The Archivist’s Nook: Virtual Historians All

A favorite from the Fenians: A Chromolithograph of Theobald Wolfe Tone, the eighteenth century Irish revolutionary many Fenians looked to for inspiration.

All you need is a computer–heck, all you need is a smartphone to do historical research these days.  Three years ago, my colleague John Shepherd described our efforts in boutique digitization, which offered digital researchers several carefully selected sets of digital materials for use online.  Since then, we have undertaken many more large-scale digitization projects for your historical edification.  

As of March 2018, the Archives hosts 42 collections online amounting to hundreds of thousands of pages of materials.  I should note at the outset that the word “collection” is used deliberately here. A “collection” is a set of digital objects put on the web without any kind of accompanying interpretive information. This is in contrast with our online digital “exhibits” and digital “educational resources,” but these are distinguished from collections, as they are interpretively selected and posted with particular audiences in mind (say, high school students and teachers).

In sum, our digital collections are put online with only basic identification information (archivists call this metadata; at its sparest this means the date, collection, creator and search tags are posted with the object).  Contrary to what many people believe today, we cannot digitize everything in our archive—it would take years to digitize the millions of objects in our collections and frankly, we don’t have the staff time or the server space for such a project!  This means that we must make decisions on what we decide to digitize. Key factors in our decision to digitize collection materials include fragility, demand, and historical import.

Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact cover, November, 1970. The comic book’s covers changed somewhat across the years.  This cover may or may not reflect the psychedelic era in which it was produced.

Fragility was a key factor in one of our first digitization projects, that of the Fenian Brotherhood.  Established in Ireland in 1858 as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, their American branch was known by 1859 as the ‘Fenians,’ with the avowed purpose of overthrowing British rule in Ireland and establishing an Irish Republic. The Fenians in the United States grew to include over 50,000 members and hundreds of thousands of sympathizers by the end of the Civil War.  However, rocked by internal factionalism and opposed by the formidable military power of the British Empire, they never came close to achieving their aims. We chose to digitize this collection in 2003 due in part to its fragility. It is well-used and much of the paper in collection is thin and extremely fragile. Hence, digitizing the Fenian Brotherhood collection is partly a preservation measure—the fewer hands that touch the actual materials, the longer it will last.  The online collection is still widely used and freely available to anyone with an internet connection; it is our third most used digital collection.

You may be wondering, hmmm, if that fancy set of papers is number three, what is the Archives’ most popular digital collection?  Well, that would be The Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact, of course. Treasure Chest was an American Catholic comic book published from 1946 through 1972, available exclusively in Catholic schools throughout the United States.  We digitized the Treasure Chest back in 2004 because we suspected that a Catholic comic book would be appealing to many audiences, though it too has its fragile aspects, comic books tend to have thin pages that tear easily, so that was also a factor.  Treasure Chest has consistently been a chart topper as far as online use.  

A typical reaction upon hearing what the Catholic University Archives makes available online (Catholic University Public Affairs photo collection).

As noted, we have many digital collections available for public use online.  These collections were digitized and made available for free through the joint efforts of the Archives and the Washington Research Libraries Consortium.  Using another model, the Archives teamed up with the ProQuest History Vault to digitize several collections related to U.S. labor history, an area where our materials are particularly strong. ProQuest curates an archive of billions of vetted, indexed documents connected through a variety of research communities. Debuting in 2011, the ProQuest History Vault is constantly adding new primary sources related to widely studied topics in American history. A particular strength is social movements, especially racial justice, women’s rights, and organized labor.  The collections, with enhanced search features, can be purchased as a perpetual archive or as a subscription, providing research access for students and faculty to materials held at geographically dispersed archives. The Terence Powderly, John W. Hayes, and John Mitchell papers are part of the module, ‘Labor Unions in the U.S., 1862-1974: Knights of Labor, AFL, CIO, and AFL-CIO,’ which include collections from the University of Maryland and the Wisconsin Historical Society as well as the Catholic University Archives.

The Archivist’s Nook: Digital Rebirth – Labor Collections at Catholic University

Boxes, microfilm reels, and guide books for the Powderly, Hayes, and Mitchell Papers, 2018. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

The papers of Terence V. Powderly, John W. Hayes, and John Mitchell, three Gilded Age and Progressive Era labor leaders of national importance are now available online in digital format thanks to a partnership between The Catholic University of America (CUA) and ProQuest’s History Vault subscription service. Securing collections of notable Catholic labor leaders like Mitchell, Powderly, and Hayes was facilitated at CUA in the 1940s by labor priests, John A. Ryan, Francis J. Haas, and George G. Higgins, all of whose papers reside in the university’s archives. There were some advances in accessibility via microfilming in the 1970s and more recently with the creation of detailed finding aids and digital collections via the Washington Research Library Consortium (WRLC) of Powderly and Mitchell photographs since 2001. However, the current ProQuest digitization project, based on scanning the microfilm, culminates over seventy years of archival outreach.

Knights of Labor Pamphlet, 1889. T.V. Powderly Papers via the ProQuest History Vault.

Powderly, subject of a previous blog post, was the son of Irish immigrants, born in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, in 1849. He joined the International Union of Machinists and Blacksmiths in 1871 and the Scranton, Pennsylvania, Local Assembly of the Knights of Labor in 1876, where he rose to national leadership as Grand (later General) Master Workman, 1879-1893. He was also a progressive mayor of Scranton, 1878-1884. From 1897-1901, he was Commissioner General of Immigration, and thereafter held several other federal immigration or labor posts. After his death in 1924 Powderly’s papers were retained by various family members until his niece, Mary, donated them in 1941 to CUA through the influence of Msgr. Haas. They richly detail the organization of labor, immigration policy, and political patronage in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. The correspondence and reports are treasure troves of primary source material while the photographs and lantern slides display a wealth of cultural imagery and geographical landmarks.  The microfilming project of 1974 (94 reels) was funded by the Microfilming Corporation of America and edited by John A. Turcheneske, Jr.

Parade in Honor of John Mitchell, Scranton, Pennsylvania, 1903. Mitchell Papers via the ProQuest History Vault.

John William Hayes was born in 1854 in Philadelphia to Irish immigrants. Working as a brakeman he lost his right arm in a railroad accident in 1878 and thereafter learned telegraphy. He joined the Knights in 1874, was elected to their General Executive Board in 1884, and became General Secretary Treasurer in 1888. He worked closely with Powderly until 1893 when Hayes joined with the socialists and populist agrarians to oust Powderly from leadership. Hayes remained in control of the fading Knights, who were losing out to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), first as General Secretary-Treasurer until 1902, then as General Master Workman until the closure of the Knights headquarters in Washington in 1916. The Hayes Papers (49 boxes; 24.5 linear feet) were donated to CUA by his family in 1943, the year after Hayes died, and are almost equally divided between official Knights of Labor correspondence and his personal affairs. They were microfilmed (15 reels) together with the Powderly Papers in 1974.

Mitchell, also subject of a previous blog post, was the legendary leader of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), born 1870 in Braidwood, Illinois. Orphaned at an early age, he worked as a coal miner. He was first a member of the Knights of Labor and then, successively, legislative agent, organizer, vice president and president of the fledgling UMWA.  His leadership in Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902 resulted in significant gains for coal miners and greater recognition for the UMWA. Mitchell was also vice president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and member of various national, state, and local civic organizations. He died in 1919 and is buried in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  In 1942, Msgr. Haas contacted the Mitchell children and arranged for their father’s papers to be donated to the university. They include correspondence and meeting minutes regarding such watershed issues as standardized wages, safe working conditions, and collective bargaining. The Mitchell Papers, sans most clippings and many photographs, was microfilmed (55 reels) and a printed guide prepared by editor, John A Turcheneske, Jr., in 1975.

The promotional brochure for the ProQuest History Vault, 2018

ProQuest is well known in educational circles for curating an archive of billions of vetted, indexed documents connected via a variety of research communities. The ProQuest History Vault debuted in 2011 and is constantly adding new documentation of widely studied topics in American history. A particular strength is social movements, especially racial justice, women’s rights, and organized labor. The collections, with enhanced search features, can be purchased as a perpetual archive or as a subscription, providing research access for students and faculty to materials held at geographically dispersed archives. The Powderly, Hayes, and Mitchell papers are part of the module, ‘Labor Unions in the U.S., 1862-1974: Knights of Labor, AFL, CIO, and AFL-CIO,’ which include collections from the University of Maryland and the Wisconsin Historical Society. Because the History Vault digitization project scanned the 1970s microfilm, portions of the Powderly and Mitchell papers are not represented. Files deemed duplicative or unprocessed, but also printed materials and photographs that did not show up well on microfilm, were omitted. The non-microfilmed portions are so noted on the Powderly and Mitchell finding aids and remain open to traditional archival research, as is also the case with all the original materials. Additionally, and as mentioned above, many Mitchell and Powderly photographs are freely available online via WRLC.

For more information on ProQuest History Vault, visit the ProQuest History Vault webpage.