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.
This week, our Archives and Manuscripts class was afforded the rare opportunity for a peek inside Paley Library’s treasure vaults: the archives, rare books stacks, and working spaces of the Special Collections Research Center at Temple University. Some of the highlights of the tour included a cuneiform tablet, a lovely illuminated book of hours, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin clippings “morgue file”, and the collection of protest materials from January’s Pittsburgh Women’s March.
Even after years working with rare books and archives, passing through these quiet spaces retains a forbidden, hallowed feel for me. I once worked with an archivist who jokingly described herself as one of the “top men” mentioned at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, referring to this scene:
I made the acquaintance of my gill net and floats one week ago, and it is time to begin situating how I will apply some of the theory readings in its interpretation and analysis.
I found this week’s reading of Martin Ames’ “Meaning in Artifacts: Hall Furnishings in Victorian America” particularly compelling in relation to my objects. I’ve read this article before, but in the context of Progressive Era housing reform debates. To approach it with tangible (not to mention portable) objects in mind is equally fascinating, but in a different way. Ames argues that artifacts used together form “artifact constellations,” which in turn can reveal values and patterns of behavior inherent in microscopic moments. The encounters a Victorian might have in an entry hallway- hanging a hat, leaving a calling card, standing awkwardly waiting to be permitted (or not) into the private areas of the house- might have taken mere seconds, but the setup of the hall furniture illuminates the layers of meaning inscribed into this brief cultural action.
My net and gill floats are parts of a whole; they were used together, probably stored together, and certainly compose an artifact constellation. Without one piece of the collection, the others would be useless or at the very least would not communicate the same meaning. The accession record also specifies a hook that came with the other stuff- this, too, would be a part of the artifact constellation- but it wasn’t set up there in the archives.
This week, I was introduced to my very own objects to get to know, analyze, and research for Studies in American Material Culture. These items, a gill net and wooden floats, are in the collection of the Independence Seaport Museum. I was also offered a catfish net, but it seemed tangential to the other objects; perhaps I’ll take it up at a later point. My classmates were assigned a variety of other maritime-related items (fishingwear, a firearm, a knife, goose decoys, etc.) We will spend the semester learning more about these objects, as well as what their context can tell us about the LESLEY. Our research on these artifacts will make them more accessible to researchers at ISM and enrich our understanding of the methods of material culture study.
The first step in the process is to follow the methodology of Jules Prown, whose article “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method” established a guide for using artifacts as primary source evidence of human culture of the past. This method is intended to force close observation and minimize internal bias or assumptions.
The process of sketching, observing, and willing myself not to peek at the artifact’s documentation laying in an envelope just inches away was more challenging than my introduction to LESLEY had been. This time, I was preoccupied with documenting all of the details while cautiously trying to be aware of any assumptions I was making, and wondering where I might include them in the object analysis.
Self-conscious, the process reminded me of the parable of the blind men and the elephant: As the blind men attempt to describe this mysterious creature, they mistake its parts for its whole, describing it as a rope, a wall, a spear, and a fan. Despite Prown’s painstaking process, I was unsure how much bias would slip into my analysis. Given my limited time with these objects, I didn’t want to miss the proverbial elephant, so at first I waffled about where to start. I then began to take measurements and photos, and to touch and smell the objects.
This month, the US National Archives and Records Administration announced a new strategic plan for 2018-2022. Titled “Making Access Happen,” the new plan re-envisions the role of the archives as a customer-centered agency proceeding forward with goals that serve modern records needs. Most notably, as reported in MeriTalk, NARA would make the records available to …
This past week, Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast with record amounts of rainfall, displacing millions of residents of the Houston metropolitan area and causing widespread property damage of inestimable cost. I’ve been following the news from the East Coast, awed and heartbroken at the devastation, and frequently coming across photographs with captions like this: …
This week’s reading: Jennifer L. Roberts, “The Power of Patience: Teaching Students the Value of Deceleration and Immersive Attention,” Harvard Magazine (November-December 2013): 40-43. I’ve been looking forward to taking this class, Studies in American Material Culture, since I visited Temple’s campus way back in the spring of 2016. As this semester’s project will focus on study and …
It’s been a couple of weeks since I reported in with an update on my work at the APS, and what an eventful two weeks it has been. Buckle your seatbelts, folks. Having transcribed roughly 10% of the 372 pages of the post office book, my supervisor Scott Ziegler and I realized that the transcription …
I’ve finally returned to work at APS following two weeks of travel and one of illness (boo!). Luckily I made quite a bit of progress this week and last, and I feel like this project is now moving along at a steadier pace. In fact, beginning the week of July 17 I will be increasing …
Last semester, you may remember that I worked on an object label for a saber in an upcoming exhibition at The Independence Seaport Museum. Although I missed the opening reception while in Chicago, I was excited to finally visit “World War I: USS Olympia” over the July 4th weekend to see the finished project. I’m pleased with the result, and I don’t have much more to say about the exhibit label process per se- although if you’re interested in that sort of thing, see my classmate Ted Maust’s reflection on his own label. What I want to talk about is self-promotion: one of my least favorite things!
Having this label in a real, live exhibit was a big deal to me. I’m grateful for the opportunity and gratified to see the result. But I really struggled with where, how, why, and whether I could talk about this personal triumph without sounding vain or (even more horrifyingly) boring. I waffled. And then I put it out there.