Salvaging the Remains of a Family Archive
by Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse, State Archivist
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 http://editonline.us. 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