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!

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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!

Merging Major Interests

Double Majors at Virginia Tech are becoming more common. Partially as a need to stand out among others, partially as a method of seeking more specific educational goals. I am a double major in English (Creative Writing and Professional Technical Writing) and Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE). I am frequently asked how this could possibly be a good combination? Where will I ever apply both?

My answer is traditionally communication between engineers, management, and the public need to be clear and concise. Interning at Special Collections has helped me to broaden that statement by giving me the opportunity to archive Engineering Collections. I started with transcriptions and gradually worked my way up to understanding and organizing collections of multiple boxes. When I was experienced enough in archiving, I was allowed to choose the collections I wanted to archive. From this point on I witnessed firsthand example after example for the ways in which my degrees worked together. Most examples seemed to be reports and instruction manuals.

I continued to learn more about organization and private company improvement over time as I worked through collections. I was also able to work with interesting subject matter like NASA’s Wind Tunnels and the collection I am currently archiving, the Avery-Abex Metallurgical Collection. From each I learn something different. Throughout the Avery-Abex Collection, I have come to better understand manufacturing processes and plant systems by organizing the business’s internal and external papers. From this experience I was also able to develop a deeper understanding of the applications of professional writing as an engineer.

My favorite part about working on the Avery-Abex collection is that I had to develop a method of organization that would restore order to the case files. Most of the collection boxes are sporadically numbered. There will be files from 1946 -1948 in box 114, 152, and 75 for example. I had to find a way to pick and choose which boxes to chip away at and how to label them in such a way that the materials fit the company timeline. The solution was to organize by case number, one of the few details listed on each box. However, many of the files are metallurgical samples, negatives, lantern slides, and even reels of film. So I had to develop number codes for the different types of material to keep track of where materials were going and what materials had been processed. The whole experience really tested my ability to think through the given materials.

As I got further into my ISE major, I began to learn more about facilities, systems, and linear programing problems to organize everything and create a more efficient environment. I began to see this in my work at Special Collections as well. As a scholar, a student, there is a moment when you can see dots connecting. The feeling is incredible because you go from understanding theory to seeing it in application. I started to get a lot more out of the work I was doing because I was able to understand deeper connections between the systems engineering that I was studying and the workplace/warehouse type environment where the theory was applicable. The more I saw ties between my majors and my work, the more interesting each shift became. I wasn’t just dating papers, I was developing a system that will become a resource for students and researchers.

My time with Special Collections has never been dry. I will be returning in the fall to continue my work on the Avery-Abex collection. I look forward to what the future of this collection holds and everything that I will be able to learn from it.

By Kaitlyn Britt

A Little Something Extra

Archives are so very rarely complete. It’s an unusual thing for the archivist to be able to point to a collection and say with full  confidence, “That’s all there is.” More often, we have to admit, “That’s all we have.” And so, researchers make due with what’s on hand, knowing that someday, some newly discovered item may appear and bring their well-argued theses crashing down. Though it deals with the past, history is a living thing, open to reinterpretation as long-hidden documents are discovered and shared. We regularly hear of such discoveries being made in attics or at flea markets and the like, but sometimes they’re made within the archives itself.

Last month, your blogger was working with a small collection of papers from Sidney B. Jeffreys (Ms1986-007), who graduated from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering in 1931. Jeffreys maintained a lifelong attachment to his alma mater, becoming an active member of the Virginia Tech Alumni Association and a generous supporter of the university. In 1981, he was recognized as a College of Engineering Distinguished Alumnus.  (You can read more about Sidney Jeffreys and his papers here.) Given Jeffreys’ attachment to Virginia Tech, it’s not surprising that most of the papers in his collection relate to his time as a student and his activities as an alumnus.

Most of the university-related materials in Jeffreys’ papers consists of VT publications, and most of these are of the type that are seen by our archivists every day. Included among these were several issues of The Virginia Tech (the forerunner of today’s student newspaper, The Collegiate Times), from the years that Jeffreys attended the university. Here in the department, The Virginia Tech is frequently called upon in the course of answering reference questions or providing students with material for research topics. Our holdings of the paper are nearly—but not quite—complete, and we’re well aware that we lack a couple of years’ worth of issues. As it turns out, though, there was at least one missing issue about which we were unaware:  there,  in Sidney Jeffreys’ papers, was a special, extra edition of The Virginia Tech, published on Saturday, November 10, 1928.

The reason for this extra edition is readily apparent, as it bears a headline that any Hokies fan will enjoy.

The four-page special edition provides a lengthy, detailed description of the homecoming game, played earlier that day before a near-capacity crowd of 8,000 spectators, and it gives a great deal of credit for the win to the exploits of backs Frank Peake and Phil Spear. Elsewhere in this extra edition, readers found a full account of the game between VPI’s freshman team, “The Gobblets,” and their UVA counterparts, which ended in a 13-all tie.

The newspaper also contains articles about the homecoming festivities—this being only the second such event held at Virginia Tech—and about the upcoming observance of Armistice Day. Another brief article announces that plans are underway for a new, modern, and much-needed hotel to be built near the university. On a more somber note, readers learned of the accidental death VPI alumnus Charles B. D. Collyer, a well-known aviator who, just two weeks earlier, had set a new record for a trans-continental flight across the U. S.

Is there anything in this newspaper that will rewrite Virginia Tech history? Well, no (though anybody who’s been looking for a detailed account of the 1928 VPI-Virginia football game will find it a treasure trove). Still, this one item adds just a little detail to the historical record, providing some insight into the activities and cares of the Virginia Tech community in late 1928.

We can only wonder how many more special editions may be out there (or in here), waiting to be found.

The November 10, 1928 extra edition of The Virginia Tech will be added to our existing holdings of the newspaper. It has also been added to the queue in a current project that is digitizing the university’s student newspapers and will soon be making them available online.

The Power of Primary Sources

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.

Display of materials for class exercise
Display of materials for class exercise

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.

World War II rationing program materials [inset: OPA Red Point]
World War II rationing program materials [inset: OPA Red Point]

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.

V-Mail from Lt. James Monteith, 27 May 1944
V-Mail from Lt. James Monteith, 27 May 1944

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.)

Letter from Elizabeth Carver to Edgar Knapp, 28 January 1863, page 1
Letter from Elizabeth Carver to Edgar Knapp, 28 January 1863, page 1

Letter from Elizabeth Carver to Edgar Knapp, 28 January 1863, pages 2-3
Letter from Elizabeth Carver to Edgar Knapp, 28 January 1863, pages 2-3

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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.

Bill of Sale for a slave named Elijah, 12 years old, 27 September 1796
Bill of Sale for a slave named Elijah, 12 years old, 27 September 1796

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.

History class working on transcriptions of the Joseph F. Ware letters
A First-Year Experience History class working on transcriptions of the Joseph F. Ware letters

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.

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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.

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, University of Georgia Press, 2018
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, University of Georgia Press, 2018

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.