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.