Back in February of 2019, I wrote a blog post concerning a collection of personal papers that were donated to us by the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum. In that post, I focused on the fascinating life of Margaret Kimball as told through these recently acquired personal items, newspaper clippings, photographs, and a large scrapbook. Margaret’s life was certainly worthy of this extensive discussion.
One might wonder, though, what happens to an archival donation like this after Lexington Historical Society has accepted these items. How do we process them? Where do they go? How do researchers access them? Well, I will shed a little bit of light on this process, while continuing to use the Margaret Kimball Collection as a kind of case study.
When I was contacted about the Margaret Kimball Collection, I first wanted to establish that this was, indeed, a collection with a strong Lexington connection, as the Society’s collecting policy requires. When that was established, I met with a manuscript archivist at the Phillips Library. I had some paperwork prepared for her, including a thank you letter (thanking them for the donation and acknowledging that we received it) and a Deed of Gift form. This is standard paperwork for any archival donation, whether the donation is coming from another institution or an independent individual. Whenever a donation comes into the archives, we require that this kind of paperwork be signed. A Deed of Gift is especially important, as it serves as a legal document that transfers ownership of any stated items from the donor (who must have legal rights to the items they are donating) to the Society. Without a signed Deed of Gift transferring ownership, the Society has no legal rights to the items, which can be a liability.
After the paperwork has been signed and the donated items become the legal property of the Society, the Society has then taken on the responsibility (and associated costs!) of processing, housing, and caring for these items, as well as making them available to the public when possible. The same held true for the Margaret Kimball Collection. Once I got this collection back to the archives, I took some time to see what was in the boxes. In this case, the contents were in no particular order, but included items like aviation atlases, personal correspondence, memberships, memorabilia, and, most notably, a very large scrapbook pertaining primarily to Margaret’s flying career.
Many may wonder what we do with these boxes of “stuff” when they come into the archives. Processing a collection like this, even a small one, can take a significant amount of time. First, an initial assessment is conducted, where we determine the rough condition of the items, remove any obstacles such as paperclips or staples, and get a general sense of the types of materials with which we are working. Then, the materials are divided into “series”; for example, the items in the Margaret Kimball Collection were organized into an Aviation series, a Photograph series, etc. Then, each of the items within the boxes are organized so that that each item falls within a specified series. The collection essentially needs to be organized in such a way that we have both physical control and intellectual control over all of the items.
After that is done something called a “Finding Aid” is created. A finding aid is a document that gives an overview of the collection, where it is from, what it is about, what is in it, etc. We can give this to researchers before or during their visit to the archives to help them understand what they are looking at. Finding Aids can be incredibly detailed and time consuming to create, but they can also be a huge help to researchers. There is a kind of “formula” that must be followed in the creation of a finding aid. When you factor in both the creation of the finding aid and the intellectual/physical organization of the collection, you can see why it can take weeks to assess and arrange a collection from start to finish!
For Margaret’s collection specifically, her amazing scrapbook made up a significant chunk of the collection and was a series within itself. In this case, after seeing this scrapbook and realizing what a treasure trove it was regarding Margaret’s life, I immediately thought of it as a candidate for future conservation efforts. The scrapbook contained numerous photographs, newspaper clippings, and memorabilia pasted inside, as well as additional items such as licenses and passports stored between the pages. Many of the pasted items are falling apart or peeling off the pages, and the adhesive was beginning to disintegrate. The items being stored between the pages were also, at this point, holding up the binding of the scrapbook to some degree, so it was not very safe or stable to remove them individually either.
As we do whenever we have items that are candidates for conservation, I brought this scrapbook to Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) for appraisal, which is our go-to conservation laboratory, and one of the most premier in the nation. NEDCC specializes in treating collections made of paper or parchment, such as works of art, photographs, books, documents, maps, and manuscripts. We visit NEDCC when we need help preserving and conserving items that we have designated as conservation priorities. These can vary from items that are in particularly rough shape that we do not want to degrade further to items of particular historical or research value. They have done amazing work with our conservation projects in the past. Something like this scrapbook was certainly one of a kind, and it was not in the best condition, so it qualified on a variety of levels as a conservation priority.
I asked NEDCC to assess the scrapbook and provide us with some treatment options. A variety of options were presented (including conservation, custom housing, digitization, etc.), and the most expensive option was estimated to cost about $14,200. This is not uncommon - conservation can be particularly expensive. It requires significant fundraising to take on these types of restoration projects. This type of conservation work, while expensive, is imperative to our ability to provide these types of fragile items to researchers and scholars within the archives. As it stands, I would not be comfortable allowing anyone to handle the scrapbook (which has not yet been conserved due to limited financial resources) in such a fragile condition, and this is the case with many of our more delicate archival items that we do not allow researchers to access. After conservation, though, the scrapbook would be much more stable for handling. Not only that, but it would also be digitized, which means that I would be able to provide digital access to this scrapbook to researchers around the world – and it would not harm the original item in the slightest.
In the meantime, the scrapbook sits safely with the rest of the Margaret Kimball Collection – now fully processed with a completed Finding Aid – in acid-free archival boxes on the shelves of our newly constructed Archives and Research Center. It anxiously awaits researchers when the archives are open to the public after the pandemic has subsided.
There are certainly some aspects of processing an archival collection that are standardized, but each collection is unique and comes with its own individual challenges, issues, and history.
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.