Special Collections to the Rescue: In a Small Way, We Do That, Too!

Cover from the first set of instructions, Ragsdale’s Original Course of Candy Manufacturing Instructions

About two months ago, while staffing the front desk at Special Collections, I took an interesting phone call. A woman called to ask if we really had copies of Ragsdale’s Original Scientific Course of Candy Manufacturing Instructions and, if we did, could she get copies. If I remember correctly, she said that she had found out that Virginia Tech was one of only two libraries that held these materials. The catalog showed that we did, indeed, have it, but since she was interested in obtaining copies, I asked if she would hold the line while I went to retrieve it. “It” turned out to be ten sets of mimeographed sheets, each with a well-designed heavy paper cover and held together by two grommets at its top. “It” also turned out to be something I’d never seen while working here (therein lies the fun, as I have often said before).

I got back to the phone and described what I had in my hands. She was overjoyed. I said that we were talking about approximately 90 scans—not a problem—but that the grommets could be a problem. It would be impossible to scan the sheets without unbinding each set of instructions. Typically, we would want to “remove the metal,” but I would have to see if the grommets could be safely removed without damaging the documents. Ten years as an archivist and I’d never removed grommets. Surprise, surprise!

“I hope you’ll see what you can do,” she said.

I saw no copyright notice, but each of the folders/volumes carried a big WARNING:

Statement from back cover of each set of instructions
Statement from back cover of each set of instructions

I was not too worried about the threat of prosecution from Mr. Ragsdale, and even though the item’s cataloging gave its pub date as 1930 (Worldcat says, “approximately 1930?”), I was more than willing to scan the entire set for our patron . . . if I got past the grommets. That was before I heard the story behind the request.

She was calling from Nebraska. It was the end of March. Her house had been completely flooded in the history-making flood that had occurred about 2 weeks before. These booklets had been in her family for a couple of generations and were cherished. More than that, they were part of her family’s story. And, they were gone. She specifically mentioned the recipe for fruit cake fudge—a great favorite.

That was more than enough for me, and I told her I would get back in touch with her when I knew more. A couple of days later, I reported that the grommets were out and the scanning had begun. I thought I had heard there was a specialty tool for removing grommets, but, in the end, a small pair of wire cutters (used primarily not to cut, but to bend the metal) and an equally small needle-nosed pliers did the trick.

Of course, as I was scanning the materials, I became more interested in their origin. First, Worldcat does report that only Virginia Tech and Rutgers have these materials. (We acquired them in 2013, not that long ago. One of our major collecting areas is the History of Food and Drink.) But what of these lessons, and what might we find out about W. Hillyer Ragsdale?

The lessons were not written for folks who wanted, occasionally, to make candy, but were for entrepreneurs or established small business folks who wanted to make and sell various kinds of confections. The cover page of the booklet titled, Beginner’s Work Sheets and Special Supplement . . . declares:

Statement on page one of Beginner’s Work Sheets and Special Supplement

On page 2 of the same set, under the subhead, Selling Plans, Ragsdale writes: “As you are perfectly aware, the market for candy is absolutely unlimited. Its sale is no longer confined to the corner confectionery store—but department stores, tea rooms, grocery stores, drug stores, cafeterias, office buildings, road stands, amusement parks, fairs, and hotels all sell tremendous quantities.” Ragsdale includes lots of practical advice for the business of selling confections in this folder, everything from buying attractive boxes (cheaply) for display and packaging, to staying up-to-date by reading the appropriate trade papers. As for the recipes in this lesson, they include Almond Crunch (“a delightful nut piece—very popular everywhere. Usually sells for 80¢ to $1.00 per lb. retail.”); Haystack Goodies; Maple, Mocha, Pistachio Fudge, and the curious Chop Suey Candy (“take a popcorn crispette, but add roasted peanuts and concoanut . . . more corn and cocoanut than peanuts”).

Our patron from Nebraska told me that her family had these in the 1920s, that her grandmother had passed them down to her mother. Certainly, as early as October 1923, Ragsdale’s ads appear in the Newsstand Group advertising supplement to Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness, then edited by H.L. Menken and George Jean Nathan. In fact, In his autobiography, My Life as Author and Editor, Menken writes about the introduction of this kind of advertising to his posh, literary magazine:

H.L. Menken and GEorge Jean Nathan, August 1928. Theatre Magazine Company; Ben Pinchot, Photographer

“Inasmuch as all the other members of this group [Newsstand Group] were such dubious pulps as Snappy Stories, Breezy Stories, and Young’s Magazine, Nathan and I were perturbed more than gratified, and our doubts were not allayed when we saw the advertisements that began to come in. They included everything in the shabby line save lost manhood and bust developer ads, as we had to take a pretty severe kidding from readers and friends.”

The ads in Smart Set started with a couple of pages, but by December 1922, there were 23 pages of advertisements. Look to the November 1923 set of ads, and there is W. Hillyer Ragsdale at Drawer 400, East Orange, N.J. proclaiming:

Ad for W. Hillyer Ragsdale’s Candy Making opportunities, Smart Set, November 1923

“GO INTO BUSINESS FOR YOURSELF,” right there between “Don’t Wear a Truss” and a bust developer ad! Menken, in the same passage quoted above goes on to write of that December 1922 supplement, “There were several ads headed “Send No Money” and half a dozen or more announcing ways to make fortunes by spare-time work at home! Ragsdale was right there.

So, by 1923, Ragsdale was running ads enticing folks to “Establish and operate a “New System Specialty Candy Factory,” using some of the same language that appears in our sets of lessons. Also by 1923, Tools and Machinery for Confectioners by W. Hillyer Ragsdale, The Candy Specialist, becomes available. Here are the first three pages, including a price list (From the Alan and Shirley Brocker Sliker Culinary Collection, Michigan State University Libraries.)

Here’s his ad from the November 1929 issue of Popular Mechanics, promising enormous profits:

Ad for W. Hillyer Ragsdale’s New System Specialty Candy Factories, Popular Mechanics, November 1929

Throughout the 1920s, Ragsdale’s business must have grown. Perhaps the 10 sets of lessons were available at once; perhaps they were developed over a few years. We do know that Ragsdale was born on a farm in Lithonia, DeKalb County, Georgia in 1876. According to census data, in 1900 he was living at home and employed as a clerk in a drugstore in nearby Kirkwood, Georgia. By 1910, he had relocated with his wife, Wilhelmina (Willie) to East Orange, N.J. where he was working as a traveling salesman possibly for a department store. The 1920 US census lists his occupation as “Proprietor,” his status as “Employer,” and the “Industry” in which he was engaged as “Jobber Confectioner Supply House.” At the very least, by 1920 the roots of his candy-making endeavors were firmly in place. A notice on the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association website dates the set of lessons as “ca. 1920s?”

Vintage Ragsdale Candy Thermometer

In David Lawrence Pierson’s History of the Oranges to 1921, Vol. 4 (Orange, NJ: Lewis Historical Publishing Co. 1922), Ragsdale is reported to have come to East Orange in 1908, where he established and built his “ large business as a manufacturer and jobber of confectioners’ supplies.” Pierson also writes that, as of 1922, Ragsdale was a director of the Lackawanna Building and Loan of East Orange. We can assume that his business was quite successful, at least through the early part of the depression. In 1930, Ragsdale is listed in the census as manager of his Confectionary Supply Company. By 1940, however, at age 63, he was employed as an investigator for the New Jersey State Beverage Tax Department. William Hillyer Ragsdale died in East Orange in 1957, but the traces of his candy-making business can still be found quite easily. It is not at all hard to find some of his equipment, for example, especially his candy thermometers, on eBay.

But the sets of instructions in candy-making for profit are the trace that continue to hold significance for our patron in Nebraska. After we’d gotten the scans to her, about three weeks after our phone call, I asked her if she would send me a bit of her family’s story in connection with these sets of instructions; also if I might retell that story in our blog. Here’s what she wrote (copied with permission):

“My grandmother passed them down to my mom. So, since the 1920’s. They were really prized. When my mom’s family was young, her father came down with tuberculosis of the liver. That knocked him out of working. My grandmother, being an excellent cook to seven children, and having a brother that owned an ice cream store in Massachusetts, set out to do the confections. They were sold through the brother’s store and during the holidays, the kids would go door to door. Then the depression happened and finding work was even more hard to do. They kept their business going. They were hard workers. They rallied around my grandfather. There were four boys. When the war broke out, they left to serve their country and of course, they were no longer involved in the candy making business.”

She also wrote this:

“We’re still under water where the farm is. It’s going to take a long time . . . but, we are hardy people and will probably just rebuild. . . . I’m going to be sharing them with Mom on Friday. I haven’t told her that I got them replaced. I know what this means to her.”

A little over a month after the flood, still under water. That made me think about a lot of different things. After considering how horrific it must be, how staggering to have such an event occur and how more common weather events of this historic proportion are becoming, I thought about how short our news cycle is. Perhaps it’s just because we are east-coasters, but we stopped hearing about midwest flood waters about a day or two after they first hit. Every big rain in April added to the disaster. Incredible.

But then, hearing about her plan to surprise her mom with the material Special Collections was able to provide, well, I was glad to have been able to help in a very small way. I’ve probably never felt so good about providing a patron with scans from our collections.

Oh yes, and she again mentioned the fruit cake fudge. If you make it, she says, you have to add some peach Schnapps to it! I’m guessing this is it:

Fruit Fudge Bar from Lesson 23, Ragsdale’s Scientific Course of Candy Manufacturing
Advertisements

A Trip Up the Sweetwater River

Hidden History at Special Collections IV

The title of this occasional series may be something of a misnomer, as the materials discussed aren’t hidden at all but instead are readily located through existing online discovery tools.  Still, though adequately described for retrieval, these items may remain hidden to interested users who overlook them because they’re housed in such unlikely locations.

Any manuscript repository of significant size or age is bound to have its share of outliers, collections that simply don’t fit into any of the repository’s primary focus areas but somehow find their way into the repository, through one route or another. With our collection focuses here in Special Collections at Virginia Tech being well known, researchers recognize us as a go-to resource for primary and secondary sources in several subject areas, including university history , women in architecture, the history of food and drink, local and regional history, and the Civil War in Virginia. The casual user, however, may be surprised to learn that a number of our collections don’t relate to any of these things. Many of these are legacy collections, materials that were acquired before the department narrowed its scope to a few well-defined focus areas.

And that explanation brings me today to write about an item that we simply call the Wyoming Photograph Album (Ms2017-026), which had been housed within the department for a number of years before recently being made more widely accessible through the creation of an online finding aid.

Measuring 11 x 12 inches and containing 75 photos, the album documents the journey of a group of unidentified men—most likely a surveying team—through central Wyoming around the turn of the 20th century. A photo on the first page of the album, bearing the stenciled title “A Trip Up the Sweetwater River,” explains the event commemorated by the collection.

On the pages that follow, the album’s anonymous creator has pasted photos that chronicle a journey that was deemed of sufficient personal significance to be memorialized.

The album’s first few pages include photos of several public buildings and private residences in Cheyenne.  While Cheyenne isn’t on the Sweetwater River, the city was likely the departure point for the group’s journey. From Cheyenne, the group made its way north to Glendo, then westward to Casper, and eventually south to the Sweetwater, with a photographer documenting the landmarks of both the natural and built environments throughout the trip.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Included among the photos are images of ranches, livestock, dams, rock formations, rivers, and mountains. Together with these sights, the scrapbook records the surveyors at work and hints at the hazards of early travel across the plains of Wyoming.

This photo of a broken wagon near a ditch (referred to elsewhere in several places as “Bothwell’s Ditch”) is captioned “Breakdown.”

Elsewhere, the scrapbook records the simple pleasures of camp life, as in the chow-time photo below, captioned “Camp Sweetwater.” The inclusion of a National Biscuit Company crate in this photo allows us to somewhat narrow the date of the photograph, as National Biscuit (today better known as Nabisco) was formed in 1898.

This detail from the camp photo, showing a young fellow enjoying a biscuit, allows us to place the album within a broad timeframe.

The team eventually made its way into Wyoming’s gold- and iron-mining region, and several photographs document the area’s mining enterprises and settlements.  The level of clarity in some of these images is remarkable, and the photos provide a glimpse into early development in the area.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The scrapbook ends, as we may assume the journey also did, near the Wind River Mountains in western Wyoming. Unfortunately, the final photograph, captioned “A Remembrance of the Past” and which may have provided some clue as to the identity of the scrapbook’s creator, was removed.

At least one photograph in the album is attributed to C. C. Carlisle, and a little online digging led to information on a Charles C. Carlisle (born 1876). His biographical sketch in I. S. Bartlett’s History of Wyoming (1918) notes that Carlile, a civil engineer, worked in various capacities connected with waterworks and civil engineering during the first two decades of the 20th century. An article in the June 16, 1904 edition of the Wyoming Tribune mentions that a survey of the central part of the state being conducted by assistant state engineer Carlisle had measured the Sweetwater River at Devil’s Gate. It seems safe to conclude that this is the survey documented by the photo album. Further digging by an interested researcher might reveal whether Carlisle compiled the album.

Outlier collections sometimes contain outliers of their own. Tucked into the front of this album, consisting entirely of Wyoming scenes, is a photograph of a man on horseback at Gibson Park, Great Falls, Montana in 1899. The man is identified as Wallace Coburn.

Wallace Coburn, Gibson Park, Great Falls, 1899

Wallace David Coburn (1872-1954), a Great Falls rancher who gained national renown as a cowboy-poet through publication of his Rhymes from a Round-up Camp, later operated a movie theatre. The theatre serving as his springboard into the field of motion-picture entertainment, Coburn established his own film studio, Great West Film Company. Great West appears to have produced only one film “The Sunset Princess,” based on Coburn’s own poem, “Yellowstone Pete’s Only Daughter.” The would-be mogul later appeared in a few films produced by others, most notably the silent anti-German propaganda film, “The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin.” Why Coburn’s photo appears in this album devoted to a survey of the Sweetwater River will likely remain unknown.

The Wyoming Photograph Album would of course be of interest to anybody researching irrigation and development along the Sweetwater River, early Cheyenne architecture, and the region’s mining history. (Astute researchers could undoubtedly make some connections that I haven’t even considered.) So while this stand-alone collection may seem a misfit of sorts housed here among our collections, its potential value to interested researchers makes it worth a little extra promotion on our part. The album  can also serve as a reminder to researchers in other subject areas not to overlook far-flung resources when searching for relevant materials.

Holding the Light: April 16th Remembrance Exhibits on display April 8-18, 2019

Prayer flags were on display for a recent Day of Remembrance observance.
Prayer flags on display for a recent Day of Remembrance observance will be on display.

“Holding the Light,” is one of two exhibits that will be displayed on the second floor commons in Virginia Tech’s Newman Library as the university observes its 2019 Day of Remembrance.

The exhibit, on display Thursday, April 8 through Tuesday April 18, is a collaboration between the University Libraries and Student Engagement and Campus Life and honors those lost and injured on April 16, 2007. It features items of condolence from around the nation and world.

Among the artifacts on display will be an eight-pointed star quilt from St. Labre Indian School in Ashland, Montana, large banners signed by people in Seoul, South Korea, a work of calligraphy from Japan based on the Buddhist Heart Sutra, and a painting by students at Rappahannock County High School. The exhibit will also include items from the State University of New York Morrisville, Florida State University, Virginia Tech Graduate Arts Council, Hillel, Living Buddhism, and Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the New River Valley.

Hand made quilt from Saint Labre Academy, in the April 16, 2007, Condolence Archives
Hand made quilt from Saint Labre Academy, in the April 16, 2007, Condolence Archives

A display in the windows of Special Collections on the 1st floor of Newman Library will also reflect the “Holding the Light” theme. Most of the items on display were either left at the Drillfield memorial in the aftermath of April 16th or from vigils at other places in remembrance of the victims and in honor of the survivors.

S5L25H0202
Goggles placed at the VT Drillfield memorial site in the April 16, 2007, Condolence Archives, will be on display.

The second exhibit, “A Community of Learners, a Legacy of Achievement,” will feature photographs of each of the 32 victims and a selection of books that reflect their individual disciplines and interests.

In addition to these two exhibits, a small garden space for quiet reflection outside of Squires Student Center’s Old Dominion Ballroom will be available to the community. The garden features a large inscribed rock received from Itawamba Community College in Fulton, Mississippi, and stones from previous April 16 Perspective Gallery Exhibitions. Itawamba Community College planted a dogwood tree in honor of the victims, and this garden also includes a dogwood tree.

A small garden space outside of Squires Student Center. Photo by Robin Boucher
The Remembrance garden space outside of Squires Student Center is always open for quiet reflection. Photo by Robin Boucher.

For more information on the 2019 Day of Remembrance, please visit the We Remember website.

A New Group for Archivists of this Region

Logo of the Appalachian Studies Association
Logo of the Appalachian Studies Association

This year, a new standing committee will be making an appearance at the annual meeting of the Appalachian Studies Association (ASA), to be held next month at the University of North Carolina, Asheville (UNCA). There has been no formal organization of Appalachian Special Collections archivists and librarians since the Appalachian Consortium disbanded in 2004, but due to an effort headed up by Gene Hyde (UNCA), this absence has now been remedied. Initial interest in the formation of this group was received from archivists representing Appalachian State University, Mars Hill University, Western Carolina University, East Tennessee State University, University of Kentucky, Berea College, Virginia Tech, Marshall University, Radford University, West Virginia University, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and Morehead State University. Rachel Vagts of Berea will serve as the new committee’s first chair.

While there are regional organizations of archivists defined by the boundaries of states or groups of states—Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC), for example, includes states from New York to Virginia, while North Carolina and Ohio have organizations of their own—the Appalachian region cuts across these boundaries. Also, these are organizations, overwhelmingly, of, by, and for archivists. By having an increased and formal presence within the Appalachian Studies Association, archivists of the region will gain an opportunity to create a larger profile for themselves and their repositories among scholars of the region and share more directly in the exchange of ideas among people working in the region.

In part, the new group will update and continue the work of the Special Collections committees that existed under the Appalachian Consortium. This work may include identifying and providing information about Appalachian repositories, facilitating the exchange of information between repositories, assessing the needs of larger and smaller repositories, and providing information and services to repositories. New tasks may include offering workshops, exhibits, and sessions at future ASA meetings; exploring external funding sources for shared projects; and encouraging and recognizing new scholarly work in the area that uses primary source materials.

One task that has already begun is the rejuvenation of the Appalachian Curator newsletter. From 1986 to 2004 this newsletter existed as a print publication under the direction of the Appalachian Consortium. The new version will go online next month, in time for the ASA conference, March 14–17. A new editorial board is in place. Articles and news items are being collected. The URL for the newsletter will appear here as soon as it goes up!

Exploring our technology

When people think of Special Collections or of archives generally, they typically think of boxes of old dusty papers or shelf after shelf of rare books.

In truth, we aren’t very dusty. Dust damages our materials, so we try to keep it away. And, while we do have many rare books, that is only a small part of what we’re about. Archives exist to house information. In the past, that information was mainly recorded on some form of paper whether that be a scroll, a sheet of paper, or a book. In the mid-20th century, this began to change. More and more content was created on computers and stored on removable media such as floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, zip drives, removable hard drives, thumb drives, etc.

Image from @palak_dev on Twitter: https://twitter.com/palak_dev/status/962137797640388608

During the same period, archives continued to focus mainly on paper. The form of more recent records became printouts of work done on computers. But the long-term preservation format remained paper. Multiple efforts within the profession focused on figuring out how to handle material given to archives on disks and, more recently, as files in the cloud. Today, the profession has a fairly good idea of how to deal with digital data as material in archives, preserving the data and migrating it to new formats while showing that the intellectual content hasn’t been altered.

Unsurprisingly, our Special Collections has followed along this evolution in practice. We have many records on disk sitting in boxes and many records that have been transferred off their original disks in order to preserve them better. We also have a collecting focus on the History of Science and Technology. The developments in the field of archival practice and our topical interest in the history of technology have provided ample reason for us to acquire various forms of hardware.

The hardware we have allows us to convert many types of digital content to more modern formats for continued use. We’re also exploring making some of the older hardware available for our patrons to experience its use. Let’s take a look at some of the technology we have in our Special Collections.

First up, we have the humble copier. We have a couple of these. They are networked and can scan items at high resolutions. While this doesn’t convert digital content to newer formats, it can help quickly create digital copies of physical materials.

We also have a variety of scanners. The one pictured above is an Epson flatbed scanner. These scanners help us digitize content to share it online. We have many types including flatbed, book scanners, and an overhead camera. With the variety of scanners we have, we are able to create digital copies of our physical materials for use in online content distribution.

For video conversion and playback, we have a number of machines. Pictured above:

  • Panasonic PV-V4623S 4-Head HiFi VCR
  • JVC HR-S6900U HiFi Stereo S-VHS VCR
  • Pioneer LD-V4200 LaserDisc Player

And here we have some video and some audio equipment including:

  • Funai ZV427FX4A DVD Recorder/VCR with Line-in Recording
  • JVCRX-111 AM/FM Stereo Receiver
  • JVC TD-W505 Hi-Fi U-Turn Auto-Reverse Double-Mechanism Cassette Deck
  • Sony CDP-591 Stereo Compact Disc Player
  • Technics SL-Q300 Direct Drive Automatic Turntable System (record player – not pictured)

Of these, the Funai VHS/DVD player gets the most use for conversion purposes which makes sense because it has built-in VHS to DVD conversion capabilities. The others live on our A/V media cart and can be wheeled into our reading room if a patron wants to view an item that is on VHS, DVD, or LaserDisc or listen to one of our cassette tapes or records.

This little gadget does most of the work for our video conversion operations. It is an Elgato Video Capture S-Video/HDMI/Component Video Capture Device. It allows us to connect almost any video player directly to a computer and record the video playback as a digital file. So, even if we don’t maintain a machine for playing a certain type of media, if we can get ahold of one with S-Video, HDMI, or component video outputs, we can convert the contents to digital formats.

Our audio station provides capabilities for audio cassette tapes and reel-to-reel tapes. To support this, we have the following equipment:

  • Apogee Duet FireWire Audio Interface
  • TEAC W-865R Double Auto-Reverse Cassette Deck
  • Technics RS-T992 Stereo Double Cassette Deck (not pictured)
  • Tascam DA-30 mkII Digital Audio Tape Deck
  • Pioneer RT-909 2-Channel Stereo Auto Reverse Tape Deck (reel-to-reel player – front)
  • Tascam 44-OB 4 Channel Recorder/Reproducer (reel-to-reel player back)

Our audio conversion is done on a Macbook Pro using the open source Audacity software.

When it comes to converting computer files, one of our most versatile tools is the lowly CD drive. Since many computers today don’t include one, we have one centrally located in a cabinet for anyone who might need it.

For more advanced digital processing, we have a forensic recovery of evidence device or F.R.E.D. The FRED allows us to capture a disk image of a computer disk without altering any of the data contained on the disk. Along with the FRED, we have a number of different types of drives that can be connected including a 3.5″ floppy drive, a 5″ floppy drive, a zip drive and more.

Osborne 1 Microcomputer in operational configuration

As we move further into the technology space by offering the chance for our patrons to interact with older technology, we’re acquiring older hardware as part of our collections. Pictured above is the first such piece we acquired: the Osborne 1 Portable Microcomputer. For more about this item, check my blog post from last fall.

Commodore 64 with peripherals

Our newest addition is a Commodore 64 complete with a printer, joystick, monitor, and floppy disk drive. It includes multiple programs and is in excellent condition. It’s not quite ready for its public debut as it has a faulty power supply and requires some maintenance and repair before getting listed in our public catalog.

That’s just a small overview of the technology we use in Special Collections. Our jobs as archivists continue to evolve and we strive to be experts on the past and the present with an eye to the future when it comes to technology. The variety is one of the best parts of working here. I certainly couldn’t have predicted I’d be repairing hardware on an old Commodore 64 as part of my job but I love it anyway.

I hope you’ve found this post interesting and educational. If you’re interested in learning more about our Osborne 1 and Commodore 64, keep an eye on this blog. We’ll post more when they’re ready for people to stop by and try them out.

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

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!