Sunday, May 18, 2014

Tour of the RIT/NTID Deaf Studies Archive

Deaf-Mutes Journal, 1899

Typically, the cultural heritage institutions I've toured aren't directly connected to me, except in terms of my interest in their holdings and archivists/curators. However, the Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute of the Deaf (RIT/NTID) Deaf Studies Archive's collections have a different affect on me.

During my MLIS studies, I took two courses that resonated very deeply with me and influenced the descriptive aspect of my archives work in a large way. The two courses were Human Information Behavior (HIB) and Art Librarianship. In the Art Librarianship course, one assignment was to create an annotated bibliography for a very narrow topic. I love a good annotated bibliography (and a challenge), and I had a very narrow topic from a paper I had written for HIB -- "Information Seeking Behaviors of Deaf Culture Artists."

I don't remember how I came across Deaf Culture Artists, but I thought the artists (and deaf patrons as a whole) might be a vastly under-served group when it came to library services. Both the professors of these courses recommended that I submit the large paper, with the attached bibliography, to Art Documentation, the journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America. I was grateful for the encouragement because the paper was eventually published.

Ameslan Prohibited, Betty G. Miller

During the writing/editing of the published paper, I was in contact with two wonderful members of the Deaf Culture Art community, Dr. Betty G. Miller and Patti Durr. They both were very helpful and gave me a great deal of information on De'VIA and RIT's programs, respectively. When MARAC announced that it was holding the Spring 2014 meeting in Rochester, I knew I had to ask for a tour of the Archive.

About My Hosts, Becky Simmons and Joan Naturale
Becky Simmons, RIT Archivist and Joan Naturale, NTID Reference Librarian were very kind and gracious hosts. Becky provided me with a background on the overall RIT archives, while Joan highlighted collection standouts and explained their cultural importance. Prior to joining RIT, Becky served in multiple positions over 18 years at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. Joan's background includes teaching high school English to deaf students at the Alabama School for the Deaf, serving as English Instructional Specialist for deaf students at Northwestern Connecticut Community College, and Librarian at the Austine School for the Deaf. She also taught American Sign Language and English classes to middle and high school students at Austine. Becky has been at RIT for 11 years, and Joan will celebrate her 15th year in July.

During the tour, Joan also introduced me to Jeanne Behm, RIT American Sign Language & Deaf Studies Community Center Coordinator. You'll meet her later in two videos (below). Both Joan and Jeanne were interpreted by Jonathan Hopkins, NTID Associate Interpreter. 

Becky Simmons, RIT Archivist, with Newby Ely Collection posters featuring deaf characters.

Joan Naturale, NTID Reference Librarian, with Deaf Characters in Films Collection posters featuring deaf characters.

About the RIT/NTID Deaf Studies Archive
The Archive is a subset of the RIT Archive Collections, which also contains the university archives, a substantial art collection, and special collections. According to its web site, the Archive's charge is to document "RIT’s central role in educating the Deaf and hard of hearing in the United States and draws from Rochester's significant Deaf community. The main focus of the archive is Deaf culture, Deaf studies, Deaf education, Deaf theater, Deaf artists and Deafness."

Established in 2006, the Archive includes NTID records, collections by and about Robert Panara (the first deaf faculty member), Harry Lang research files (another longtime NTID faculty member), Deaf Rochester Film Festival records, Student Life tapes, Lights On! Deaf Theater records, Lee Brody TTY Phone Collection, Patti Durr Deaf Holocaust Survivor Interviews and Films, International Archive of Deaf Artists, and many more (follow this link to see the entire list).

Joan says, "The most popular collections are NTID History materials, NTID/Deaf Theater materials, Tripod, Deaf Films Posters, the Panara collections, Lang collections, deaf artwork, the first videophone, Ahira Webster diary, and Deaf during WW II/Holocaust materials." The Archive has 2-3 visitors per week, not counting e-mail and phone inquiries. The types of materials patrons can experience include paper, photographs, artwork, electronic files, and videos.

Of the many items in the Archive, Joan's favorites are "Deaf artwork because many deaf artists express themselves via De’VIA, a unique art form, but there are talented traditional deaf artists as well... Panara collections because he was the first Deaf faculty to teach deaf studies, particularly deaf characters in literature and film, and he is a talented writer/poet and sign artist."

In the video below, Joan uses materials from the Deaf Characters in Film Collection (purchased with library budget funds) to tell me about Charlie Chaplin's deaf actor, Granville Redmond.

She also favors the Lang collections "because of his in-depth research and biographies on influential deaf people in various fields that we didn’t know were deaf such as Ruth Benedict, Dorothy Fisher, etc."

First Videophone used on campus

Other materials that top Joan's list: "The first videophone that was used at NTID for a few years in the late 1960s, which was created by a Rochester company and shows that NTID was innovative and ahead of its time; the deaf survivors of WWII materials; Tripod materials because this was the first bilingual/bicultural school in the U.S. located in the LA area where both deaf and hearing children were taught together using sign language with two teachers also using sign language; and the Ahira Webster diary (from Fredonia, NY) which describes life at the N.Y. State School for the Deaf in Fanwood in the pre Civil War era."

Regarding the Ahira Webster diary, see the video below for Joan's explanation of how it and the newspaper at the top of this post were found.

The video below shows Joan talking to me about Webster's diary itself.

In our email correspondence, Joan told me that that the collection that has had the greatest impact on the patrons is the Deaf Art/Deaf Artists collection. She explains, "Many are attracted to the visual arts and a Deaf Art course is taught on campus. We have a Deaf Union Flag created by a French Deaf artist, Arnaud Balard, which shows a turquoise hand outlined in gold against a dark blue background. The colors have symbolic meanings: turquoise represents sign language and the sky; gold represents knowledge, light, hope, enlightenment and sun; and dark blue represents Deafhood, an individual and collective journey to combat audism and embrace Deaf Gain. Paddy Ladd, who coined the term Deafhood, established the Blue Ribbon ceremony to commemorate deaf people’s experiences around the globe, and this color is used by the organization The World Federation of the Deaf (the Nazis also assigned this color to identify deaf people during WWII)."

The video below features Joan showing me the flag and explaining its meaning.

In Fall 2015, NTID will be celebrating 25 years of De'VIA art, and will be exhibiting some of the works. Currently, De'VIA works are on exhibit at the RIT American Sign Language and Deaf Studies Community Center at the Wallace Library (downstairs from the Archive), in Joan Naturale's office, and at NTID's Roscia Hall. On the way to the Center, we dropped by Joan's office where she showed me some De'VIA art (shown below).

L’abbé de L’Epée (lightbox), created by Arnaud Balard, 2012

Deaf Women Soup created by Ann Silver, 1995

At the Center, I met Jeanne Behm, RIT American Sign Language & Deaf Studies Community Center Coordinator. In the two videos below, she talks with me about Arnaud Balard's work George Veditz, as well as Uzi Buzgalo's Artwork, Flower of Lanugage.

Rochester, N.Y. has the largest deaf population per capita, even larger than Washington, D.C., where Gallaudet University sits. Because the Archive collects materials on the history of NTID's founding; deaf education; and many more influential materials on local, U.S., and international deaf culture, it serves the need of preserving this important portion of our collective historical memory. If you travel to the Rochester area, don't miss visiting the RIT/NTID Deaf Studies Archive.

Contact Information
Becky Simmons,, (585) 475-2557
Joan Naturale,, (585) 286-4635
The Wallace Center
Rochester Institute of Technology
90 Lomb Memorial Dr.
Rochester, NY 14623

Friday, January 03, 2014

Doing More with Less -- Using Newspaper Ads and Loaned Postcards for a Holiday Exhibit

Fall and Winter Holidays in Chester Exhibit, 2013. Photo Copyright Deb Schiff, 2013.
Holidays in Chester Exhibit. Photo credit Deb Schiff, copyright 2013.
In early October 2013, I began asking my coworkers and volunteers if they had any holiday objects, photos, or other items I could borrow for the upcoming Holidays in Chester exhibit I was planning. Unfortunately, no one had anything to offer. I then turned to our most generous donor, Joan Case, to ask if she had anything I could display.

Later that week, Joan came to my office with a giant smile and a three-ring binder filled with the most marvelous holiday postcards from the early 1900s and 1910s. They had been sent to her mother and uncle when they were children. The cards were in excellent condition and properly housed in polyester sleeves. Importantly, they scanned and printed well when I made facsimiles for the months-long exhibit (November through early January). While I'd love to use the originals in an exhibit, it would be a shame for these gorgeous cards to fade while on display under UV lights.

All of the items in the exhibit (with the exception of a turkey-shaped salt shaker and some fabric leaves I'd bought at the dollar store) were facsimiles. Because the postcards were overwhelmingly Christmas-themed, I needed to supplement them with a diverse array of holiday items. I also required enough items to populate the main display case by the front desk and the new small, wall case I recently purchased. The little case is mounted on a wall adjacent to my office. The facsimiles in that case show the backs and fronts of holiday postcards, so that patrons could see the warm greetings sent to Joan's family members.

Holidays in Chester Exhibit, image 2. Photo copyright Deb Schiff 2013.
Holidays in Chester Exhibit. Photo credit Deb Schiff, copyright 2013.
Although it also was Christmas-themed, I made a smaller facsimile of a masthead from the Christmas 1944 issue of The Honor Roll newsletter. I remembered what a striking image of the town it had, and thought it would provide a focal point for the main display. You can see it in the upper right corner of the photo above this paragraph.

The remaining items in the exhibit originated in The Mendham-Chester Tribune and the Observer-Tribune, its successor newspaper. These materials included local stories that highlighted the season, as well as advertisements. Surprisingly, there weren't many holiday stories that could be used in the exhibit. Perseverance pays, however, because I did manage to find one item highlighting former Mayor (and famed chicken farmer) Janet Abeles cooking in her kitchen (lower center of the photo above).

The early (1950s) Tribunes' publishers kept a tradition of selling ads to local businesses for a special holiday section. These notices included thank yous to patrons, holiday greetings, and reminders of items for sale. Often, they featured lively holiday designs.

Holidays in Chester Exhibit. Photo credit Deb Schiff, copyright 2013.
Holidays in Chester Exhibit. Photo credit Deb Schiff, copyright 2013.
Above is a close-up photo of three advertisements and one postcard. The original postcard has a lovely 3D effect with raised gold sections indicating a folded-back area where an attractive, blonde, early 19th century woman dressed hat to toe in holiday red is carrying a gift. It's a lovely card and the facsimile doesn't do it justice. Thankfully, our donor has hinted that the card's future includes becoming part of her family's collection at the library.

The advertisements include one for a Jeep on sale at Apgar's Garage, as well as two New Year's Eve parties at the Chester Inn and Red Cricket Inn.

Two major exhibits are in the works for 2014:
  1. Celebrating the 350th anniversary of New Jersey, I'll be mounting an exhibit showcasing select sections of our 1860 New Jersey Topographical Map. The exhibit will be coordinated with a featured speaker, Maxine Lurie, on April 29th.
  2. The 10th anniversary of the Chester Library addition and renovation takes place in 2014. We have many blueprints and photographs that will be highlighted in the exhibit occupying the cases during the second half of the year.
As I continue to learn more about exhibits, I try to put my new knowledge into practice. The greatest teacher has been the viewing of other exhibits, whether in libraries, museums, or other institutions. So, my cultural institutional friends, don't be surprised if I pinch one of your better practices!

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Tour of Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Thomas Edison National Historical Park Entrance


You might remember my nephew Tyler from other adventures we've had -- a Famous Fat Dave's food tour of NYC and a special food tour of our own devising. Tyler's now in the undergraduate engineering program at Rutgers University. With that in mind, I asked him if he would be interested in visiting the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange. "I'm all in!" he replied.

I quickly contacted the Park's archivist, Leonard DeGraaf, who very kindly made space in his schedule to give us a tour and show us some of archive's treasures. The tour was one of the most fun and interesting archives tours I've had -- not only due to DeGraaf's depth of knowledge and generosity, but also because Tyler had a great time learning about Edison and why archives are important to researchers and the public at large (from someone other than his Auntie Deb).

The big surprise came at the end of our tour when we sat down in the archive reading room to see some of the treasures DeGraaf had set aside to show us. Not only did we see some remarkable examples of Edison's documentation, but we learned that DeGraaf was about to publish a book! Since our visit, the book has been published (with a Forward by Bill Gates, no less), and it is called Edison and the Rise of Innovation. DeGraaf very kindly gave me select portions of the book which whet my appetite to read the entire text. The photos are beautiful, and the text is very well written.

About the Archivist

Leonard DeGraaf has just celebrated his 12th year as an archivist at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park's archives. DeGraaf says he became an archivist "because I enjoy working with original documents and making them available to researchers."

In addition to publishing his new book, his current project is arranging Edison's correspondence files for the years 1920-1931. Because the inventor was so connected to his businesses and interested in what the general public had to say about products, I can only imagine the linear footage dedicated to those correspondence files.

As archivists, most of us love what we do. DeGraaf is no exception. "I enjoy the diversity of archival work -- processing documents, writing finding aids, answering reference questions. I also enjoy learning new things. Edison was involved in so many different activities -- there is always something new to learn," he says. But as with any profession, ours comes with inherent challenges, mainly concerning storage space. At the Park, DeGraaf concurs, "lack of proper storage space to protect the collections is our biggest challenge."

When I asked DeGraaf what advice he would give a student or young professional, he replied,
I would advise students and young professionals to look for meaningful volunteer opportunities at cultural institutions and take advantage of free or low-cost training opportunities. Libraries, museums, and archives often offer workshops – a great way to learn new skills and meet other professionals. Anything you can do to enhance your writing and public speaking abilities – two important career skills – will also make you more competitive.

About the Archives and Collections at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

One of the most remarkable things about the Park is that "most of it is left as it was when Edison was here," says DeGraaf. The U.S. Congress designated Thomas Edison’s West Orange laboratory and nearby estate, Glenmont, as Edison National Historic Site in September 1962. In 2009, the lab and Glenmont were re-designated Thomas Edison National Historical Park.

The archive houses 5-6 million pages of material. While the Park has 29 full-time staffers, only two are archivists. The Park's patrons run the gamut from students and academics to all manner of media, park staff, and the general public. As far as the archive goes, most of its patrons contact the archivists by email or telephone. DeGraaf and his colleague respond to 800-1000 reference requests per year.

"Because Edison employed thousands of workers in his factories, we receive many requests from people doing family or genealogical research," DeGraaf clarifies. There are no personnel files, but there are payroll records. However, those records are not yet indexed or digitized (sounds like a volunteer opportunity to me).

Among the unsung heroes of the collection are Edison's business and financial records. Two examples are shown below.

The experimental accounts in particular are valuable because they give a snapshot of the work in the lab on a given experiment. Was is profitable? If not, why not? These are the relevant questions that researchers can answer by looking at the notebooks and account books. DeGraaf says, "We need more research on the operation of Edison's companies to understand why they succeeded or failed."

Another fascinating, but underutilized part of the archive "are the many letters Edison received from the public on a wide variety of topics. These letters offer an opportunity to study social attitudes about technology and invention in the early 20th century," says DeGraaf. 

Eighty of the collections have been processed, and he notes that while finding aids are sent out at request, the Park does need a way for researches to access a guide to the archives. Meanwhile "the Thomas Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University has published material from the Edison archives for the period up to 1919. Of this published material, documents for the period up to 1898 have been digitized and are available at the Edison Papers Project website:," says DeGraaf.

In terms of use, the Park's collection of 60,000 historic photographs is the most popular. For example, here is one of the man himself that DeGraaf kindly sent me. Edison is sitting at the desk that still resides in library shown in the photo of DeGraaf.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park.
While the archival collection is mostly paper-based, the museum collection contains 400,000 objects and 35,000 sound recordings on disc and cylinder formats. When Tyler and I toured the museum, we saw where Edison would audition new musical acts for his recording label.


Tyler in Edison's Music Room
Edison's Music Room

Edison's Music Room

DeGraaf's favorite items are Edison's laboratory notebooks. He says, "They offer an intimate look at how Edison approached invention and provide details about how he designed the phonograph, electric light, and many other laboratory products."

Edison's communal lab notebook, 1880, Experiment No. 1.
It is especially illuminating to see the shared research and meticulous data collected at the laboratory. It is even more profound to discover the impact all this work had on the world. DeGraaf's new book points out the monumental affect Edison's labs had:
When he was born in 1847, there were no industrial research laboratories, no phonographs, no motion picture cameras, and no electric power systems, let alone practical electric lights. In 1931, the year Edison died, the United States produced 320 lightbulbs and consumed 110.4 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. Seventy-five million Americans attended the movies each week, spending $719 million ($10.6 billion today) at the box office.
When the National Parks re-open, I encourage you to tour the museum and outlying buildings. Along with self-guided phone tours, some of the park staff give tours. Also visit Edison's home, Glenmont -- it's a short ride away on a large piece of property that should be especially pretty with the leaves changing now.

The archive is not open to the public, so I appreciate DeGraaf letting a fellow archivist and her nephew have an inside peek at the Thomas Edison National Park's archival collections.

Contact Information

Since National Parks are closed at the moment, I recommend emailing so that any inquiry would be waiting when the furloughed workers return.

Leonard DeGraaf
Thomas Edison National Historical Park
211 Main Street
West Orange, NJ 07052
973-736-0550, ext. 22

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Work Update: Exhibit

“Chester’s ‘Tommie’ Barker – a Year in Professional Women’s Baseball, a Lifetime of Memories” exhibit, Rossney E. Smyth Memorial Display Case, Chester Library, Chester, New Jersey. Photograph © Debra Schiff 2013.

I'll admit it. I'm a bit envious of libraries with multiple display cases and areas dedicated to exhibits. While the image above shows a fine, sizable display case, it's the only one we have at Chester Library.  If we had, perhaps a square museum case, I could place it in that corner all the way in the back by the quiet study rooms. I could outfit the case with one of our not-quite-rare, but certainly scarce, old books. For now, I'll be happy with the one above.

The exhibit shown in the image above is focused on the terrific Tommie Barker, our resident sports legend. She played professional women's baseball in 1950, not long before the end of the All-American Girls' Baseball League. Tommie (whose father wanted a boy and whose real name is Lois) played softball on a team she helped create, the Chester Farmerettes and previously on the Roxbury High School team before the League's tryouts in Irvington, New Jersey.

After earning a spot in the "camp" phase of the tryouts she took several trains to finally arrive in Indiana. Tommie earned her spot as the oldest rookie in the League at age 27, although she fibbed about her age and said she was 21. She was signed to the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Chicks for the 1950 season, and quickly made new friends in her teammates. The framed photo in the upper right corner of the image above shows her team photo.

Because Tommie's items are on loan from her personal collection, she agreed that I could make digital facsimiles of all the materials for a future online exhibit. The yearbook in the center bottom of the case is from the Chester Library collection, although it was a donation from a former Chester resident who wanted it to go to a good home. You can see Tommie in the yearbook on the left page, top-most photo.

When I visited Tommie to talk with her about her life and experience as a professional women's baseball player, I learned that she only played for one year because her father had become ill. "Back in those days," she said, "You had to come home and take care of your parents." When the League mailed her a renewal contract for 1951, she returned it unsigned due to her devotion to her father.

She didn't keep her uniform, but she did hold on to the round sweater patch (on the right) and the shield-shaped uniform patch (on the left). They are in excellent condition, and I placed them on top of some black velvet cut in a way that I hoped would make them pop even more against the light blue background. The blue paper is actually archival wrapping paper which is acid-free and buffered. I thought that it would provide a stable background for the items in the case.

The other framed items include a tinted black and white portrait of Tommie and her certificate from the Baseball Hall of Fame, which had inducted the League in 1998. When I unframed the items to make digital facsimiles, I discovered two other photos in the portrait's frame. First, there was black and white signed portrait of Tommie in the same pose, and a baby picture with three children. When I see Tommie next, I'll ask her about that baby photo.

I used small bench weights to keep the framed items in a tilted standing position, hiding them with other items. For future exhibits, I will likely wrap them in black velvet to make them less noticeable. One of the items used to camouflage the weights is a digital facsimile I received from the Grand Rapids Public Library. It is a copy of a 1950 program from a Grand Rapids Chicks game. The Special Collections librarian at GRPL made a digital copy of a few of the inside pages, including one that shows the team photo. I'll hang onto that one for the online exhibit.

The baseball is held in place by a coiled string weight that you cannot see from above. These types of weights are typically used to hold book pages open. They resemble white shoelaces. Finally, I also used the tilted frames to hide some silica gel packets to help prevent humidity from causing damage to the items.

On top of the case, I used an acrylic stand to hold a list of the items within the case. I hope that it helps to discourage patrons from using the case as a stand for their items. Because the case is currently located between a copier/print station and another copier, I've seen my share of people setting items on top of it.

Last, but far from least, I was able to locate an historian who is an expert on women in baseball for a companion program on July 25. Leslie Heaphy is the author of the Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball, and is an associate professor of history at Kent State University. Tommie Barker has the date on her calendar, and although the 90-year old has had some health challenges, she can't wait for an evening of women's baseball history in her hometown of Chester.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

The Service Side of Being an Archivist and Local History Librarian

Some may characterize library service as being available at the reference desk for appointments, phone calls, email and web requests, and "walk-ins." However, library service is all-encompassing, from the moment a patron enters or contacts a library until (s)he leaves/disconnects. Libraries are places that people trust for their ability to provide answers whether via the reference desk, a book or database, a special collection, or any number of resources, especially the library workers. It is for that reason that I take an holistic approach to library service.

At both of my employing libraries, I regularly work with some terrific volunteers. In Chester, one is a Friend of the library who shares great photos of her husky dog and clips newspaper articles for Local History. She had attended one of my "Caring for Your Family's Treasures" workshops and asked if I might help her with some specific preservation questions concerning some old photos and a Bible. I readily agreed because

1. She asked for my help, and that's what I do...HELP.
2. Preservation isn't work for me, it's fun.
3. I was excited to see what she would bring to my office.
4. The request entailed shopping for archival supplies, and those web sites are my kind of candy stores.

Later, the Friend brought to my office a huge family Bible, cabinet cards, and larger mounted photos all dating from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. The Bible clearly had some binding issues and had been used (as many are) to hold genealogy documents, which had become acidic and fragile. Some of the photos were in better shape than others, however all were notable not only for the sentimental value to the volunteer, but for the subjects' expressions, costumes, and poses. After we measured them, I placed the photos into suitable folders until she could put them into polyester sleeves.

She also asked me to help her select supplies and house the Bible because it was so large. The illustrated family Bible would require a custom sling to help place it inside (and remove it from) the box she would purchase. Typically, a special collections department would purchase a custom drop-front box for such an item, but these types of custom boxes can be cost-prohibitive for many people (such as our volunteer). In her case, I let her know that I would be happy to create a way of working with a box already available in dimensions suitable to her needs.

I guided her to items that she would need for this project. She navigated the University Products site easily and placed her order within an hour of her first showing me the photos. We were able to stay within her budget and begin her early preservation work.

The Friend was very grateful, and her gratitude was contagious. Not two days after our shopping session, she brought to my office the president of another local organization who needed help preserving the group's 20+ scrapbooks. As ever, I was happy to help.