The Archivist’s Nook: A Few of My Favorite Things

World’s smallest mariachi band, discovered in the museum collection.

As part of the Graduate Library Preprofessional (GLP) program, for the past two years I worked full time in the Archives here at CUA while pursuing my Masters in Library and Information Science. This has been an amazing opportunity to get real world experience and on the job training. During my time here, I conducted an inventory of the museum objects on campus, learned how to encode EAD finding aids, oversaw several digitization projects, and participated in social media outreach efforts like this blog and the Archives’ Instagram account. The success of my experience here resulted from the freedom to be involved in so many different aspects of archival work and pursue projects that developed my skill set as an information professional.

President William Taft with “Billy Possum.”

Developing professional competencies aside, my favorite part of my job here at the Archives was the joyful glee of discovering interesting and/or bizarre items in the course of my normal workday. There is something priceless about opening an acid free box, finding something that makes you laugh aloud, and calling over a coworker to share the moment with. Like the time I decided to investigate a box labeled “Lizard” in the museum collection. I hypothetically understood this lizard was already cataloged, labeled, and housed long before my time here… but there is nothing quite like opening the box for yourself and finding a foot and a half long desiccated monitor lizard inside.

Testing to see if an old slide projector works using slides of UFOs.

On the other hand, there are the quieter discoveries that make you smile alone in the stacks. Looking for something itty bitty to post on social media for #TinyTuesday, I stumbled across the smallest mariachi band in existence in the James Magner museum collection. As I lined up these miniscule figures for their photo, I fondly remembered the mariachi band that played at my own grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. While on the subject of James Magner, I must also give a shout out to his personal collection of Christmas cards, which are always good for a smile come holiday season.

Bookplate from the Cardinal yearbook of 1932.

Then there are the multipart discoveries that build over weeks or months. A chance encounter here, another there. Such was the case when I came across a seemingly random picture of a possum in our digital collection of labor leader Terence Vincent Powderly’s photographs. This would be odd enough in itself, but weeks later I found the same photo cut out and pasted below an image of President William H. Taft in one of Powderly’s old albums. Apparently, Powderly was making a bit of a joke about “Billy Possum,” Taft supporters’ spinoff of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Teddy Bear.” These are the sorts of things archivists share a laugh over.

My time in the Archives has been filled with more entertaining discoveries than can be listed here. The beautiful typewriter hiding among our audiovisual equipment, the old stamps and seals of CUA’s logo throughout the years, the Physics Department slides of UFOs, and the “Ex Libris” bookplates in the early Cardinal yearbooks all come to mind as a few of my personal favorites. While I loved learning the ropes of working in an archive, I will remember my time here most vividly through the lens of these special encounters and the people I had the privilege to share them with.

The Archivist’s Nook: A Labor of Love – Lantern Slides of T.V. Powderly

“Railroad Train” Lantern Slide #11
“Railroad Train” Lantern Slide #11

A treasure trove of almost 2,000 lantern slides belonging to labor leader Terence Vincent Powderly (1849-1924) resides in our Archive. These transparent glass slides, also referred to as “magic” lantern slides, are an eclectic mix of images taken by amateur photographer Powderly as well as commercially produced images he purchased. As a native of Carbondale, Pennsylvania, Powderly incorporated many images of creeks and mountains of the keystone state – as well as the occasional coal mine – into the collection. True to his roots as a leader of the Knights of Labor, many images of industrial technology are included, especially of locomotives. There are monuments and works of art from around the world, as well as personal portraits of the Powderly family at their home in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington D.C.

Short History of Lantern Slides

To get a handle on this collection, we first look to the history of the lantern slide format and how it was used. Photographic lantern slides appeared about a decade after the invention of photography in the mid-1800s, although projectable hand painted images existed long before. At about 3.25 x 4 inches, lantern slides are physically made up of a negative printed onto a sheet of glass as a positive, transparent image. The image could then be painstakingly hand colored or matted to achieve the desired effect. Next, an additional sheet of glass was placed over the transparency, creating a glass “sandwich” to protect the surface of the photograph. Finally, the two sheets of glass were taped together, and could be inserted into a magic lantern for projection and viewing.

Lantern slides were used for two purposes: entertainment and education. The primary purpose of our USCCB Lantern Slide Collection was educational, as they accompanied presentations detailing the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s work with veterans of the First and Second World Wars in the United States. The diversity and sheer number of slides in Powderly’s collection suggest he used his slides both for entertainment and educational purposes depending on the setting. While the family portraits could have been used as the equivalent of “family home videos,” the images of industry could have been part of his work with the Knights of Labor.

These original lantern slide boxes are a little worse for wear!
These original lantern slide boxes are a little worse for wear!

Additional information on the history of lantern slides:

Taking Inventory

At some point prior to the arrival of the slides at the Archives in 2009, someone attempted to reorder the collection into simple thematic groups, such as “Stone Monuments,” “D.C. and World” and “People.” In the archival world, “respect des fonds” (preserving the original order of a group of records), is an important and fundamental principle. Often, the original order shows relationships and provides insight into how the records were accessed and used. Presumably, Powderly had his own numbered list so he could easily keep track of his collection. Since we do not have this original master list, we will be reconstructing it as we process this large collection. Going through each of the slides, we will record basic information such as the slide number and title. This is also a good time to take note of any damage the slides might have sustained.

“American Group, Albert Memorial, London” Lantern Slide #817
“American Group, Albert Memorial, London” Lantern Slide #817

Rehousing

After completing the list, if we find it is more valuable for researchers to have the slides in the original order, we will reorganize them to match Powderly’s original intent. When handling the slides, we wear powder-free nitrile gloves to protect the images from fingerprints and hand oils.  During this phase, we will also remove the slides from their crumbling containers and place them in archival, acid free boxes. Before doing so, each lantern slide will be carefully enfolded in a four-flap envelope to protect the surface of the image. Lantern slides are surprisingly heavy, so we place no more than 70 slides in a small box. Even then, these boxes are like bricks! As of this writing, we are a little under half way through rehousing the slides.

Additional information on the housing of lantern slides:

Digitizing

Once a collection is organized and rehoused, the next question is to determine whether or not to digitize. Some questions to ask before choosing to digitize could include: Are these materials unique? Will digitization promote access to these materials? Will digitization help preserve the collection? In our case, digitization is not a high priority as many of the same images have already been scanned from prints available through the Terence Vincent Powderly Photographic Prints Digital Collection. However, should we choose to pursue digitization, many wonderful resources are available online to guide us through the process.

“Trinity College, D.C.” Lantern Slide #917
“Trinity College, D.C.” Lantern Slide #917

Additional information on the digitization of lantern slides:

Last Thoughts

Lantern slides are an interesting format with a rich history and a few special concerns, such as sensitivity to light, fragility, heavy weight, and need of specific housing materials. By taking a systematic approach to the various steps of the project, our large collection belonging to Terence Vincent Powderly will continue to be organized and rehoused as time and resources permit. For additional information about the life and times of amateur photographer, slide maker, labor leader, and former mayor of Scranton T.V. Powderly, check out the finding aid of his manuscript collection.

The Archivist’s Nook: T.V. Powderly – Labor’s ‘American Idol’

Group portrait of leaders of the Knights of Labor, with Powderly prominent. T.V. Powderly Papers, The Catholic University of America (CUA).

January 22 is the birthday of Terence Vincent Powderly (1849-1924), a man not widely remembered in the twenty-first century, but a national celebrity, an ‘American Idol’ if you will, in the tumultuous era of the late nineteenth century. Born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, to Irish-Catholic immigrants, Powderly was a reform minded Mayor of Scranton (1878-1884), head of the national Knights of Labor union (1879-1893), and federal bureaucrat (1897-1924).  He was also a supporter of Irish nationalism, serving in Clan na Gael, a secret Irish independence society, and the Irish Land League, a political organization supporting tenant farmers.

Labor friends and celebrities in old age: T.V. Powderly, Nineteenth-Century ‘American Idol’ with ‘Mother’ Mary Harris Jones, ‘The Miner’s Angel.’ Washington, D.C., 1909. T.V. Powderly Papers, The Catholic University of America (CUA).

A railroad worker, Powderly joined the Scranton Local Assembly of the Knights of Labor in 1876, assuming the national leadership as Grand (later General) Master Workman, 1879-1893. The Knights came into national prominence during his tenure, in part due to his rousing public oratory, peaking in national membership and influence in 1886. At this point, Powderly was so popular there were babies named for him. However, failures in several labor disputes and a divisive power struggle saw the Knights rapidly decline and Powderly removed by a cabal involving John William Hayes, whose papers are also at CUA. Perhaps Powderly’s greatest achievement, greatly aided by Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, was to bring about reconciliation between the labor movement and the Roman Catholic Church that distrusted and disapproved of labor organizations due to their secretive and ritualistic activities.

Immigrants, both detailed aliens and regular employees, working in an Ellis Island kitchen, Dec. 18, 1901. T.V. Powderly Papers, The Catholic University of America (CUA).

Campaigning for the Republicans in the 1896 presidential campaign, Powderly was rewarded by President William McKinley with appointment as Commissioner General of Immigration. Powderly’s efforts to reform conditions at Ellis Island prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to dismiss him in 1902, though he was reinstated in 1906 as a Special Immigration Inspector.  Powderly next served as Chief of the Division of Information, U.S. Bureau of Immigration, 1907-1921, and as the U.S. Department of Labor’s Commissioner of Conciliation, 1921-1924. He was also author of Thirty Years a/Labor (1889) and his posthumous memoirs, The Path I Trod (1940). In 1999 was honored as an inductee into the U.S. Department of Labor’s Hall of Honor, joining figures such as rival Samuel Gompers and friend Mary Harris “Mother” Jones. Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: T.V. Powderly – Labor’s ‘American Idol’”