October is American Archives Month

by Rakashi Chand, Senior Library Assistant

Every day the very talented and skilled archivists of the MHS work behind the scenes to ensure that the Society’s collections are well preserved, well organized, and easily accessible for researchers today and tomorrow. To celebrate archives month, we asked a few of our archivists a few fun questions so you could get better acquainted.

Why did you decide to be an archivist?

Alexandra Bush, Digital Productions Assistant (AB): I went into the archives field because I’ve always loved history and wanted to find a way to celebrate that without the need for social skills.

Katherine H Griffin, Nora Saltonstall Preservation Librarian (KG): I decided to be an Archivist when I was studying in graduate school in a public history program. I was originally interested in working in a museum, but I quickly found that I had an affinity for working with historical manuscripts.

Brenda Lawson, Vice President for Collections (BL): I became interested in archives while I was working in the Williams College Archives as an undergraduate.  Instead of pursuing graduate work in psychology (my major), I found myself looking at job announcements and graduate programs in archives.  I chose to go directly to Simmons College to pursue my library science degree with a concentration in archives management.  I later added an M.A. in history when the college began offering the dual degree program.

Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, Reference Librarian (AC): At the age of 12 I got my public history start as a volunteer docent at a house museum in our town; after earning my B.A. in history I decided to pursue graduate degrees in history and library science so that I could hone my research skills and help make sources for historical storytelling accessible to all.

What is your Archive-story?

AB:  It’s not a very interesting archive story, but I’ll always remember the end of my first internship here. I worked for Collections Services processing a collection of 14 cartons, the Thornton W. Burgess papers. The collection took months of work to process and was one of my first large projects. Maybe a month after my internship ended, I got an email from Laura Lowell, one of our processing archivists, letting me know that a researcher had requested to work with the collection. There’s no better feeling than that!

KG: The Librarian who was here when I started–Mr. John D. Cushing–was an exacting critic and somewhat difficult to please.  He made some very useful suggestions about my writing style that I have never forgotten–for instance, how to use the verb “to comprise,” and how to avoid using the intransitive in writing.  I will always be grateful that I had the benefit of his tutelage, early in my career.

AC: When I first moved to Boston in 2007 one of the first archives I visited was the Schlesinger Library which holds the records of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, creators of groundbreaking 1970s women’s health text Our Bodies, Ourselves. I got to read correspondence and other documents relating to the early editions of the book–and then several years later I was invited to participate in producing new material for the 40th anniversary edition! Once a researcher who accessed the OBOS archive, I then became a project participant whose contributions would in turn become a part of their historical records for future generations of researchers.

What is a fun fact about you?

AB:  As a young child I met one of the members of Metallica. He was close with my friend’s parents so we visited his house and used his Jacuzzi. I didn’t know who he was back then and still can’t remember which band member it was.

KG:  Hmmm. I love interacting with the public even though I’m often buried in the basement. I also love solving manuscript mysteries:  dating undated items, and deciphering difficult handwriting.

BL:  I can polka backwards.

AC:  I got my first tattoo, an illustration from the children’s book Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, as a reward for finishing library school.

What is your favorite collection/item?

AB:  It’s hard to pick one favorite item from the collection, but I do love the Sarah Gooll Putnam diaries. SGP, who eventually became a portrait painter, filled her 27 volume diary with sketches in addition to writing and photographs. Over the years–she began the diary at age 9 and stopped at age 61–her art evolves and becomes more sophisticated.

KG: My favorite item/s in the collection are ships’ logs.  I’m continually amazed at the life of the seamen, the hardships, and their endurance.

AC: This summer I was introduced to I am an American: First Lessons in Citizenship by Sarah Cone Bryant (1920), an example of the nationalist narratives produced to educate U.S. schoolchildren during a period of strong anti-immigration sentiment. The text helps me see how ideologies from the early twentieth century continue to influence our political and cultural crosscurrents today.

Dan Hinchen, Reference Librarian: I think my favorite item is the Porcineograph created for William Emerson Baker, owner of Ridge Hill Farm. It’s a striking image with a lot of fun details to take in if you look closely.

Nancy Heywood, Senior Archivist for Digital Initiatives: One of my favorite items in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society is a 4-page manuscript draft of a letter from Roger Sherman to Françios Marbois written in November of 1782 describing many aspects of Connecticut (the history, geography, natural resources, social customs). In the letter, Sherman replied to questions posed by François Marbois, the secretary to the minister from France, Anne-César, Chevalier de La Luzerne.  In 1780 Marbois, acting on behalf of the French government, sent requests to representatives in presumably all of the thirteen colonies. Although the replies about Virginia are the best known (because Thomas Jefferson was the author of those responses and he published a lengthy book conveying all the research he did), Sherman’s responses about Connecticut are clear and informative.

I like Sherman’s letter because it is an example of an unexpected document a researcher finds during the course of research in an archival collection and also because the it is a draft.  I came across the letter when I was part of a team working on the Society’s digital presentation of Jefferson’s complicated manuscript copy of Notes on the State of Virginia (his lengthy work included numerous additions and changes to his manuscript text). Sherman’s draft letter is a wonderful way to make the reality of Marbois’s questionnaire more apparent.  It is evidence that there were many men in many colonies writing, thinking, and revising their answers to questions from a French official.

Now that you have had the chance to get to know a few of our fabulous staff members, visit the MHS to meet the rest of us! We are here to answer your questions, introduce you to the archive, talk about our favorite collections, and guide you in your research.

Happy American Archives Month!