Philly's Archival Advantage: Frederic Miller's Vision


Archives & Manuscripts
archives month

It's Archives Month! Time to get maudlin.

As I become more familiar with the archival community in Philadelphia, the more at-home I feel. When I first came to the city, I was astonished to learn about PACSCL, a remarkable consortium of area repositories committed to collaborative work and consideration. PACSCL demonstrates that Philadelphia’s archives “scene” is greater than the sum of its parts, and it serves to fulfill the ideal, expressed in our textbook Understanding Archives and Manuscripts, that it is in the interest of everyone for archives and special collections to share resources and work together. I haven’t encountered anywhere near this level of cooperation among institutions in any other place where I’ve lived, researched, or worked.

Additionally, the

Delaware Valley Archivists Group organizes events for Archives Month every year in October, which was how I first got wind of the area’s rich professional community. I was also excited to learn that Temple’s Urban Archives is commemorating its 50th anniversary this year, with several events and a symposium.

This extraordinary collection is very valuable to me as I continue the process of researching and developing my master’s thesis around social settlements in the city. Recently, in my research, I came upon an article by Frederic Miller, head of Temple’s Urban Archives from 1973 to 1989, written in The Public Historian in 1983. In the article, “Documenting Modern Cities: The Philadelphia Model,” Miller muses that Philadelphia’s history is exceptionally well documented and accessible to users, particularly in several collecting areas: “Many subjects are obviously well represented. Documentation in five important areas-social services, politics, housing, planning, and public administration-amounts to virtual overkill” (79).

I love this excerpt, and not only because it’s true and incredibly useful to me as a researcher. I love it because I think that this is also true in other cities, but that it is not as easily discernible. As far as I can see, much of the credit for that goes to institutional cooperation and reasonably thorough documentation of collection contents. Indeed, while still acknowledging some of the city’s pitfalls, Miller expresses his opinion that Philadelphia might serve as a model for repositories in other cities struggling to wrangle with changing archival practice, huge processing backlogs, and budget cuts. In closing, he states:

These practical considerations remind us that the various subject, source, format, and geographic aspects of Philadelphia’s documentation result from the interaction of researchers and repositories with each other and with the city as a whole. Mindful of this social context and of the available resources, historians and archivists in other cities can benefit from the Philadelphia experience and help improve the quality of urban documentation nationwide (86).

I’m grateful to have the chance to work and do research in Philly’s constellation of repositories. Imperfect though it may be, the model Frederic Miller touted in 1983 is still an improvement upon the system in place in other areas in 2017.

Bibliography:

Miller, Frederic.“Documenting Modern Cities: The Philadelphia Model.” The Public Historian 5:2 (Spring, 1983), pp. 74-86.

O’Toole, James M. Understanding Archives and Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2006.