader, in part because it comes before a line break and, thus, stands out a bit more: 27 September 1796. Here, part of the power lies, first, not in the document’s uniqueness, but in its ubiquity, for its day. In 18th-century America and the first half of the 19th, this kind of document was exceedingly common.
Know all men by these presents that I John Edwards of Rockbridge County with my security John Dunlap & William Johnson of Greenbrier County am held and firmly bound unto Joseph Dickson in the just sum of one hundred ten pounds current money of Virginia to be paid to sd [said] Dickson by sd Edwards or security in witness whereof we have hereunto set our hands & seals this 27th day of September 1796.
The language will sound strange to folks not used to it, but it is, likely, recognizable as legal language. John Edwards is paying Joseph Dickson £110 for something. Of course, the something, in this case, someone, becomes clear in the second paragraph, “a Negro boy named Elijah.”
The ubiquity of this kind of document, a bill of sale for a slave, in the Virginia of 1796 is tied fast to the fate of a specific individual, in this case, the young Elijah. Both characteristics of the document are contained in this single sheet that represents the sale of one human being to another. A note on the reverse of the document tells us that Elijah is 12 years old and weighs 77 pounds. I suggest, if you let yourself realize it, there is great power in this document, precisely both in the commonness of its form and in the specificity of its effect.
In these materials are the potential power of primary source documents that we, as archivists, wish to communicate and share. Of course, these documents are each just one out of a larger collection of materials. Also, recognizing the power of primary sources is just the beginning, not an end in itself. But for students who haven’t had the opportunity to work with materials like these, it’s an important element of starting out. It’s the introduction with a bang, the “wow” that we hope to make possible! Any document is just a piece of a story, a part of a thread of a research question or an element that fills out one’s own interest.
Story is, I think, part of what drove Trudy Harrington Becker’s First-Year Experience History class (HIST1004) in it’s effort to transcribe the letters of Joseph F. Ware this past fall. With nearly 50 students tasked to work with 100-year-old letters written in a cursive script that was often not easy to read, I was first amazed and then very impressed by the determination, excitement, and downright fervor they brought to the assignment. My first thought was to have folks work in small groups, each with a single letter. No, no, every student would get a letter to work on! There are, after all, more than 100 letters in the collection. As two colleagues and I hustled around from table to table, helping folks who were stuck on this word or that phrase, it was clear that everyone was ENGAGED! Folks who finished their first letters were asking for more! A second session with the class turned into a third.
At first, the desire to simply read and make sense of an initial letter seemed to provide more than enough motivation. The students knew only a few general facts about Ware. He had been Commandant to the VPI Corp of Cadets from 1911 to 1914 before resuming his Regular Army commission prior to American involvement in World War I. They began with his wartime letters from France written to his wife, Susie, in Blacksburg. Then, there were the letters home from training sites and other posts prior to his departure for France, along with a few post-war letters. Fifty students in a room all transcribing letters that each tell part of a story led to what became an irresistible incentive to know the full story, to know what happened. There were long separations between husband and wife, wartime wounds, and a young son, among other facts to consider. Students were no longer talking as much to their classmates about this or that word, but asking, “What happened in Paris?” or “Did Ware return to Blacksburg?” The outlines of the story needed to be filled in.
If Ware’s letters provided the impetus to learn of his larger story, they also supplied the gateway to a range of inquiries into broader historical themes taken up by the class. At the end of their semester, these students presented the results of their work in a series of digital posters in an exhibit open to the public. Drawn from Ware’s own texts, they highlight, for example, not only Ware’s personal story and the toll the war took on him and his family, but also, for example, the American conduct of the war and the nation’s attitudes toward the war and its leaders.
Here, then, is an example of the power of primary sources to fire the imagination and propel further inquiry. At its heart, this is what we want to instill in students. This is the experience we want to provide. The project of any archival repository is not to just preserve history, but to preserve its materiality in order to provide it to following generations for further use. Though obvious to any archivist or historian, this simple point is not necessarily clear to a student—or anyone—who has not yet experienced the archives or had any reason to consider the question.
Of course, students aren’t the only folks who get to recognize the excitement of discovering the possibilities embedded in an archival collection. To bring this long post to a close, I’ll mention one last story, mostly because it shows how the activities of the “Special Collections classroom” and exposure to the power and value of primary sources can truly be preparation for future scholarly endeavor.
Back in May 2014, we received an email from a scholar who wanted to do work at Special Collections with a focus on “Confederate prisoners of war and their intellectual engagement while in prison.” He said it was “part of a larger project on intellectual life in the Confederacy and post-Reconstruction South.” (I didn’t know it at the time, but he was already about to publish a book titled, Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South (published by UNC Press, 2015.) On a list of 14 collections he wanted to see, the Nelson Family Papers were dead last.
A few days ago, we received a copy of Prison Pens
Gender, Memory, and Imprisonment in the Writings of Mollie Scollay and Wash Nelson, 1863–1866, edited by Timothy J. Williams and Evan A. Kutzler. Tim Williams came here in 2014 with a broad research agenda and found a collection that spurred his interest, I dare say his passion. A correspondence of fifty-five letters, untranscribed, written between “Wash” Nelson and Mollie Scollay from 1863 to 1865 were a part of the Nelson Family collection. Once the collection had been identified, Tim and his co-editor did, essentially, what the students in HIST1004 did, though at the level of professional scholarship. They transcribed the letters. They sought the story of the correspondents and presented research into the themes in which, as context, they wished to place both the writers and the letters themselves. Then . . . with the help of the University of Georgia Press . . . they did take an extra step. They published the book.
The “Wash” Nelson and Mollie Scollay correspondence can be read in the new book by Williams and Kutzler. Digital copies of the letters and the rest of the Nelson Family Papers can be viewed on Special Collections Online. These materials are now broadly available to inform, encourage, and stimulate new research.
The originals remain housed in Special Collections with all the other primary source materials—preserved, available, and powerful.