The Surprises & Rewards of Archival Research
October 25, 2016 | by Elizabeth Rohn Jeffe, Vice-Chair
Article from the Fall 2016 Newsletter
For years, in a variety of ways, I have used the Chairman’s Column to promote the idea that advancing the mission of the New York Preservation Archive Project—i.e. to document, preserve, and celebrate the history of preservation—is essential to the ongoing health and success of the preservation movement. In order to amplify that message and underscore the importance of preserving archives, particularly those archives that are preservation-related, from time to time I will be inviting others who share these beliefs to be guest writers for my column. I am delighted that in this, the first of these features, Elizabeth Rohn Jeffe, one of the Archive Project’s Vice-Chairs and the editor of our newsletter, shares her personal passion for archives. Read on and enjoy!
– Anthony C. Wood, Founder & Chair
When our chair, Anthony C. Wood, asked me to be a guest contributor to his column, he suggested that I draw on my background as a historian, writer, and preservationist to discuss the role that archives play in my life. That is an easy topic to address—I can say without hesitation that archives are essential to my work and a source of great personal enjoyment and enrichment.
Because they are goldmines of primary materials, archives go far beyond what is available in secondary sources, making it possible to illuminate more history more fully, in part precisely because the contents of archives are by no means limited to the papers and objects of famous people. In fact, just the opposite is often true. Perusing materials in a local historical society might lead a researcher to a farmer’s diary, or a bill of sale for a household item, or a collection of letters written by ordinary people but rich in details about daily life that are sorely absent from history books. Indeed, archives weave the threads that sew together the past, present, and future, giving us fascinating insights into what has gone before, a better sense of how the present came to be, and a clearer vision of what the future might hold.*
As numerous articles in past issues of the Archive Project newsletter have shown, archives come in many types and sizes. Owners occasionally house them privately, but generally organizations, museums, libraries, educational institutions, and historical societies hold them. Increasingly, many archival records, including visual images, are now available digitally. Archives are valuable to a variety of researchers, from historians and preservationists, to urban planners and genealogists. And the use of archives is not the province of the few; members of the general public who simply want to learn more about a topic can spend many a pleasurable hour hunting down whatever interests them in a particular collection. Just the act of handling an artifact such as an old letter or photograph can be very exciting!
Because they are predominantly primary sources, archives unveil valuable information that is often previously unknown to the public, enriching our understanding of a topic or person. Perhaps most crucially, a visit to an archival collection often opens new doors of exploration by creating hitherto unknown links between people, places, and events. In fact, I have at times found archival research so addictive that I have spent days and even weeks “lost” in a collection, compelled to move from one hitherto unknown fascinating connection to another. There’s always the promise of that “next thing” waiting to be discovered.
In recent years, while serving as the editor of the Museum of the City of New York’s research journal, City Courant, I consistently spent time in the Museum’s archives doing research for articles for the publication based on holdings in its archives. My purpose was twofold: to share with our readers some of the interesting information, items, and visual resources that are housed in the collections, much of which would be otherwise unknown to the general public, and to uncover new historical information. In two cases, what I found in the archives was so unexpected that I changed the focus of my articles as a result.
For one issue of the Courant, I was thinking of writing about Theodore Roosevelt, a New York City native who was at various times a candidate for mayor, state legislator, and governor before ascending to the presidency. When I asked an archivist at the Museum about what the collections held on “TR,” she suggested that I study a scrapbook called the “Theodore Roosevelt Scrapbook.” After poring over its pages with postings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I realized that my story would be about the man who kept the scrapbook, Charles E. Knoblauch. Knoblauch, a New Yorker and stockbroker, fought with Roosevelt as a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War and remained in touch with him until Roosevelt’s death in 1919. The fragile memory book required careful handling, but it thrilled me to know that I was holding an album of memories collected a century ago by its owner. Filled with old newspaper clippings, actual correspondence from Roosevelt, a regimental song, and other memorabilia such as an invitation to Roosevelt’s funeral service and a luncheon menu from a Rough Riders’ reunion at the Harvard Club, the scrapbook transported me in time and enhanced my understanding of this era in United States history. When an archival treasure like this unique scrapbook is written about, readers view history through a personal lens. My exploration in the archives became a catalyst to a new and more significant historical narrative than the one I had originally planned.
A similar experience occurred when I was considering writing about the Ethel Merman collection of scrapbooks donated by that famed singer to the Museum. A biography of Merman had been released fairly recently that was based heavily on the legendary performer’s scrapbooks, so I was concerned about the originality of my article. But my problem was solved quickly after spending time studying the portion of Merman’s scrapbooks covering her role as Annie Oakley in the musical Annie Get Your Gun. Because of the story’s link with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, a subject I had written about while in graduate school, I thought it would be helpful to see what the Museum possessed on the real Buffalo Bill (William F. Cody). It turned out that there were boxes of wonderful resources on Buffalo Bill, including a marvelous souvenir book that showed how Buffalo Bill’s success depended on the latest technology and urban developments in order to be successful in bringing a show about the “Old West” to mass audiences. I shifted my story line, relying heavily on the data in the souvenir book. The article was a joy to write, and Ethel Merman’s role as Annie Oakley became, literally, a sidebar.
In another archives-related endeavor, as a board member of The Green-Wood Cemetery, I am incredibly excited about this cultural institution’s major initiative to create a new visitors center and an adjoining archives center. Blessed with a plethora of archival materials, Green-Wood is now assessing new and better ways to organize, house, and preserve its holdings. Since I also serve as a member of the group supported by National Endowment for the Humanities for the cemetery’s project, Gone But Not Forgotten: Digitizing the 177 year-old Legacy of New York City’s Green-Wood Cemetery, I have been spending time in the Green-Wood archives, as have the other team members, each of whom brings a unique set of skills and insights to the endeavor. I have enjoyed looking at various records associated with cemetery business going back to its founding in 1838, studying interment records, reading accounts from old books and newspapers clippings, learning about the many famous “permanent residents” of the cemetery, and gaining an appreciation for the Cemetery’s art collection consisting of works by many of the famous artists buried there as well as others depicting the cemetery itself. Every visit to immerse myself in Green-Wood’s archives enriches my understanding of the cemetery’s complex story and helps me to find ways to envision its future.
So, you might ask, what does all this have to do with preservation? The answer is, a great deal! Preservationists, contrary to the portrait sometimes painted of us, are hardly quirky folk who blindly admire the past and remain stuck there. We are a vibrant lot, with an eye to safeguarding the future. This is why saving the story of preservation through archive creation and maintenance is part of the Archive Project’s mission. We encourage all preservation groups and activists in New York City (and beyond) to do so, and with good reason. Preservationists can use materials in archives to celebrate the past; we can also use them to recognize losses and learn from those experiences. Preservation archives educate us, inspire us, and are essential to the sharing process so necessary to make preservation in New York a vital experience and a team effort. By preserving everything from correspondence and protest signs to video footage and ephemera, we can create roadmaps of previous preservation campaigns and pick out what strategies, contacts, and people emerged as critical in a battle—and why.
The Archive Project is itself an archival source through its website, offering oral histories, a preservation history database, and a resource library. The Archive Project has also worked to assist organizations to better organize and protect their archives through grants from the Archival Assistance Fund. Our mantra has been, and will continue to be, save, save, save your preservation story for posterity! No battle is too small!
Let’s do all we can to make sure that our vital preservation story is saved—and used—as it should be!
* Although the term “archives” usually refers to paper items such as diaries, ledgers, and letters, legal documents and the like, and “collections” refers to a broader range of artifacts such as objects, for the purposes of this article, I will use “archives” in a comprehensive sense, just as the Archive Project and many institutions do.
Please note that the Museum of the City of New York’s collections are accessible by appointment only. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.