With the last batch of artifacts delivered to the records storage facility for the Shafer/Motherway Collection, I have met the initial goal of my project, completing the inventory in preparation for appraisal and accession. Since this collection is being constructed with little to no input from its creators, this inventory phase has been crucial to understanding the materials and also planning for their preservation.
Last weekend, I spent a few hours sorting documents which we recovered from the attic of the house. Interesting discoveries continue to abound, including lecture notes and exams from Mary Shafer Motherway’s years as a medical student. An important realization brought about by these documents is that Mary continued her education even after she received her initial Registered Nurse License and moved to Panama with her husband, James, to work in the Canal Zone.
I look forward to also beginning the description of the collection and preparing a database that is DACS and EAD compliant for development of future reference tools. I will be using Microsoft Excel to store descriptive information since this is a widely-accepted tool that can be imported into most software programs that could be obtained in the future for storing this data.
In the past two months, I’ve worked with the members of the Burkittsville Preservation Association to recover a collection of historical records and artifacts from the Hamilton Willard Shafer House. The process has been illuminative in many ways, not only considering the unique environment in which I’m working to process a collection, but also gaining the experience of essentially constructing a collection from scratch.
When this project began, I had first impressions about the size of the collection I would be working with. Having toured the site and spoken with members who were actively working on clearing out the house, I assumed that at most we would find a dozen or so boxes of materials that would constitute the collection. Setting to work, I initially saw rooms full of debris and trash from years of vandalism, leading me to assume that little if anything of historical significance was left to be found.
I was wrong!
Over the past two weeks while continuing to inventory documents and artifacts, I also helped to clean out one of the largest areas of the house which contained objects from the past owners, the attic. If you recall in my first post, I shared a photograph showing the attic as it appeared when the Burkittsville Preservation Association began working on the Hamilton Willard Shafer House (I've inserted the picture below). Documents including newspapers, letters, notebooks, and prints were strewn across the floor of the attic and piled in boxes. The bulk of the materials were stored in the front section of the attic which is under a significantly deteriorated slate roof. This of course means that the objects have been subjected to weather over the past several years.
Considering the neglected state in which these historical records have been kept for the past decade (or longer), the condition of the documents and artifacts recovered is not as bad as one may suspect. While some documents which were on the tops of piles or laying alone on the floor are moth-eaten or water damaged, those which were stored in boxes or in larger piles are still in a good state of preservation. These records include medical sketches and notes from Mary Hamilton Shafer Motherway's studies and career as a nurse.
In order to preserve these items as quickly as possible, the Burkittsville Preservation Association organized a work day in which four volunteers (including myself) cleaned items and brought them down from the attic to a secure room on the second floor of the house. In this space, I have been working to sort through the artifacts to determine which ones will be transported to our records storage space for permanent archival preservation. After two days of work, I worked through about 2/3 of the materials we recovered from attic, as seen in the before and after photographs below.
As in so many stages of this project, I've been fascinated by the discoveries that we are making. I am sharing a few of the special items recovered in the photo gallery below. Each of these records offers an important link to life in the house for the Shafer family over the past century, including personal items like trinkets and artwork to political buttons indicating the family's societal and cultural views on the national stage.
In the next few weeks, as I wrap up the inventory phase of this project, I will begin ordering acid-free folders, interleaving tissue, and boxes to begin storing these important records in archival-quality containers that will contribute to their further preservation. This process will also include describing each record which will be completed using the Dublin Core Metadata framework and stored in an Excel spreadsheet which can be imported in the future to an online content management system for web access to the collection.
This past week, I had my first opportunity to utilize the developing collection of the Burkittsville Preservation Association as a tool for outreach. The association, in addition to supporting my collection development project, is actively working on preservation and restoration tasks at the farm. In collaboration with Preservation Maryland, the association is raising funds for repairs to the slate and metal roofs on the house. In support of this cause, the local newspaper covered the project, offering a profile on the organization to the public.
As a followup to this article, the newspaper interviewed me to offer the public a glimpse at the unique collection of documents and objects that have been recovered from the farm. I was interviewed by reporter Judy Zeck who began the meeting by asking me about my background and education. The bulk of our interview was spent discussing the types of records that have been incorporated into the collection, the process of conserving items and describing them, and the planned future uses of the collection. I also had the opportunity to speak about the value of the collection and how it will support the activities of the association.
I was excited to see the article when it was printed last Thursday and even more happy that they featured one of my favorite documents from the collection, Mary Hamilton Shafer Motherway's 1926 Registered Nurse certificate. The feedback I have received so far has been very positive and many people are surprised that so much material survived the neglect and vandalism to which the property has been subjected to over the past decade.
The collection has also provided an excellent tool for engaging association followers and supporters. Photographs of some of the most unique discoveries, including campaign buttons from William Jennings Bryan (1900) and Woodrow Wilson (1912 or 1916), have provided conversation starters on the association's Facebook page. As the public becomes more aware of the association, the prospects for future fundraising and volunteer contributions improves.
Seeing the collection become a valuable asset for the Burkittsville Preservation Association in multiple ways is very satisfying. I'm looking forward to exploring other uses of these important records in the coming weeks and months.
As I'm wrapping up the initial inventory of the collection from the Hamilton Willard Shafer farm, I'm becoming more aware of the content and scope of this unique assortment of recovered documents and objects. Naturally, in preparation for making recommendations about what objects should be maintained in the collection and which may be suitable to be deaccessed, I begin to ask myself this question: If I were a researcher, what would I learn from this document/object?
Of course, I don't pretend to know all of the possible uses a particular document or object may have to offer in terms of research value. I'm not a historian or professional researcher, but I've done archival research as part of my undergraduate studies. I also know that objects which may not have an immediate research value may acquire more significance as time progresses. However, I do believe that it is important to consider this question in order to effectively manage a collection, especially in its initial preparation for long-term storage. Each item that is declare to be of value means that it will require time to describe and document, financial resources to properly house and maintain, and other costs which I personally have to consider as a consultant and that which the association must account for as well.
Allow me to contextualize this week's post by sharing with you the documents I spent this past weekend inventorying. Cracking into two boxes of documents which were found in a room of the house currently being restored by the Burkittsville Preservation Association, I began sifting through hundreds of cancelled checks. For those who are unfamiliar with these documents, until 2003 when Congress passed the Check Clearing for the 21st Century Act, banks sent their customers copies of all of the checks they had issued from their account along with their statement. Turns out, Mary Hamilton Shafer Motherway, the last occupant of the house, kept almost every check she ever wrote. We have canceled checks ranging in date from the 1920s until the mid-1990s.
Here is where I began to ask my self the aforementioned question: What could I learn from these documents?
Paging through checks, I began to glean some of the information that I needed to justify the cost of preserving these documents. We know that Mary was a nurse who worked for about 10 years in the Canal Zone in Panama. However, in reviewing the checks, I noted that there are records of her sending money back to her mother and sister who were still living on the home farm at the time, going through the depression without a steady means of income. Similarly, I found checks written out to different residents in town, some of which were Mary's relatives. Moving into the 1940s and 50s, I began to note the locations to which these checks were mailed from the bank. Soon, the narrative of her nursing career after Panama became clearer. Now, we know that she worked in the U.S. Marine Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia and at the Federal Prison in Alderson, West Virginia. In later years, the checks (in addition to receipts which Mary also kept) detail projects around the house and farm and when different items were purchased for the household. In a consumer culture, a record of what someone bought suddenly becomes very illuminating!
At the end of the inventory, I filled two boxes with financial records, including the cancelled checks, bank statements, receipts, and other correspondence covering most of Mary Hamilton Shafer Motherway's adult life. The record provides significant insight into Mary's early career, her life after the death of her husband (he died while they were still in Panama in 1937), and her life on the farm in the last half of the twentieth century. Without these records, we would have little information on improvements made to the property or what contents were once found inside the house. The process was also beneficial for me in learning to dig deep in pursuit of research value for records.
I've worked with historic collections now for about seven years, both in archival and museum settings. When I was asked to consult on a project with the Burkittsville Preservation Association, I knew that this would be a different environment than I'm used to working in. To begin with, the collection was spread throughout an abandoned, drafty pre-Civil War house of fourteen rooms and plenty of holes in the roof for water to leak in. From my first site visit, I knew that the first stage of this project would be recovery.
Here is what we started with, documents and objects strewn around the house, including here in the attic. Thankfully, we've moved everything to a secure location where we don't have to worry about water damage or falling through the floor!
My first two weeks on the project have entailed pulling documents and objects from closets, shelves, and even some long-forgotten behind mantels and in the attic, documenting the rooms in which they were discovered, and quickly moving them from the house to a safe storage area. This move is necessary not only because of the condition of the house itself, but also because they are not secure in the house. After a full day of packing, we finished moving about ten boxes, clothes baskets, and bags of objects from the house.
I've been given a space in which to work on the collections and store the collection as it comes into form. My current tasks include preliminary cleaning of materials and compiling the accession inventory for the collection. This has included making fascinating discoveries that encourage me about the future value of this collection.
Throughout my posts, I'll be sharing some information about the previous owners of the house and how their stories shape the collection. The last occupant of the house, Mary Hamilton Shafer Motherway, lived to be 103 years old, living in the house until she turned 100. A fascinating figure, she left the farm in the mid-1920s to become a secretary working in the United States Public Health Service. She soon completed training and became a registered nurse, being stationed in the canal zone in Panama during the 1930s. One of the first discoveries I made unpacking the boxes we brought from the house was a pack containing pieces of her nurse's uniforms and her R.N. license, water damaged but still very legible.
In a collection largely devoid of a pre-existing intellectual arrangement, the defining of the collection will be based on the persons with which the items are associated. This will give the overall collection a chronological framework that reflects the historical evolution of the property held by the Burkittsville Preservation Association.