Preserving in the Face of Danger

In the past few weeks, North America has seen an incredible number of natural disasters, including hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires. While figuring out how to take care of basic needs such as food and shelter, museum workers and archivists have been struggling to figure out how to best take care of their collections. In one recent example, the home of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was just destroyed in a wildfire, presumably along with many artifacts that still remained in the house.

Meanwhile, archivists in the United Kingdom’s National Archives have been dealing with a very different kind of struggle — digitizing their collection and working towards a goal of becoming “a digital archive by design.” By last year, the Archives had made 230 million documents digitally available to the public, compared with 600,000 documents physically available.

The concurrence of these two news items makes one wonder of the possibilities of digitization as a precaution for destruction. What would the implications be if an archives were destroyed, but all documents had been digitized?

Probably the most glaring issue this brings up is that of permanence. which James M. O’Toole has argued has changed meaning over the years. Whether this quality is interpreted as keeping the documents fixed in time, preserving the information as separate from the physical document, or the intrinsic value of the documents themselves, digitization calls permanence into question through potential issues such as duplication, file loss, or access to an internet connection.

That said, wide-scale digitization cannot replace the appeal of original documents; O’Toole describes how, as technology advanced and microfilm usage increased in the early 20th century, so did concerns about preserving deteriorating documents. While digitization provides many important benefits beyond convenient preservation, such as wider access, it cannot compare to the visceral experience of handling original documents.

So how would the UK’s National Archives fare, for example, with damage to documents given its massive digitized collection? Some may argue, as Schellenberg does, of the importance of a document’s intrinsic value, and that research done without it is weaker. Others, as O’Toole notes, are more concerned with maintaining an information-rich society, in which case the digitization would suffice.

All in all, while digitizing documents should not be an archive’s main defense against potential destruction, it’s a technological process that vastly increases access and ease of research.


O’Toole, James M. “On the Idea of Permanence.” The American Archivist 52, no. 1 (1989): 10-25.

Sulek, Julia Prodis. “Peanuts creator Charles Schulz’s widow flees Santa Rosa fire, home destroyed.” The Mercury News, 12 October 2017.

Trendall, Sam. “How The National Archives is digitising 1,000 years of history.” Public Technology, 5 October 2017.



Archives as a Site for Political Action: Argentina and the IHRA

Last month, it was announced that a large collection of WWII-era documents from Argentina would be turned over to President Benyamin Netanyahu. 5 terabytes’ worth of digital newspapers, telegrams, letters, etc will be used to help investigate how much Argentina assisted Nazi war criminals after the end of WWII. Several notable Nazi leaders, such as Adolf Eichmann, were found to have escaped to Argentina after the war, despite the country supporting the Allies. This is a tremendous opportunity to clear up a country’s participation in the aftermath of WWII and potentially work towards making sure war criminals do not have similar ratlines to fall back on in the future.

While reading this article, I was intrigued that these records would be given from one president to the other, as opposed to from specific Argentinian archives to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). At the same time, I was impressed that President Mauricio Macri was giving the records at all.

The article makes clear the main reason why the articles were delivered president-to-president: this was an opportunity, besides initiating a new area of Holocaust research, to renew diplomatic relationships between the two countries. In addition to receiving the documents, President Netanyahu spoke about their common allies and enemies. This falls in line with our class discussions about how politics and related factors might influence a donor to give documents to one archive over another. In this case, giving the documents directly from one president to another acts as an opportunity to strengthen their allyship.

As repositories of memories, archives can play a powerful role in how a governmental body is seen and understood by others. In some cases, such as Guatemala’s national archives regarding the National Police as described in Kirsten Weld’s Paper Cadavers, records are destroyed or otherwise hidden in order to protect a dictatorship and other wrongdoers. In Weld’s book, non-governmental actors stumbled upon the archives and had to restore and process it, in order to settle the past. On the other hand, despite Argentina playing some kind of role in the escape routes for Nazi war criminals, by turning over archival records, they are acknowledging their errors and supporting the investigation.

“Argentina Turns Over Tens of Thousands of Holocaust Documents to Israel.” The Jerusalem Post, 13 September 2017.

Weld, Kirsten. Paper Cadavers: the Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

To See Or Not To See? Personal Papers and Privacy

Obtaining the records of a famous scholar, writer, or other personality is often a cause for excitement. Having a notable person’s papers accessible can open the doors to new kinds of research, as well as increase usage at the archives. But it can also create stress — particularly in terms of navigating the issue of privacy.

Archivists at the Harry Ransom Center, a library at University of Texas at Austin, recently acquired the papers of Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient and other works. This collection includes handwritten manuscripts, journals, audio recordings, and correspondences. Ondaatje wrote letters to many other famous authors who are still alive, such as Margaret Atwood, and Ondaatje is still alive as well.

According to the SAA’s Code of Ethics, archivists must protect the privacy of living people represented in the archives, in order to not embarrass them. However, it’s unclear what that privacy looks like, and to what extent it should be protected. Archives tend to approach this issue according to their own guidelines, with some archives tending towards completely open access, and other archives completely restricting records involving living people.

So how does the Harry Ransom Center treat Ondaatje’s papers? While the article does not say, the HRC archivists might have reached a privacy agreement with Ondaatje which defines who can access which records, and when. This could have involved making the journals accessible while restricting the letters, or putting a time delay for when letters can become unsealed in the future.

It’s also possible that no privacy agreement was reached at all. In that case, it’s up to the archivists to decide, which may involve intense research about the papers’ subjects, creating standards for what constitutes privacy and potential embarrassment, and plenty of difficult decisions.

However, it is unlikely that Ondaatje’s papers came with any major privacy concerns. Privacy issues often come up with personal correspondence, and Ondaatje’s papers are primarily connected to his work. The letters described in the article primarily involve his writing and their adaptations, leaving less room for sensitive topics and secret confessions. That said, because Ondaatje is still alive, if he adds more papers to the acquisition, the issue of privacy may have to come up again and again, increasing the risk of embarrassing others.



Hodson, Sara S. “In Secret Kept, in Silence Sealed: Privacy in the Papers of Authors and Celebrities.” The American Archivist 67, no. 2 (2004): 194-211.

Krause, Suzanne. “Archive of Michael Ondaatje, author of ‘The English Patient,’ acquired.” Cultural Compass. 25 September, 2017.

Points Made Later: Reconceptualizing the Knife as a Folk Object

(Let’s see how many knife-related puns I can sneak into my blog posts this semester?)

This week in class, we read a selection of articles that presented different approaches to studying material culture. One particularly fascinating article, which may prove useful as I embark on studying my object, was an excerpt from Henry Glassie’s Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States. In this excerpt, as part of a larger exploration of folk scholarship in the United States, Glassie attempts to define what a folk object is and how to study it.

According to Glassie, folk cultures exist within or in proximity to a larger society. When studied in other geographic areas such as Europe, folk cultures are often easy to outline, homogenous, and defined by specific oral traditions. In comparison, the United States has experienced such immense patterns of migration that the typical understanding of folk culture does not necessarily translate. He thus defines folk culture as an unpopular, or smaller, tradition in proximity to a larger society. Folk objects thus come out of that smaller tradition and often have an equivalent within a larger society. For example, Glassie compares a modern farmer using oxen and yoke in the field as opposed to a tractor. Despite having the more advanced technology, the farmer may choose to use the oxen and yoke due to family or cultural tradition, unfamiliarity with the technology, a personal preference, etc.

While Glassie’s article focuses on objects from their conception — similar to Prown — he ultimately focuses on objects as “alien.” For example, he describes how the best way to study the construction of a folk object is through observation of the process. It’s easy to assume that modern historians are not familiar with some of the craft techniques associated with common folk objects, like whittling or basket-weaving. He also explains how many folk objects are deliberately commercialized — Lancaster County immediately came to mind. While the degree or intention of the folk object does not change, it takes on a quality of voyeurism, where the value of the object is its folk status.

So, how does this remind me of my knife? While it was (presumably) crafted around the turn of the 20th century when it was used on the Gazela, it was later used to cut the ribbon when the Gazela was opened to the public. Speaking with Craig Bruns, the curator at Independence Seaport Museum, I learned that other artifacts have been employed in a similar manner for milestones. In this case, because the knife has some kind of connection to the Gazela, it was deemed worthy of cutting the ribbon. It takes on this voyeuristic quality (although then again, don’t all Museum-exhibited artifacts?) as well as a commercialized quality that I’m sure could have made for a great photo-op. Additionally, the knife is immediately identified as coming from a unpopular/uncommon tradition, as celebrants could have used contemporary or more-common tools such as scissors (giant or otherwise!) to cut the ribbon. Its traditional and unpopular origins lends the knife, and thus the ribbon-cutting ceremony, an air of authenticity that resembles the usage of many actual folk objects.

Now of course, Glassie also clarifies that an object cannot become a folk object through use, or lose its folk status through disuse. However, using Glassie’s writing to contextualize the knife’s place within Gazela‘s opening ceremony helps to explain the knife’s use decades after its original creation and usage.

Once I do more research into Gazela and late 19th/early 20th century knife making, I could try to argue whether it’s actually a folk object or not according to Glassie’s classifications. In the meantime, though, I’ve been trying to take his cue and learn about knife carving…

Henry Glassie, Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968), 1-17.

Introducing this knife!

While the semester as a whole will contribute towards studying, documenting, and somehow preserving Lesley the sneakbox, each of us will also be investigating an object within the Independence Seaport Museum’s collection that has some connection to sneakboxes but has not been processed. Mine is a knife.

Image of a knife in tissue paper. Photo by author.

The knife is 10″ long, where the external blade is 3.25″ long and secured to the handle with 2.25″ worth of wire wrapping. The blade was very long and thin, like a filleting knife. The handle, made of wood and mostly cut along the grain,  seemed to have an even and practiced shape to it. It’s covered in various designs, including a crescent moon, vines, a pierced heart, two names (“G. A. Paul” and “L. W. Bishop”), and a date (“Oct 2 06”). It is unclear whether these designs were carved, burned, or otherwise made, who made them, and whether they were made when the knife was or later on. There are also several notches and nicks, presumably from wear-and-tear. The handle is coated with a light finish.

Close-up of left side of handle. Photo by author. 

It felt good to hold the knife! It was a comfortable weight in my hands, and when I picked it up, it easily fit into my palm. The “knob” at the end of the handle rested comfortably against my palm, and thumb quickly found a concave area on the underside of the knife. This is a knife that I would have little problem using for extended periods of time.

From the accession records, I know that this knife was used to cut the ribbon at the celebration when the Gazela Primiero opened to the public in the 1960-70s. Presumably, the knife has some history with the ship, which was built in 1883. With the length and width of the blade, I imagine that this knife would have been good for deboning fish as well as smaller boat repairs. The blade is in fact curved slightly to one side — a sign that it was used frequently.

This knife brings up a number of questions to investigate. My top ones are:

  • Who are G. A. Paul and L. W. Bishop?
  • Who is J. Welles Henderson, who donated the knife to ISM? Does he have any connection to Paul and Bishop?
  • What happened on October 2, 1902?
  • What is the cultural significance, if any, of the handle designs?
  • What kind of work did the Gazela do, and how could this knife have been involved in that?

There is one book published about the Gazela, by Allison Saville in 1978. I will start there to check her references, as well as contact the Philadelphia Ship Preservation Guild to find out where the Gazela’s ship logs are stored. I will look for references to the date and names, as well as possible uses for the knife. Additionally, I will look into Portuguese symbols and boating culture to investigate the handle designs as well as knife handle carving/burning.

While receiving the knife as my object was unexpected, I felt an immediate emotional attachment to it — maybe it was how intricately the handle is decorated, or how delicate the blade is. I have also spent the past few days asking friends, “Hey, have I shown you my new knife?” before showing my pictures to their confused and concerned faces. That said, I look forward to spending my semester uncovering the story of this knife.

“Keepers of the Secrets”? Not quite

I missed class this week, because it was Rosh Hashanah. I spent the evening, and the next day, in services in honor of the Jewish New Year. It’s a time of reflection, of celebration, and of preparing oneself for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For me, it’s been a time of reflecting on my values: how have I stood up for my values in the last year, and how can I continue to do so in the upcoming year?

Amusingly, my Archives class was thinking about the same thing! Well, thinking about ethics and values in archives, such as through the Code of Ethics set forth by the SAA. The class discussed issues of accessibility, statistics, legal limitations on use, and even emotional labor. These values were both highlighted and brought into question by the recent profile by James Somers, “Keepers of the Secrets.”

This profile focuses on the archives at the New York Public Library, mostly focusing on their current acting archivist, Thomas Lannon. The article delves into the anatomy of the archive, such as by detailing how collections are acquisitioned and processed and the difficulties of knowing what records are significant or mundane. It also spends considerable time discussing the benefits and problems regarding MPLP, which we discussed last week.

One thing that particularly stood out to me was how the archive was framed by the author, particularly in the introduction. The author needs a guide to get to the archive, which took her a year to learn to navigate. He describes why he was forced to trade his pen for a pencil, and why Lannon handles documents with his bare hands so he can feel their delicacy. Archives hold boxes of chaos from decades of backlogs, but nestled in that chaos are unexpected gemstones waiting to be discovered. Lannon himself was compared to a stereotypical archivist: surprisingly young, surprisingly well-dressed, surprisingly polite.

Especially as someone who does not spend much time in archives, I feel surrounded by images of the archive as a place to walk on eggshells, as hidden away, as intimidating and overwhelming. All of these images, such as those found in Somers’s article, discourage use, especially by new researchers and those unfamiliar with primary resources. Most archives (with some exceptions) thrive on having the “widest possible accessibility.” This is, of course, the fulfillment of one of the purposes of the archives: to make records available to the public. However, increasing archival use (and then keeping statistics and user information of that use) can help to support grants, encourage donors, and ultimately help to keep the archive open and able to serve!


“SAA Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics.” Society of American Archivists.

Somers, James. “Keepers of the Secrets.” The Village Voice. September 20, 2017.

Schmuland, Arlene. “The Archival Image in Fiction.” The American Archivist, 62 (Spring 1999): 24-73.

Archives in Surprising Places

Last week in my Archives class, we talked about some organizational basics: mission statements, donor options, appraisal policies, etc. It was fascinating to see the nuts and bolts of how archives are established and directed, and to test our comprehension with some hypothetical scenarios. However, our discussion also made me have a small breakthrough — in understanding a project going on at work!

Our curatorial team has been developing a new memory-collecting platform, where users can post images, audio, video, and text to celebrate their family’s history. It seeks to be a place where American Jews can commemorate those who came before them and begin to create a legacy for those who will come after.

And I couldn’t discern an answer to a seemingly simple question: who is allowed to contribute?

The obvious answer is “American Jews,” but that’s tricky to define. And where do interfaith families fit in, or non-Jewish staff and other Museum associates?

I realized that I was thinking about this project as a social media platform, when I should have been treating it like an archives. Instead of considering this as a place where people can share their stories, it makes more sense to consider it a repository that is collecting stories from people.

Having a collection development policy would be helpful in answering the question of who can contribute. There is some equivalent to this policy for a number of artificial collections being constructed within the platform: in these collections, users are encouraged to share memories relating to topics such as food and stories of migration.

I had also been concerned, especially after taking Digital History last semester, what the copyright situation would be for anything uploaded. Did the respective user retain all rights? Or could the Museum use submissions in marketing and other materials? While this would be outlined in a user agreement, it made sense to think of submissions as being on deposit: the platform would have custody of submissions but not necessarily ownership of them.

Of course, this platform is not actually an archives. Submissions do not need to be appraised or processed, for example. However, it shares many concerns with the function and workings of an archive that unexpectedly helped me to understand it a little better.