Thursday, March 26, 2015

Spring MARAC/NEA 2015 in Boston

Prior to the joint Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference/New England Archivists events this past week, my excitement and anticipation had been building steadily. I’d signed up for a workshop on the Thursday, as I usually do because MARAC workshops tend to be worth more than the price of admission, and this one promised to be fun and educational. I had printed out the online program and circled the sessions I intended to attend (we had been warned early on to get to sessions early because 500 people had registered and there might be some difficulty finding a seat; by the end, we numbered 700, mostly local NEAers). I also wanted to try to meet some of the NEA folks because, well, I’m friendly that way – like most of the MARAC people I know. Lastly, I was looking forward to visiting with colleagues and friends I only see at MARAC meetings.

The Workshop: Copyright Fundamentals for Archivists and Librarians Led by Peter Hirtle
Peter, whom you’ll remember from this blog post: or perhaps this one:, has physically moved from Cornell University Library to the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, where he is a Research Fellow. He continues to use his Cornell email and serves as Senior Policy Advisor to the Cornell University Library on intellectual property rights issues.

I had heard great feedback about his workshop from other MARAC members, so this time I took it. Even though the title focuses on fundamentals, the course also dealt with risk assessment; “copyfraud” (the notion that institutions are asserting rights that they simply do not have; e.g., a work is in the public domain and a museum states on its web site that a copy photo has “All Rights Reserved.”); reproduction of copyrighted works; and key for cultural heritage institutions, fair use. During the day-long course, I participated in group exercises with my table neighbor, the very bright and fun Caitlin Goodman (link to her twitter: from the Free Public Library of Philadelphia. Peter’s instruction was useful and fun, and the day flew by.

Friday Plenary and Concurrent Sessions

The Friday Plenary session featured Danna Bell, Past-President of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) and Educational Resource Specialist at the Library of Congress. She spoke about professional development for archivists, and where improvement was needed in educational offerings. I wished that she had recognized the people who deliver consistently good workshops at MARAC, but maybe she was preoccupied about her talk.

The first session I attended was S2. Lessons Learned: Legal Aspects and Ethical Principles of Oral History, with speakers Christine Anne George of the University at Buffalo, SUNY, and Cara Howe of SUNY Upstate Medical University (formerly of the Pan Am Flight 103 Archives at Syracuse). Christine spoke about her recent research on the Belfast Project at Boston College (she is not affiliated with BC), and mainly focused on the legal quagmire. The New Yorker magazine recently published an article that gives the history and the ethical issues connected with the oral history project ( 

Cara, whom I’d seen speak before, talked about the extensive oral history project for the Pan Am Flight 103/Lockerbie air disaster. I’m especially interested in her work, not just because it’s inherently interesting, but because she and her team invested a great deal of time documenting what they did and adhering to best practices.

The afternoon session was S11. Nurturing Nature, and it was where I presented for the first time at a professional conference. I had answered the call for speakers specifically because it was a “lightning” session, and we each would have about 6 minutes to present on our topics. Because Chester Library is the designated local repository for the EPA’s records on the Combe Fill South Landfill, I wrote that I could speak on the records for a local superfund site. Greta Suiter from MIT, the session moderator, was pleased, so I joined the 9 other speakers on the slate. 

Each of the speakers had great presentations, but I’ll just spotlight a handful here. One of my favorites was Sean Fisher’s (Mass. Dept. of Conservation and Recreation). He has an enormous job locating Mass. Parks materials stored in attics, crawlspaces, and essentially anywhere people could put stuff all over the state of Massachusetts. Miles Crowley also from MIT, spoke about pollution in the Charles River. Both Katie Hall and Sarah Denison represented the Delaware Public Archives. Katie focused on mosquito controls (and was hilarious). Sarah took a novel approach to her presentation on the storm of 1962 by running color films of the storm damage on a loop while she talked about the records (it was very effective). Liz Banks from the National Park Service, Northeast Region hit on a number of areas, but mainly focused on Yellowstone, especially Thomas Moran’s diary and paintings and the wolf research (some of which John and I had the pleasure of seeing when we took the Yellowstone archive tour). Rachel Donahue from the National Agricultural Library’s presentation was lots of fun, and spotlighted plant specimens. 

NJ/NY Caucus Meeting

This meeting was the first time I’d experienced a combined New Jersey and New York Caucuses meeting. It was led by Laura Poll of the Monmouth County Historical Association (more from her later) and Michael Martin of the New York State Archives. The meeting was an opportunity to hear what kinds of things are going on in each of the caucuses, although it was a bit of a shy group. It also could have been that it was at the end of the first day of the conference. Usually at MARAC meetings, the caucuses meet in the morning. I almost forgot to introduce myself as the incoming President of the New Jersey Library Association’s History & Preservation Section, but I squeezed it in and mentioned that I’ll be working with Laura on getting together some more H&P/NJ Caucus/Princeton Preservation Group meetings, since there’s so much of an overlap.

Saturday’s Events
On Saturday, I started the morning by attending the MARAC business meeting and enjoying the tasty breakfast buffet. The NEA folks also had a buffet and their business meeting in a different location at the venue. At our meeting, I learned that MARAC now has a Café Press site ( Outgoing Chair John LeGloahec from the National Archives and Records Administration also mentioned that changes to the Bylaws were in the making and he recommended that we attend a lunch session on the topic. There will be more discussion at the next MARAC in West Virginia, but I won’t be attending that one because I plan to attend the SAA annual meeting in August in Cleveland (and there’s only so much budget to go around).

The second plenary of the meeting followed the business meetings. It featured Sands Fish of MIT, who talked about networks in data and his project, Media Cloud. 

The first session of the day I attended was S15. Provenance vs. Artificial Collections: To Restore or Not to Restore? It was the most controversial session I experienced at the meeting. The speakers were Molly Stothert-Mauer of the Perkins School for the Blind, Laura Poll (see the Caucus meeting earlier), Linda Hocking of the Litchfield Historical Society, and Lindsay Turley of the Museum of the City of New York. The speakers talked about the individual experiences with dispersed, intermingled, and artificial collections, and more importantly, the justifications for the choices they made. I think all of the choices were valid, although I think in some cases I might make more use of subject/genre/etc. terms in finding aids to keep created collections together.  But keeping the researcher the top priority regardless of the arrangement choice is the bottom line. 

Another aspect worth considering is the idea of connecting previous indexes and cataloging efforts to the new arrangement. Laura pointed out that an archivist could create more of an issue if he/she didn’t invest the time to make clear the ties between the old and new. It also seems even more important to document all of those decisions and methods so that those who come afterward aren’t lost in the tangle of archival threads.

The last session of the day for me was S21. Physical vs. Digital and the User Experience. The moderator was Susie Bock of the University of Southern Maine and the speakers were Jane Metters LaBarbara of West Virginia University, Samuel Smallidge of Converse, and Anastasia S. Weigle of the University of Maine. Each speaker had a different perspective on the topic to be sure, but Samuel’s argument for practical uses of digital media for internal use at Converse in order to produce a new product (based on one from the 1970s) was pretty persuasive. I didn’t expect to learn about Chuck Taylor sneakers when I came to Boston for MARAC, but now I have a better understanding of some of the structural changes in them over time. By using digitized images of sneakers, he was able to help designers and marketers put together a custom sneaker for consumers in time for a big anniversary at the company.

The Conference Venue and Where I Stayed

There was a bit of construction in the Boston Park Plaza during the meeting. Because Boston had spent much of the winter under more snow than was reasonable, the work that was targeted to have been completed long before our arrival was still underway. In fact, the construction workers were laying carpet in some of the conference areas on the first day. It was inconvenient to be sure, but nothing we archivists/librarians couldn’t handle. 

I didn’t stay at the conference hotel, although I’d originally booked there. When it came closer to the event, my buddy John Beekman, Assistant Manager of the New Jersey Room at Jersey City Free Public Library, mentioned on the MARAC Facebook page that he’d checked to see if the construction had been finished. After I saw his post, I read the comments from recent visitors, and changed hotels to Hotel 140 ( They were very accommodating and helpful. The hotel is located a few blocks away from the Boston Park Plaza, which wasn’t a big deal except that on the first two days, it was cold and very windy. However, the room was clean, the bed was comfortable, and no fragrances were used on the linens (key for those of us who are sensitive to heavy, synthetic fragrances often used in detergents). 

Dining at Davio’s
Last, but never least (this was originally a food blog, you know), something about the restaurant I frequented. My pal Jane Ingold, a Reference Librarian at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, and I made plans to have lunch together during the Thursday break during both of our workshops. We dined at a lovely Italian restaurant that caters to GF people like me, called Davio’s ( located across the street from the Boston Park Plaza.  The food was very tasty and the service was attentive, albeit a bit slow. However, when I returned for lunch again the following day with another friend, Jacqueline Haun, Archives Librarian at The Lawrenceville School, I mentioned I was pressed for time (because I had a short presentation to make at 1:30 p.m.). The waitstaff made sure to get us out the door by the time specified, and we were grateful. In case you were wondering, I enjoyed the chopped salad (sans bacon) and the GF tomato pizza (on both days, they were that good, and I had leftovers for my little hotel fridge).  

Wrapping Up
As always, I enjoyed the MARAC meeting, made some new friends, and learned a lot more than I expected. The best advice I can give to new archivists and librarians is to join your local/regional professional society and get involved. Next is the NJLA meeting in April, complete with a full day of History & Preservation Section sessions for attendees to enjoy. Can’t wait!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Work Updates: The Big Exhibit and a Third Gig

From Plainfield Public Library Detwiller Architectural Drawings Exhibit 2014

The Big Exhibit
Shown above is the terrific Charles H. Detwiller, Jr. Architectural Drawings Collection exhibit at Plainfield Public Library created by Sarah Hull, Senior Archivist and Head of Local History, Special Collections and Genealogy; Jeff Wassen, Visual Materials and Exhibition Coordinator; Jane Thoner, Genealogy Librarian; and Sandy Gurshman, Special Collections and Reference Librarian. My contribution to this impressive display (which covers walls in the main reading room, Plainfield Room, and Meeting Room 2, as well as 4 exhibit cases) took place much earlier during my processing of the collection favorites in 2010 and 2011. The favorites are a small percentage of the now 16,000 sets of architectural drawings that represent each of the Plainfield architects, each type of structure in the city, and the best examples to use for exhibits.

When I took on that project, I applied the condition-reporting techniques I'd learned working at the Zimmerli Museum. My documentation included, among other things, taking measurements of each set and making recommendations for future exhibits. At the time, I didn't know where I would be working when those objects would be displayed, but I did know that the information I collected would be useful at some point. Since beginning his work on the exhibit, Jeff has let me know that my measurements, recommendations, and information slips kept with the rolled blueprints/drawings were helpful in their decision-making process.

From Plainfield Public Library Detwiller Architectural Drawings Exhibit 2014

The exhibit is extraordinary. It covers a wide range of architectural styles from the first building permit in 1896 to mid-century split-levels (the collection itself spans nearly 150 years). There are houses of worship, schools, homes of different types, apartments, stores, and even a drawing of a fancy snack cart for Muhlenberg Hospital. Below is a truly unique example -- a Central Railroad of New Jersey documentation of a train derailment in Cranford from 1924.

From Plainfield Public Library Detwiller Architectural Drawings Exhibit 2014

There are 25 architects' work on display. The archivists and librarians were able to locate information on 11 of them. For example, Col. Evarts J. Tracy, Jr. lived from 1868-1922 and was the great-great grandson of Roger Sherman, who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Then there was Oscar S. Teale (1848-1927), who wasn't just a Plainfield architect, he moonlighted as a magician known as "Ottilidio," and called Houdini a close friend.

From Plainfield Public Library Detwiller Architectural Drawings Exhibit 2014

While those are notable stories, one of my favorite architects in the collection is Augustus L.C. Marsh (1865-1942). His attention to detail and flourish made his designs and talent famous with the wealthy families of Plainfield, as well as New York City, where he worked at the firm Marsh & Gette until he moved his offices to Plainfield.

From Plainfield Public Library Detwiller Architectural Drawings Exhibit 2014

The great collector and architect Charles H. Detwiller, Jr. (1916-1991) (shown above) saved this collection from certain ruin. As the story goes, Plainfield had been storing all the drawings and blueprints at the Wardlaw School until Wardlaw moved to Edison and the duCret School of Art bought the building. The city would have disposed of all the historical documents had it not been for Charles Detwiller. Son of an architect and father of two architects, Detwiller rented a storage facility for the thousands of sets of plans to save them for future generations until he donated them to the library in 1982.

Detwiller worked on many historical preservation projects including the Drake House in Plainfield, East Jersey Olde Towne in Piscataway, and others along the Atlantic coast. His residential works make up a fair amount of the collection. I've worked with many of the now fragile and acidic sketches of additions and new homes in locations as far flung as Montana (where he designed a fishing library with shelves bolstered by carved wooden fish). He's also the man behind the fancy snack cart I mentioned earlier.

From Plainfield Public Library Detwiller Architectural Drawings Exhibit 2014

I am sorry that I didn't have the opportunity to meet Charles Detwiller. Because I've spent so much time with his collection, as well as his own work, there are questions I wish I could ask him. For instance, what types of concerns arise when you speak with a client about the miniature golf course he wants for his garage (see the image below).

From Plainfield Public Library Detwiller Architectural Drawings Exhibit 2014

The Third Gig
Speaking of Detwiller, he and his wife Catherine also were active members of the Plainfield Historical Society (PHS). Earlier this year, PHS wrote me into a small grant to take a survey of their collection, make recommendations to bring the collections under intellectual and physical control, and do some processing (time permitting). I'm still at PHS one day per week, and very much enjoying the small and large discoveries in the Drake House. The volunteers and staff are lovely people who are dedicated to making the House and its collections more accessible and interesting to its visitors. On many a Sunday, I find much-needed and long missing photos of the House during a pivotal time period or a letter giving more insight into the relationship between a famous spinster and her mentor. Each week, there is an exciting new discovery, and I'm very grateful to be a part of that excitement.

Other Work News
Additionally, I recently celebrated two years as the Local History Librarian at Chester Library. The universe's gift to me on the occasion was to send a wonderful 83-year-old lifelong resident to me with a collection of postcards. It seems to be our trend now to digitize items on loan to us in order to increase their accessibility to our patrons both far and wide. His collection is no different, although this time, I have the great pleasure of video recording our patron talking about his Chester postcards and what the town was like during the 1940s and 1950s. My plan is to post an online exhibit on the postcards (much like this one), and add these short oral histories to each postcard page. I think it will add a wonderful new dimension to experiencing these postcards of Chester.

Our patron also has lent us his collection of The Mendham-Chester Tribune newspapers to digitize. I'm in the process of writing a grant for that project. Those papers add to our current collection of local papers and fill in an important gap -- the 1936-1939 time period. I can't wait to read those papers!

Overall, it's been an exciting time at Chester Library. This week, I give a Genealogy 101 presentation and have another video recording session with our soon-to-be internet sensation. He really is a natural at it. I'll be posting a link to the exhibit here when it's available. Because he has many postcards and we're taking quite a bit of footage, I expect the finished exhibit will be online in early 2015.

Until then, I encourage you to visit the Plainfield Public Library at 800 Park Avenue in Plainfield, NJ to see the remarkable Charles H. Detwiller, Jr. Architectural Drawings Collection exhibit. It will be available for viewing until November.

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