Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Salvaging the Remains of a Family Archive 
by Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse, State Archivist
November, 2008

My introduction to the collection of historical records at Poplar Grove Plantation in Queen Anne's County, Maryland, came with a call from Adam Goodheart, Director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. He told me that a few years ago in the course of a fascinating archaelogical field study of a Queen Anne's county plantation slave cabin, family papers had been discovered in the plantation house. At the time an effort was made to assess the content of the collection, but time and resources were limited, and not much progress was made. Since then the owner, James Wood, had become increasingly concerned about the collection, and welcomed advice on what to do. Adam asked if I could spare a day to visit the collection and offer some suggestions.

I met Adam and James at Poplar Grove on a beautiful day in May, 2008. It was clear from what we had time to sample that the surviving records were a treasure trove relating largely to the antebellum history of Maryland and the Nation, as well as to the economic history of the region throughout much of the 19th century. In one out building we even found an extensive collection of records kept by one member of the family who prospected for minerals in Guiana in the first half of the 20th century. The records were not in the best of shape and called for immediate attention to prevent any futher loss and deterioration.

I suggested a plan to James and Adam. If the Starr Center could come up with matching funds for four summer interns and recruit the interns from Washington College and the family, I would devise a salvage and management plan, provide a place to process and house the collection, and supply half the money for the interns from the Archives of Maryland fund of the Maryland State Archives.

We were exceptionally fortunate in the selection of the Poplar Grove Project staff. Washington College supplied Albin Kowalewski, who was chosen to coordinate and manage the project under my supervision, James Schelberg, who was drawn to the collection because of the significant amount of material relating to a Civil War general, and Jeremy Rothwell, who knows everyone in Queen Anne's County and the surrounding area, as well as having a deep appreciation of agricultural history. We were doubly fortunate in the family's suggestion for the internship in Olivia Wood. She not only brought a high level of enthusiasm and family knowledge to the team, but also her close relationship with her grandmother, author of an excellent book, My Darling Alice, inspired by correspondence her grandmother found in the collection, helped us all to better appreciate the cultural and literary value of what we were finding.

In all the internship was satisfying on all fronts. The interns presented their findings at a well-attended conference at Washington College on November 24, 2008. They moved the audience with the high quality of their reports, as did James Wood with his closing reflections on serendipity and entropy as it related to his unexpected inheritance of Poplar Grove and its contents.

The Poplar Grove project gave me the opportunity to put into action ideas that I had formulated over many years about how to most effectively process and make permanently accessible a large collection of family papers quickly and economically. Because the collection was in such disarray and presented a wide range of conservation issues including mold, mouse droppings, and even the presence of a decomposing dead dog, it was clearly a worst case scenario fraught with a wide range of challenges, perhaps only exciting to an Archivist, but definitely worth the effort, especially as a model for the future of collection management.

The first stage of processing was to flatten, folder, and box the collection as quickly as possible, removing the papers from the peach baskets, lard tins, attic trunks, out building attics, and second floor heaps in which they were found.

This first stage was a simple, not a terribly pleasant one, yet one filled with the 'aha's' of discovery that kept us going through several days of the very hottest weather of the summer. Thanks to James Wood, the owner, who installed an air conditioner in the kitchen of the plantation house where we worked, it was bearable. For the most part, we kept the papers in the disorder they were found, placing them in highly absorbant (cheap) folders, with as many as 6-10 flattened documents per folder, and placing the folders in a standard, one cubic foot, record center box, lined with a clear plastic garbage bag. As we foldered and boxed, a limited number of selected items that helped explain the character and extent of the collection were pulled and placed in a separate series for appraisal purposes. These would be among the first items in the collection to be addressed in the second stage of processing, and among the first to be scanned and placed on line..

To get to the comfort of our processing office as quickly as possible, we worked at a fast pace. Adam joined us as much as he could and was forever encouraging us to look more closely at the scraps and nooks and crannies for more, when we were sure that we had salvaged all that could be kept from recycling. Generally he was right, but at last we did manage to take under our charge almost every salvagable scrap of record remaining at Poplar Grove. We were pleasantly interrupted a few times by the press which took a great interest in our work and gave the project national publicity, which the Starr Center in turn reflected in a very popular Project Blog to which we all, in some measure contributed articles.

In the end we moved over 80 record center boxes and oversized containers to the Archives processing center (a commercial warehouse, the address for which we do not make publicly available for security reasons).

The rest of the 10 week summer internship was spent in the comfort of the warehouse office sorting, refoldering into acid neutral folders placed in archival storage boxes, and scanning the papers in their sort sequence. The collection was sorted into series that seemed, from the appraisal selection and our initial boxing experience, to make the most sense for the overall management of the collection. For Poplar Grove that generally meant sorting by principal recipient or person most likely to have been associated with keeping the records. We did not intend to spend a great deal of time doing more than making a best guess at series sorting and keeping the results in as good chronological order as possible. Little time was meant to be spent on refinement of sorting. The idea was to provide a simple, logical framework for the gross management of the collection, employing elementary conservation techniques as we went along. For example, the cheap folders for the intial boxing absorbed much of the unwanted moisture and helped flatten the papers. The sorting and refoldering was accompanied by elementary cleaning, and scanning of as much of the contents as the time of the ten week internship permitted. The work of refined cataloguing, description, and indexing would be left to the virtual reality of the web based inventorying, transcribing, and editing programs which I had designed.

As part of the proof of product of the internship, Olivia Wood had the dual responsibility of testing our new approach to on-line transcription and editing of collections, the pilot for which is While the project staff did most of the scanning, the Archives staff (in the person of Erin Cacye, now on staff, but also a former MSA intern) scanned the first series, a collection that was found very early on in the bottom of a nearly empty trunk in the bee infested attic of Poplar Grove. Eventually all the scans of the collection will be accessible through this pilot editing and transcription project, enlisting as much free help on line as possible in transcribing the contents of the collection.

Once all but the fragments of paper had been placed in archival acid free folders and boxes, the Assistant Director of Special Collections at the Maryland State Archives, Maria Day, labeled the boxes, counted the folders, and described the collection to the box or book level in our Special Collections cataloguing system. Her cataloguing work can be found on line at the Maryland State Archives web site as Special Collections MSA SC 5807, the James Wood Poplar Grove Collection. There it is linked to the ebooks of the papers themselves which I produced in the evenings and on weekends on my home computer as my personal contribution to getting the project on line.

In doing so, I intentionally used a very simple ebook approach written in Perl that I had devised for my own electronic publications. The Perl programs produce a static, as opposed to a dynamic, ebook. Dynamic ebooks are generally created on the fly utilizing database/table driven systems such as sql or Oracle and pose massively expensive future problems of management and deployment. I believe that this static ebook approach is all that an individual or struggling historical society can afford, and that it makes the product, the resulting html based ebook, as close to platform and operating system independent as possible in the rapidly changing and volitile world of electronic information.

Not all of the scanning of the Poplar Grove collection completed to date is as yet on line, nor, as of this writing, has the whole of the collection been scanned, but I hope to have it all on the web in the near future, resources permitting. As a rule of thumb in 2008 dollars, it costs about $250 an archival box (a legal sized acid neutral box approximately 5" by 15") to process, folder, scan and place its contents on line, and about a cent a page per year to maintain it live on the web. As of this date we have 72 boxes of original papers from Poplar Grove, of which we have placed on line approximately 3000 images of the estimated 15,000 manuscript page images in the collection, or about 20% of the manuscripts, not bad for ten weeks worth of work by four people. We now need to find funding to complete the project and sustain it. The prospects for any additional State support beyond hosting what is already completed are bleak. In 2008 dollars, $14,400 is required to complete the scanning and mounting the images on line, and about $150 a year to keep the web site of all the images up and running for public access and use.

We welcome contributions towards the further scanning and maintaining of this and all other collections, public and private. All such contributions are tax deductible and should be made out to the Friends of the Maryland State Archives, which is the private, non-profit, fund raising arm of the Maryland State Archives:

Friends of the Maryland State Archives
c/o the Maryland State Archives
350 Rowe Boulevard
Annapolis, Maryland 21401

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Disaster Recovery World War II Style

It Should Be About the Children:Defining & Practicing Civic Authority in the United States

image courtesy of Charles Schwartz, originally in the Jackie Napoleon Wilson Collection

What follows are four quotes from the Era of the American Revolution, three relatively brief, and one extensive, that participants in a teachers' workshop I gave were asked to identify as to author and source. The quotes were intended to stimulate discussion during a presentation about using the Maryland State Archives Documents for the Classroom. All the quotes have a local (Maryland) connection to major themes in teaching American History. The prize for identifying the author and source of the quotes was a useful book of essays and documents relating to the Declaration of Independence published by the University of Virginia Library as a tribute to a major donor, Albert H. Small whose collection the book features.

The teachers were asked to identify by whom, when and where they were written, explaining their context and their relevance to both Maryland's and the Nation's past, present, and future.

They were told that clues to the answers would be found in the lecture and in the document packet Writing It All Down on the Maryland State Archives web site, which they had been assigned in advance of the workshop.

The quotes provoked a lively discussion, not only with regard to sources and meaning, but also with respect to how important it is to preserve and make accessible local documents for the teaching of American History and Civic Responsibility.

The initial version of this blog entry was intended for the exclusive use of the teachers as a means of engaging them on line for the purposes of the workshop, but on reflection, I thought that a wider audience might be interested in their origins and reflecting on their significance.


1. "He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power."

2. "He has waged cruel war against human nature itself,violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery, in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transporation thither. This piratical warfare, the approbation of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this excrable commerce. And this assemblage of horrors want no fact of distinguished dye he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit agains the LIVES of another."

3. "the doctrine of non-resistence against arbitrary power and oppression is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind." quoted by Saul Cornell in A Well Regulated Militia," (2006), p. 131.

4) "Vox Africanorum"

Charge to the teachers' workshop: determine when the following was published and why. Is it significant? Should it be used in teaching about American History with Maryland sources? Why?

To a people whose characteristic virtues are justice and fortitude, in the exercise of which they have become the wonder and astonishment of the universe,
we, the black inhabitants of these United States, humbly submit the following address.

When Great-Britain essayed to make her first unjust and wicked attempts to forge chains to enslave America, the noble spirit of liberty and freedom uttered her voice.

America, with the meekness of a lamb, remonstrated against the wickedness of the attempt; but Britain, lost to every sentiment of justice and virtue, and sunk in every vice, obstinately persisted in the rash attempt.

America then, nobly animated with the love of liberty, assuming the fortitude of a lion, stepped forth, and proclaimed, "We Will be Free."

The world beheld with admiration mingled with applause, and heaven smiled approbation.

Determined in her resolutions, America has borne the storms and complicated pressures of an eight years war, purchased at the price of her blood and treasure,and even at the risque of her existence, she has at length obtained her liberty, the darling object of her soul; universal joy has diffused itself through all her borders; acclamations of gratitude on this occasion, from the lips of her every free-born son have ascended to the throne on high; the glorious deeds of America are recorded in the court of heaven.

When an address is made to men, who have been born free-- to Americans, who have been alarmed, and nobly roused into virtuous activity at the first dawnings of slavery-- to men whose hearts are warm --whose minds are expanded with the recent acquisition of their own liberty and freedom-- to men whose actions and whose sufferings have been unparalleled in the annals of mankind during a conduct of many years, to retain, and to transmit,without diminution, the rights of humanity and blessings of liberty to their posterity---

When an address I say, is made to such men, by fellow creatures groaning under the chains of slavery and oppression, can we doubt of their becoming he friends and advocates of the enslaved and oppressed?

Can we doubt of touching their feelings and exciting their attention?

-- No --

to doubt would be wickedness in the abstract -- it would be sinning against the solemn declarations of a brave and virtuous people.

We have lately beheld, with anxious concern, your infant struggles in the glorious cause of liberty--We attend to your solemn declaration of the rights of mankind-- to your appeals, for the rectitude of your principles, to the Almighty, who regards men of every condition[?]and admits them to a participation of his benefices

--We admired your wisdom, justice, piety, and fortitude.
To that wisdom, justice, piety, and fortitude, which has led you to freedom and true greatness, we now appeal.

Freedom is the object of our humble address.

Our abject state of slavery, a state of all others the most degrading to human nature, is known to every American; We shall not, therefore, descend to the disagreeable task of wounding the feelings of any by a description.

In the language of your humble addresses to the inexhorable throne of Britain, permit us humbly to address you.

Liberty is our claim.

Reverence for our Great Creator, principles of humanity, and the dictates of common sense, all convince us that we have an indubitable right to liberty. Has not the wisdom of America solemnly declared it?

Attend to your own declarations--

"These truths are self-evident---all men are created equal; they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

We shall offer no arguments--nay, it would be insulting to the understanding of America at this enlightened period, to suppose they stood in need of arguments to prove our right to liberty. It would be to suppose she has already forgot those exalted principles she has so lately asserted with her blood.

Though our bodies differ in colour from yours; yet our souls are similar in a desire for freedom. Dispairty in colour, we conceive, can never constitute a disparity in rights. Reason is shocked at the absurdity. Humanity revolts at the idea!

Let America cease to exult --she has yet obtained but partial freedom. Thousands are yet groaning under their chains; slavery and oppression are not yet banished this land; the appellation of master and slave, an appellation of all others the most depressing to humanity, have still an existence.

We are slaves! To whom?
Is it to abandoned Britons?
Permit us to refer you to facts;
let them make the reply. A people who have fought--
who have bled-- who have purchased their own freedom by a sacrifice of their choicest heroes -- will never continue the advocacy for slavery.

Pride, insolence, interest, avarice, and maxims of false policy, have marked the conduct of Britain -- but shall pride, insolence, considerations of interest, avarice or maxims of false policy, lead America to a conduct inconsistent with ther principles?

Forbid it Justice--forbid it wisdom-- forbid it sound policy?---
Every principle which has led America to freedom and greatness forbid it.
Has the laws of Nature doomed us to this abject state --- shut out as it were, from the benign influences of religion, knowledge, arts and science --excluded from every refinement which renders human nature happy!

Why then are we held in slavery? Is it by any municipal law?
If so, YE fathers of your country; friends of liberty and of mankind,
behold our chains!

Lend an ear to the voice of oppression-- commiserate the affections of a helpless and abused part of the human species.

To you we look for justice --deny it not--it is our right.


Post Script:

If you would like to listen to the Vox Africanorum text, download the wma file (for Windows users only)

You might also like to read the reflections of "Common Sense," published on May 1, 1783, when approval of the Treaty of Paris and the official end of the Revolution appeared to be close at hand.