Monday, May 25, 2009

Soldiers' letters to Donna Reed

Just in case you missed it . . . the online edition of today's New York Times highlights the survival of a cache of letters that servicemen wrote to Donna Reed during the Second World War. In most instances, these letters, which typically requested pinup photographs, were handled by studio personnel and then discarded. However, Reed kept 341 of these letters, and her children has just made them available to the public. Digitized copies of two letters are also available on the Times Web site.

These letters vividly chronicle the experiences of rank-and-file military personnel who served overseas. One of the letters was written by Sgt. Edward Skvarna, is now 84 and is pleasantly surprised that Reed kept his letters. Skvarna danced with Reed at a USO event and sporadically exchanged letters with her. He wrote the letter featured on the Times Web site while he was in the Marianas, but the letter and enclosed photographs document his time in India.

The other letter was written in April 1943 by Lt. Norman P. Klinker, who was in North Africa at the time and who succinctly contrasted the actuality of combat with Hollywood's depictions of it. Klinker was killed in action at Mount Porchia, Italy on 6 January 1944. His letter to Reed is a simple and poignant reminder of the real meaning of Memorial Day.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

A day in Utica

Earlier today, my friend Doug and I took advantage of the three-day weekend to escape from our usual weekend routines and pay a visit to Utica, a city of approximately 60,000 people situated on the banks of the Mohawk River.

During the 19th century, Utica was a center of textile and garment production. The "union suit" -- the classic one-piece, typically red undergarment with button flap in the back -- was invented in Utica, and untold numbers of Union troops went into battle wearing Utica-made union suits. During the 20th century, the tool-and-die industry and consumer electronics were the city's mainstays. However, most of the factories are now gone, and Utica, like many upstate New York cities, is struggling to reinvent itself.

The city nonetheless has some remarkable assets, among them the little gem that led us to head west on the New York State Thruway this morning: the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, which is named after three generations of the wealthy Utica family that endowed it. The institute's Museum of Art specializes in 19th century American decorative art and 18th, 19th, and 20th century American and European paintings and sculpture. Its holdings include Thomas Cole's first Voyage of Life series, many other Hudson River School paintings, and works by a veritable Who's Who of mid-20th century artists, among them Louise Bourgeois, Piet Mondrian, Robert Motherwell, Georgia O'Keefe, Pablo Picasso, and Jackson Pollock.

The museum is housed in a striking 1960 building designed by Philip Johnson, an architect whose work I've often admired but whose youthful enthusiasms I simply cannot forgive. The building contrasts remarkably with its next-door neighbor, the Victorian-era Italianate home in which the Munson-Williams-Proctor family lived and which now showcases the institute's 19th-century decorative arts holdings, and the other 19th-century structures that dominate the streetscape. It nonetheless "works," in part because of the generous expanse of lawn that separates it from its neighbors.

The building's central sculpture hall and galleries are the perfect setting for the museum's 20th century artworks, and its judicious use of wood and stone and relatively small size make it feel airy yet intimate and inviting. I'm not a huge fan of Jackson Pollock, but his Number 2, 1949, is perfectly placed in the space framed by Johnson's double staircase.

After we left the institute, we drove the short distance to the campus of what is now known as the Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center, the oldest state-operated psychiatric facility in New York. It opened in 1843 as the New York State Lunatic Asylum, and the original building, commonly referred to as "Old Main," is still standing. It may well be the best extant example of institutional Greek Revival architecture in the United States.

The Old Main building is 500 feet long. However, owing to the many trees on the Mohawk Valley campus, it's difficult for a photograph of the front of the building to convey just how massive it is. The above photograph captures only the building's central section and part of its eastern wing.

There are fewer trees behind the building. The above image, which was shot through the chainlink fence that surrounds Old Main, gives some sense of the length of the building's west wing and central section.

Old Main was vacated in 1978 and allowed to deteriorate. In 1998, the State of New York attempted to sell off disused parcels of Mohawk Valley and several other state psychiatric facilities, prompting fears that Old Main and other historically significant mental health facilities would be demolished. However, the Mohawk Valley parcel didn't sell, and the state opted instead to renovate part of the building for use as a State Office of Mental Health (OMH) records storage facility. This facility, which holds records that will either be transferred to the State Archives at some point in the future, destroyed at a predetermined time, or retained by OMH for research purposes as well as artifacts from now-defunct facilities, opened in 2005.

It's important to understand that only the first floor of the building has been renovated. The upper floors and other areas not used for records storage, such as the sun porches that cap the building's east and west wings, still need attention. Given the historical and architectural significance of the building, I hope that an appropriate use can be found for the remaining space within it.

My friend and I had a good time in Utica today, and our only regret is that, owing to the timing of our visit, we were not able to tour one of the few Utica factories that is still doing a booming business: the Matt Brewing Company, which produces the Saranac beers and soft drinks that upstate New Yorkers know and love. The company offers four tours a day every Monday-Saturday during the summer, but offers only a couple of tours a day during September-May. A return visit to Utica may be in order . . . .

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Workshop on Digital Preservation of Complex Engineering Data

On 20-21 April 2009, West Virginia University, the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, and the Electronic Records Archives program of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) hosted a special Workshop on Digital Preservation of Complex Engineering Data in Morgantown, West Virginia.

The amount of electronic engineering data that is either archival or must be retained for decades is rapidly increasing, and anyone seeking to preserve electronic engineering records must contend with software and hardware obsolescence and figure out how best to store vast quantities of information. This workshop, which brought together experts from a wide array of government and academic research centers, addressed these challenges.

Abstracts and most of the slideshow presentations from the workshop are now online. Presentation topics included natural language processing of electronic records, the Integrated Rule Oriented Data System (iRODS) infrastructure for storage and preservation of electronic data, and the uses, limitations, and potential extensions of the STEP standard for exchange of product model data.

These presentations ought to interest not only archivists and others who are currently seeking to preserve electronic engineering records but also those who work with much smaller quantities of digital records: state and local governments and academic special collections departments will soon confront many of the same challenges that the engineering and scientific communities and NARA face today.

I learned about the availability of these slides and abstracts via a message that Mark Conrad of NARA posted to the Management & Preservation of Electronic Records listserv. Thanks, Mark!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Cologne Archive update

A poignant article detailing the holdings of the Historical Archive of the City of Cologne appears in the online edition of today's Los Angeles Times. It illuminates, in a very matter-of-fact and understated fashion, the emotional impact of the collapse and the recovery effort upon the archive's staff -- some of whom haven't returned to work since the building's collapse on 3 March -- and the roughly 1,000 volunteers who have worked at the site or are storing salvaged materials.

A brief piece centering upon a group of Czech archivists who volunteered at the site appears, interestingly, in the online edition of today's People's Daily (the official paper of China's Communist Party). According to this article, the Czech volunteers estimate that no more than 30 percent of the Cologne Archive's holdings will be "saved."

This figure contrasts quite sharply with that advanced by officials in Cologne: according to a recent Deutsche Press-Agenter news release, approximately 80 percent of the archive's holdings have been recovered.

I suspect that that, in a way, the Czech archivists and the Cologne officials are both correct: as the Los Angeles Times article makes plain, some of the materials are recovered intact, others are wet or torn to bits, and the process of sorting through the recovered documents and reassembling series and collections will be an arduous, years-long process. Moreover, some series and collections have no doubt been damaged so extensively that they are effectively lost; for example, if a handful of documents is all that remains of a voluminous series that spanned hundreds of years, those documents probably won't be of much use to scholars.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, the Irish Times published a reflective article focusing upon the impact of the archive's collapse on the family and friends of writer Heinrich Böll. After six years of careful negotiation, Böll's son and other relatives had transferred Böll's papers, which included photographs and manuscripts documenting Böll's frequent visits to Ireland, to the Cologne Archive in mid-February 2009. The disaster -- and what they see as grievous lack of communication from city officials -- has left them stunned, outraged, and deeply concerned about Böll's literary and political legacy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"History is just so fascinating": archives as a teaching tool

In today's Washington Post, there's a splendid article by John Kelly that outlines how the Stuart-Hobson Middle School, a highly regarded public school within the District of Columbia, uses its own archival records to interest students in the history of the school and their community.

The old attendance books, photographs, and other materials were discovered about three years ago, and an enterprising parent wrote a successful Institute of Museum and Library Services grant application that enabled the school's librarian to hire a couple of part-time processing archivists. Once processed, the records became the focus of a wide array of student projects.

Working with the records has forced the students to confront the school's segregated past and contrast the professional careers of their own parents with those of the blue-collar workers who sent their children to the school during the mid-20th century. It has also them to appreciate present-day traces of the past: one student marveled that students who attended the school decades ago lived in homes that are still standing today.

A lot of students are quoted in this article, and it's plain that they are really fired up about working with these records. One student Kelly interviewed stated that "history is just so fascinating," and all of the others were equally enthusiastic. It's also evident that their studies have led them to reflect upon the ongoing nature of historical change: Kelly asked a couple of students how future Stuart-Hobson students will view them, and they readily recognized that in 2050 their clothes will seem as old-fashioned as those of the students of 1950 seem today.

Reading this article brought to mind something that I heard a few years ago when I sat in on a meeting of Western New York archivists. Ken O'Brien, who teaches history at the College at Brockport, SUNY and sits on the New York State Historical Records Advisory Board was one of the attendees. Although I'm not sure he remembers me, I don't think I'll ever forget something he told me in passing. He discussed how each student at an area school had used school records and other materials to research the life of a student who had attended the same school a long time ago, and mentioned in passing that such projects mold character as well as minds. At the same time as students learn a lot about local history and broader historical trends, they learn to look beyond the old-fashioned clothes and given names. They come to recognize that people who lived in the past had varied talents, interests, and goals and experienced joy and sorrow as intensely as they themselves do. In sum, projects such as these help to develop students' capacity for empathy -- which our culture desperately needs but doesn't always encourage.

Kelly's piece also made me start thinking about the long-term impact of such projects. I have the sneaking suspicion that in about twenty years, a substantial number of young archivists will trace their choice of career to elementary and middle school projects that made sustained use of archival materials. However, the potential is much greater. Most of the students at Stuart-Hobson and other schools that make imaginative and stimulating use of historical records will not become archivists or historians, but many of them will continue to appreciate, in an almost instinctive fashion, the value of archival records. In other words, they are our future supporters -- which means that, in the long run, helping teachers develop solid and intrinsically interesting historical records projects may be the most potent form of advocacy available to us.

John Kelly's article is a joy to read, and it's accompanied by a delightful photograph of four white-gloved students holding encapsulated documents. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Larkin Building: business processes and the built environment

Newsweek recently published an intriguing article by Cathleen McGuigan that contrasts Frank Lloyd Wright's first and last major buildings: the Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo, which he began designing in 1902, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which was finished in 1959.

The Larkin Building was demolished in 1950, and to this day preservationists, architectural historians, Wright buffs throughout the world, and civic-minded Buffalonians mourn its loss. As images (here, here, and here) of the building reveal, Wright masterfully extended his Prairie style, which he developed while designing private homes, to a mammoth commercial space. In keeping with the company's unusually open corporate philosophy, the building's interior was dominated by an airy, well-light atrium, and Larkin Company executive sat at desks situated on the ground floor; as a result, clerks and other workers stationed on the upper floors could readily observe their bosses at work.

However, from an archivist's or records manager's point of view, the most fascinating things about the Larkin Building is that its design consciously reflected the business processes of the Larkin Company, which made soap and other laundry and bath products and sold them via mail order. McGuigan emphasizes that Wright's design ensured that the building "worked like a machine": the masses of orders that arrived each day were sorted in the basement, taken to the uppermost floors, and then distributed -- in some instances by workers on roller skates -- to the army of clerks who worked on the lower floors.

Wright's workflow-specific design was both innovative and extremely influential, but I wonder whether it helped to precipitate the Larkin Building's demise. Re-engineering such facilities can be extremely challenging, and some corporations and communities -- particularly those experiencing long-term economic contraction -- may not have the resources needed to do so.

As one of the Wright experts McGuigan interviewed noted, many of the day-today tasks associated with processing mail or Internet orders can be performed by a single person using a desktop computer. Given that there is no longer a pressing need to accommodate the physical movement of paper records, it's possible to configure employee workstations to meet the space available -- and physically separate the workers who process orders from those who pack and ship the boxes containing the desired goods. Such infinite flexibility might ultimately produce some great architecture, but for the most part it's likely to produce a vast number of charmless cubicle farms. However, given the utilitarian nature of many 19th- and early 20th-century mail order facilities, the cube farm trend might not be as objectionable as it might first seem.

Wright himself apparently took the destruction of the Larkin Building in stride: Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, a former student of Wright and the current director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives, told McGuigan that Wright was deeply pleased that three contractors were needed to demolish the building.

Readers interested in the history of the Larkin Building, Buffalo's industrial past, or good Web 2.0 content should be sure to check out the second reader comment that appears at the end of the article. It politely and knowledgeably corrects a couple of factual errors that crept into McGuigan's article. (Why can't all reader comments be this well-written and well-informed?) It will also take you to submitter Chris Hawley's superb blog, The Hydraulics, which focuses on the history of Buffalo's oldest industrial area. The Hydraulics is a great source of information about Buffalo's industrial past -- and a great example of how to blog about local history.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Cologne Archives site in April: photographs

My friend and colleague Ray Lafever was visiting friends in Cologne, Germany a few weeks ago, and on 1 April he traveled to the site of the Historical Archive of the City of Cologne, which collapsed on 3 March. Ray has graciously allowed me to post these photographs; he also took a short video, which I will post once I overcome some technical difficulties at my end.

The site from a distance; the green metal canopy that covers the rubble is behind and slightly to the left of the yellow-jacketed emergency personnel.

Ray took this image from the site's perimeter. Only authorized personnel and vehicles are allowed past this point.

Ray used a telephoto lens to take this picture. The recovery personnel, who are wearing black or orange jackets, are in the process of rescuing several large bound volumes.

Adjacent to the perimeter of the site is an impromptu memorial to the two young men who were killed when their apartment building, which was adjacent to the archives, collapsed on 3 March. There is something deeply touching about this simple, spontaneous remembrance.

Ray, thank you for allowing me to post these pictures.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Kent State University: 4 May

Thirty-nine years ago today, a confrontation between Kent State University students protesting the Vietnam War and a contingent of Ohio National Guardsmen charged with preserving order on campus ended tragically: after 13 seconds of rifle fire, four students were dead, one was paralyzed for life, and eight others were wounded to varying degrees.

I have a master's degree in history from Kent, and during my three years there I was always surprised by the innumerable and at times deeply strange ways in which those 13 seconds continued to echo throughout the campus. The Vietnam War was profoundly divisive, and the events of 4 May 1970 haven't yet lost their polarizing effect. The calls for the wholesale slaughter of hippie college kids and for the offing of the baby-killing capitalist pigs may have subsided, but the bitter division between those who think that the Guard's actions were unconscionable and those who believe that the students got what they deserved still persists.

Owing to these lingering tensions -- and the simple fact that Kent is a state-funded institution -- official remembrances of 4 May 1970 were invariably ambivalent: this is a very important part of the university's history, so let's solemnly pause for some silent reflection and then move on. My ability to tolerate official commemorations is generally pretty limited, and in early May I had little time for anything other than my undergrads' finals and my own end-of-semester papers. As a result, I didn't pay much heed to the university's 4 May calendar of events.

4 May was nonetheless omnipresent. My thesis adviser (a longtime peace activist) was one of a handful of faculty marshals who tried on the morning of 4 May to defuse the conflict between the students and the Guard, and he witnessed, up close, its horrific end. Buildings that I walked past every day appeared in the archival footage that the local TV news aired on every 4 May. The shortest (but hilliest) route between my apartment and the building housing the Department of History took me right past the May 4 Memorial. My cohorts and I noted that a sizeable number of the library's journal subscriptions ended in 1971, when the university suffered the first of a series of massive budget cuts.

Even my references to my alma mater are shaped by 4 May: during my time on campus, the university was in the midst of a re-branding campaign, and "Kent State" was out. "Kent" was in, and the university's letterhead, Web site, apparel, mugs, etc., reflected the change. (However, judging from the university's recently redesigned Web site, "Kent State" is back in vogue.)

Not surprisingly, the events of 4 May 1970 have also left an indelible mark upon the documentary record. Many archives throughout Northeast Ohio and the rest of the nation hold relevant materials, but the university's own Department of Special Collections and Archives holds the largest body of records documenting the events of 4 May and their aftermath. At present, its May 4 Collection consists of approximately 250 cubic feet of material created by individual faculty and students, university departments, student organizations, local politicians, and area newspapers.

I didn't spend a lot of time in the Department of Special Collections and Archives--my research almost always took me to other repositories--but I was glad that the university's archivists and librarians were so firmly committed to documenting the events of 4 May 1970 as comprehensively as possible. The collection has grown quite a bit since my time at Kent, and I expect that it will continue to do so.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Happy Birthday, Pete Seeger

The legendary folk musician Pete Seeger turns 90 today. Since 1949, Seeger has lived in a Hudson Valley hamlet about 90 miles south of Albany, and around here his birthday is a very big deal: in addition to writing (or co-writing) folk standards such as "If I Had a Hammer," "Turn, Turn, Turn," and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" and making "We Shall Overcome" the anthem of the civil rights movement, he has played a key role in starting sustaining the citizen campaign to clean up the Hudson River.

In the mid-1960s, the Hudson was a mess: riverfront communities dumped raw sewage into the river, industrial plants discharged a witches' brew of toxic chemicals into it, and parts of the river were summertime dead zones. In 1966, Seeger, whose home overlooks the river, and a small group of friends decided to build the Clearwater, a replica of the cargo sloops that once sailed up and down the river, and use it as a floating observatory and classroom. The Clearwater quickly became a focal point for the Hudson River cleanup campaign. To date, hundreds of thousands of people, many of them children, have since sailed on it, examined the river and its flora and fauna, and conducted tests that measured the quality of its water.

Although lingering chemicals and invasive species threaten the Hudson, the river is in much better shape than it was forty years ago: fish are no longer covered by a cottage cheese-like film, sturgeon populations are on the rebound, and people swim in the river without any ill effects. Pete Seeger and his compatriots deserve a fair amount of credit for this vastly improved state of affairs and for their continuing work on the river's behalf.

Later today, Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, and many, many other luminaries will perform at a gala concert honoring Seeger's birthday at Madison Square Garden. Seeger, who still plays (and chops wood!) but shuns the spotlight, generally turns down honors of this sort; the only reason he allowed this concert to go on is that all proceeds from it will benefit the Clearwater.

To the best of my knowledge, Pete Seeger's personal papers are still in his possession (and I hope that he and his wife, Toshi Seeger, are pack-rats!) However, Pete Seeger's life and work are reflected in archival collections held by repositories throughout the country. Repositories that hold substantial amounts of archival material relating to Seeger include: