The Archivist’s Nook: Local Angles – D.C. History at the Archives

I recently presented on our Washington, D.C.-related collections at the Conference on High Impact Research held at American University here in the District. I was asked simply to talk about collections in the Archives related to Washington, D.C. The audience was an interdisciplinary group of academics at American University. As a participant, I learned about collections at the DC Public Library, George Washington University, and American University, but I also compiled a list of our own D.C.-related collections, something we surprisingly hadn’t done until now. Of our 431 manuscript collections, 13 have materials related to D.C.  Our D.C. collection materials date back to the eighteenth century with the Brooks-Queen Family Collection, and extend into the 1990s with the Paul Philips Cooke Papers.

“All kinds of Repairing and Painting done with neatness and dispatch,” according to this receipt for a wagon brake from a wagon and carriage maker operating in Northwest Washington, D.C. in 1880. From the Brooks-Queen collection.

We like to say that “if it’s Catholic and it’s national, we probably have it,” because we have so many collections related to national Catholic history. However, we also have some local records of interest to researchers seeking insight into local Catholic life. The records of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Washington, D.C., for example, document the efforts of this Catholic institution to attend to the spiritual and material wants of the poor in the city from the 1940s through the 1960s. Other Catholic records include those of Catholic Charities of Washington, D.C. and the Washington Catholic Evidence Guild.

For the horticulturally-minded historian, the Rose Society of Brookland minutes chronicle the organization’s activities from 1912-1920. Above, the cover of the organization’s book of minutes.

 

Our local materials are not exclusively Catholic. The Brooks-Queen collection is comprised of materials related to the founding families of Washington, D.C.’s Brookland neighborhood. Another Brookland-related collection is the Cecilia Parker Woodson Collection, which contains hundreds of letters from Woodson’s husband and daughter to Woodson, who lived with her family in Brookland in the early twentieth century.

 

 

Charlotte Parker Woodson, native of Brookland in Washington, D.C. married Victor Tyree, another native Washingtonian, in Lima Peru, in 1917. Charlotte’s mother, Cecilia, kept this newspaper clipping of the marriage she could not attend in her papers, now held here at the Archives.

 

Nor are our local materials exclusively documents. The archives has digitized more than a thousand images from the collection of Terence Vincent Powderly, most of them related to Washington, D.C. and the vicinity. Better known as the head of the Knights of Labor, a union whose membership swelled under his leadership in the 1880s, Powderly was also an amateur photographer. Powderly lived in Washington, D.C. in the early twentieth century, when he served in a variety of bureaucratic posts.

 

 

G Street Blacksmith: Caption: This image from the Terence Powderly Photographic Prints shows a blacksmith on G Street in Washington, D.C., 1913.

Powderly photographed a great variety of subjects bearing on social, economic, and political life at the turn of the century in both Europe and America, but of the 1300 images that are digitized, 900 are related to Washington, D.C., where Powderly lived from 1897 until his death in 1924.

 

For a full list of the Washington, D.C.-related collections, see:

https://guides.lib.cua.edu/c.php?g=942599

The Archivist’s Nook: The Provenance and Providence of a Public Historian

This semester, we said goodbye to Dr. Timothy Meagher, University Archivist and Curator of the American Catholic History Collection at The Catholic University of America. In addition to his service as University Archivist, Meagher was Associate Professor with the Catholic University History Department, where he regularly taught Irish-American and immigration history. Though we will miss him at the Archives, we know he will be happily plugging away at his magnum opus in his “retirement”: a comprehensive history of Irish America.

Provenance is a word archivists love. It refers to the origin of a collection of archival materials, yes, but embedded in those origins is identity. For this reason, archivists use provenance as an organizing principle for their records and collections. In other words, we try to maintain and organize materials as faithfully as we can to the intention of the original creator and/or organizer of the collection, in order to preserve the integrity and identity of the collection itself.

Dr. Timothy Meagher at his desk when the University Archives was still in the Mullen Library Building. A generous grant from NCSSS Professor Dorothy Mohler enabled a move to a larger facility in Aquinas Hall, which Meagher and then Assistant Archivist W. J. Shepherd oversaw.

Meagher’s own origins are manifest in his career. Certainly, his own Irish and Catholic ancestry inspired his study of Irish America. But he also occupied a unique position as both an academic historian and a public one.  While completing his Ph.D. in history at Brown University in the early 1980s, he taught history in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts. But after four years, that job ended and he found himself unemployed. “There were no historian jobs,” he says of the time. So he improvised. There was a position as Assistant Archivist at the Archdiocese of Boston Archives. “Jim O’Toole was there, a historian himself getting a Ph.D. from Boston College.” The two formed a lasting friendship, with O’Toole becoming a prominent scholar of both archival practice and American Catholicism and who in fact, has served on our archives’ advisory board since its inception in 2002. For Meagher’s part, he saw that there were potentially multiple uses for the skills of a historian.

A 2003 photo of Meagher and Dr. Yuki Yamazaki, a former history student at Catholic University and employee of the Archives, examine an artifact from our collections, a Japanese anti-Christian edict dated from 1682.
Archivist’s favorite: Meagher especially appreciates these vestments worn by Archbishop John Carroll. Ordained in 1790, Carroll was the first bishop and archbishop in the United States. The vestments date to ca. 1750-1800.

In the late 1980s, Meagher made his way from Boston to Washington, D.C., where he had years earlier graduated with his Bachelor’s in History from Georgetown University. His interest in public history was now heightened by both his work in archives and a concurrent rejuvenation in the museum field, especially in the area of exhibition and public programming. He speaks fondly of his work with the National Endowment for the Humanities, where he served as Program Officer until accepting his post at Catholic University. The NEH required those who worked in public history institutions to work directly with relevant scholars in the academy, “we had historians and museum people coming in and evaluating the quality of the exhibits we funded—there were some great conversations.”

Having spent seven years making humanities scholarship accessible to broader audiences, Meagher decided it was time to move on. He was particularly interested in the museum collection at the University Archives when he began working here in 1997. From the start, his primary mission was using the archival materials in our collections to teach history to a variety of audiences. “There was a move within the Catholic Church at that point to save material culture.” At the time, few in the field of Catholic archives knew much about preserving sacred objects, so Meagher organized the Saving Sacred Things conference in 1999 to address the matter.

In 2018, the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives received the American Catholic Historical Association’s (ACHA) Distinguished Service Award. From left, ACHA President Father Richard Gribble, Meagher, Reference Archivist Shane MacDonald, and Education Archivist Maria Mazzenga attend that year’s annual meeting to receive the award.

Drawing from his experiences working with professionals in a range of cultural institutions, Meagher expanded the Archives’ outreach and educational programming dramatically. “I was aware that there were other places doing public outreach in archives. I knew people at NARA [National Archives and Records Administration] and other places who put together educational packets using their archival materials.” So he worked with staff and teachers to put together packets related to a variety of aspects of Catholic history for Catholic high school students with materials from our archive. These formed the basis of the now fully digital American Catholic History Classroom an online education site featuring hundreds of digital documents, photos, and teaching resources. “We were trying to teach young people how historians solve historical problems. To look at source material and figure out what happened. We tried to do it with this material related specifically to Catholic life. No one else was doing it on a broad basis. A whole dimension of American life, we wanted to fill it with good history. Our collections lend themselves to understanding national Catholic history.”

Today, the Archives’ outreach and educational programming is thriving.  Thank you, Professor Meagher!

 

The Archivist’s Nook: Introducing Students to Rare Books

Stacks of the Clementine Library. I would best describe its scent as warm and toasty.

Think back to the last book you read. How old was it? Were the pages brittle or waxy, thick or thin? How did the cover and pages feel in your hands? Was there a smell to the book – freshly printed or a musty odor? Did the book catch the eye with its cover, type, or images? Did it make a sound when opened – a crisp snap of a never-before-opened spine or the dull groan of well-worn binding? Was picking up this book an experience of all the senses?

While we certainly do not taste our books, there is no way to avoid having an otherwise full sensory experience when entering Rare Books and Special Collections. Contained within its stacks are 70,000 volumes, spanning 10 centuries. The collection includes a wide range of materials from medieval legal texts and early modern musical pieces to twentieth century textbooks and first edition novels. The aroma and sights immediately catch one’s attention, and the feel and sound of each book as you open it offers a reminder of its age.

This past academic year, the Archives staff has been assisting in Rare Books. In addition to answering reference questions and exploring the materials contained within its stacks, we have hosted three classes in the space. Each class came from a distinct program and reviewed different materials with varying learning goals in mind. Much as we are whenever a class comes to handle archival documents for the first time, we were excited to provide the students with their potential first experience of accessing rare books.

Tafsīr wāsiʻ ʻalá al-taʻlīm al-Masīhī (Translation of a Catechism for Confession and Communion), 1770.

In the fall, we hosted students from the School of Theology and Religious Studies as part of a “History and Theory of Catechetics” course. During their visit, the students were able to work with dozens of catechisms spanning several continents, numerous languages, and six centuries. Tapping into the collections of sixteenth-century folios and assorted Catholic theological and lay devotional publications, we were able to create an evolutionary display of catechisms from the fifteenth century to the present. Among the highlights were an Arabic catechism from 1770, a Navajo catechism from 1937, and a series of pocket catechisms from the nineteenth century. Supplementing this collection with materials from the Archives, we were able to bring the students from the Council of Trent to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

As the new semester began in the cold of January, our staff prepared to host another visiting class, this time from the School of Philosophy. Entitled “Before Printing: The Establishment and Transmission of Ancient and Medieval Texts,” the course’s professor wished to expose her students to the physicality of the manuscripts they would study over the coming months. From our medieval manuscript and incunabula collections, we provided several Thomistic philosophical and theological treatises. Through a partnership with the Semitics/ICOR Library, the class was also able to review Arabic philosophical texts. While the students would primarily continue to work with facsimiles and digital copies of manuscripts this semester, having that initial opportunity for a full sensory experience is key to both contextualizing the sources and eliciting excitement.

Lectionarium, ca. 1200 (MS 158). Some of the volumes have intricate bindings and clasps, added by much later owners. This particular binding is seen in numerous manuscripts in our collections.

My own first exposure to manuscripts was in Rare Books at Catholic University. Working with a medieval copy of Gratian’s Decretum as part of a class project helped me appreciate the beauty and wonder of these texts, and solidified my excitement for curation and historical research. I would never have guessed I would be helping provide access to these same materials years later!

Finally, our most recent academic visitors came as part of a Greek and Latin course, “Latin Paleography.” In addition to two codicology workshops held in Rare Books, the students will each work closely with a medieval manuscript in our collections to create a catalog entry. The manuscripts held by the University are thus providing valuable tools for the students to better understand the materiality and scribal norms of the medieval written word.

In addition to its strengths in Catholic history, Rare Books contains several unique collections, including a Malta collection, the Clementine Library, the Connolly Irish Collection, the Richard N. Foley Modern English Collection, its American Catholic Pamphlets and Parish Histories Collection, and much more.

Book of Hours, ca. 1460 (MS. 136b)

Fundamentally, the collection’s value to the Catholic University community and broader scholarly world lies in its ability to provide students and scholars with opportunities to connect with the history of the written word as well as the contexts and ideas provided by each text. Plus, as the class visits illustrate, it is a wonderful source of collaboration for its sister special collections on campus!

For more information on Rare Books, see: http://libraries.cua.edu/rarebooks/index.cfm

Questions may be addressed to: lib-rarebooks@cua.edu

The Archivist’s Nook: Possums, Presidents, and Digital Curation?

Digital curation only begins with scanning…

Digital curation is a term that has come to reflect the work of many types of archivists and librarians: from Digital Archivist to Metadata Librarian, digital curation is involved. Curation is a word borrowed from the museum field as a way to underscore the fact that Archivists now interpret and select digital objects from their archival collections for presentation to the public, as opposed to simply housing and processing those objects. 

The role of archivist-as-curator has been spurred on by archivists’ ability to both digitize materials and preserve digitally-born objects. This is because digital objects can be widely distributed by way of digital computing and the Internet. So the question then becomes one of how do archivists best digitally curate their materials? If digital curation is the way we select, contextualize, and manage digital content of our archives, here at the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, we curate in many ways and for many different types of users. With 208 online finding aids, 39 online collections, 28 online educational websites, 18 online exhibits, and selected materials in our web archive, we create greater access to our digital materials in the ways we situate them in these various contexts. Online finding aids are tools for researchers to get a sense of the scope and contents of collections, while our digital exhibits situate specific digital objects in selected themes and offer some interpretive material for understanding those objects.

The Difference Curation Makes: Working with Context

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the ways curation, context, and interpretation can work together to generate meaning around digital objects is with some examples.

Curation I: Image from the Terence V. Powderly Photographic Prints Collection. The image of what appears to be an opossum is dated by Powderly 1908, though it contains no other explanatory information, so staff labeled this simply “opossum” with that date we posted it as part of the Powderly Photo Collection.

Curation II: This image of President William Howard Taft is also part of the Terence Powderly Photographic Prints Collection. The photo, also taken by Powderly, is dated June 16, 1908 and labeled as Taft but contains no other information. Though we are uncertain as to the location, the setting suggests Washington, D.C., where Powderly lived and where Taft served as Secretary of War and advisor to President Theodore Roosevelt. We also know that Taft served as President of the United States from 1909-1913 and as Chief Justice of the United States from 1921-1930. Additionally, Powderly served in Washington, D.C. as Chief of the U.S. Immigration Bureau’s Division of Information from 1907-1921, a period within Taft’s term as President, so we can surmise that the two were acquainted.

Curation III: This is an image of the photo of President William Howard Taft with a cut out image of the opossum pasted onto it (early Photoshop!). This image is in a scrapbook of Powderly’s called “Family and General Photos.” Archives staff found this image and recalled seeing the opossum photo as well as the Taft image in the collection while processing it. It turns out that when Taft ran for President of the United States in 1908 he wanted to replicate the success of his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, in using an animal—the Teddy Bear—as a campaign promotional tool. So Taft’s campaign came up with “Billy Possum,” which became the candidate’s mascot. Powderly was probably having fun pasting “Billy Possum” onto a photo of his soon-to-be boss!

In short, the information offered by the collection creator, historical context, and the willingness, curiosity, and persistence of archives staff in piecing these bits of data together is the stuff of digital archival curation.


For a list of Digital Collections: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/docuon.cfm

For a List of Digital Exhibits: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/exhibits.cfm