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The Changing Nature of Acquisitions at the Schlesinger Library

The Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University is among the most respected special collections archives in the world, and arguably one of the most vital repositories of American women’s history available to researchers. Housed now in what once was the Radcliffe College library, the Schlesinger began collecting suffragist records in the 1940s and became known as the Women’s Archives; it was later renamed in 1965 to honor Harvard University historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and his wife Elizabeth Bancroft Schlesinger. Today, in addition to strong collections on feminism, women’s rights, health and sexuality, the Library boasts an impressive zine collection, the papers of Julia Child, and the Black Women Oral History Project Interviews, which features interviews from 1976 to 1981.

IMG_0485 Acquisitions and Appraisal Section Social Media Intern Lily Troia spoke with the Schlesinger’s Curator of Manuscripts, Kathryn Jacob, and Head of Collection Services, Anne Engelhart, about their work at the Library, recent acquisitions of note, and challenges to manuscripts departments in the digital age.

Can you share a bit about your professional path and how it brought you to the Schlesinger? 

Anne: I have been here for nearly 38 years. I started out typing catalog cards, though my background was in early music; and I was very interested in old manuscripts. I worked for the oral history project for a long time, then in manuscripts, and now collections services. It has been inspiring to see how the library has developed and evolved, become better funded and more professional.

Kathy: I have been at the Schlesinger 15 years and have a Ph.D. in History. I lucked into a job as archivist of Johns Hopkins University right when they started their first archive, and have been a historian for the United States Senate and NHPRC. While I am not a traditional library person—and couldn’t catalog a book to save my life– acquisitions is an area in which I make sense, and I like it a lot! I am hoping to grow the collection, meet interesting people, and figure out whose records might best document the lives of women, at a certain time and place, and surrounding certain issues.

Could you describe your approach(es) to acquisitions research?

Kathy: I read the journals when they come in. I read a lot of conference proceedings to see who is speaking and on what subjects.

Anne: We are very interested in what people are researching and topics for which they might need resources.

Kathy: What we seek changes over time, often tied to institutional initiatives. I first started at the Schlesinger after Eva Moseley retired. She had been here for over 27 years; and we have her to thank for some of the most amazing second wave feminist collections at the Library, among many others. She was amazing in the range of whom she brought in and whom she contacted. For a period, she was interested in documenting women-owned farms—boutique farms and farmers in New England. Right now we are very interested in women of color, immigration, issues of women in poverty. We have strong collections on women’s health and reproductive lives; and suffrage and post-WWII feminism are also big fields here.

Do you ever angle or cater acquisitions to match particular grants or topic-specific funding streams? 

Kathy: More likely we go after collections because colleagues in certain fields tell us that topics or areas are heating up among researchers—for example, women and sports is something on which we have some materials, but are working to expand to meet user needs and requests. I would say we are more research-driven than funding-driven.

As the Schlesinger digitizes and makes more collections available online, have you seen changes or increases in research requests? 

Anne: Definitely—especially our audiovisual collections and audiotapes that have been digitized. The increase in use has just been astronomical. June Jordan’s papers, for example, were lovingly processed, with the audiotapes listed, which people started requesting as well. Now two-thirds of that collection has been digitized, soon to be 100%. That is a testimony to the fact that AV material is not this poor orphan that should not be described as well as everything else.

Kathy: We can see these changes, as we give out grants ourselves–about 40 research grants for dissertations and post-doctoral studies per year. I think three requests this year want to use the June Jordan AV material. It is a case of, ‘if you digitize it they will come.

Anne: We also alert ourselves to upcoming anniversaries such as the Suffrage Centennial. We are working towards having many of our suffrage collections digitized by 2019.

What is the frequency of donors approaching the Library with potential collections, and how has that been impacted by digitization of other materials?

Kathy: Sometimes I am approached more than once a day. Often it is a personal reference or connection to Radcliffe or the Library, though we do not necessarily take everything offered to us. Often attics get cleared when a loved one passes. We got a great collection this past fall of women’s letters from Maine–several file cabinets of material. Sometimes we hear from dealers, and get lots of auction catalogs. We might buy a single item if it seems relevant; I really like women’s diaries. I do purchase diaries [smiles].

Do you have a set budget or goal number for annual acquisitions, or do you make decisions solely case by case?

Kathy: Sometimes it is hard to answer exactly, even to colleagues or other folks in the institution—how many feet of material are you going to bring in, how many collections, or how much are you going to spend? It is very unpredictable. Spring and fall tend to be busier times—people cleaning [laughs], but you never know. Someone contacted us in the past twelve months: in the back of her parents’ closet, what she always thought was a hatbox containing men’s hats, actually had dozens of letters from a girlfriend of her father’s that she never knew existed.

Anne: Kathy alluded to Eva’s inquiries and efforts. Eva would send out letters to potential donors, and plant these little seeds. Very often decades later, Kathy will get a phone call, saying “I am ready to give you my papers,” and they come in! We just got the papers of Elisabeth Owen Burger, who is related to two other collections that are here.

Kathy: When she died, her son was aware of the other papers held here, so he donated his mother’s papers to the Schlesinger.

Anne: All these relationships and connections—it is really fabulous.

Kathy: We also have great relationships with dealers, who often let us know about things before they go into the catalog.

Anne: Like the hairwork album we just obtained! This is a little diary-sized thing with braided hair of a woman’s friends and family. This was apparently a thing women did—collecting hair—and this album dates from 1858-1924, but we did not have one yet in our collection.

Kathy: Sometimes friends or colleagues spot items on eBay. Things can show up in unexpected places, and if you do not act, they will be gone. A couple years ago on eBay there was an amazing set of diaries of the only woman avocado farmer in California in the 20s and 30s. Her husband had died, and she inherited a big avocado grove; and the diaries, from what you could see online, read like Grapes of Wrath. She describes the dustbowl, these jalopies with three generations of a family pulling into the farm, begging for work, begging for food. We bid on it, and we did not get it. I hope that they went to some place that will make them accessible, because this was really vivid material.

I once saw a collection on eBay of a Boston woman’s letters. She went south at the very beginning of the Civil War, as soon as the Sea Islands were under Union control, along with nearly 1,000 women from the North who went down as teachers. She was writing home to her Boston family about conditions on the Sea Islands and domestic relations of the slaves. Whoever owned the letters was selling them one by one.

So heartbreaking!

Kathy: I know! We were able to buy three, and her diary; but there were six or seven more that went to different people, so now this collection is split up all over the place, and we do not know where the other letters are.

How long does the process usually take, from first contact to acquisition? 

Kathy: It can be a very long time, especially if we have approached them. However, if the donor has approached us, they are ready to go, and are within a fairly small radius of the Library, the process can be quite quick. Sometimes, within a matter of weeks: if someone calls us, and it sounds good, they might mail the materials, or we may go visit. They will fill out a donor questionnaire, we create a deed of gift—ideally we do not want to bring in a collection until we have a signed deed of gift—but that can take very little time. I visited a house today in Cambridge, and set aside 14 or 15 containers of materials. Since the woman is selling the house, she filled out her questionnaire on site, I will probably do up the deed of gift this afternoon, and the movers will go and pick up the collection one morning next week. We can also promise people that Anne will create a catalog record in HOLLIS (Harvard’s Online Library Catalog) within three or four weeks of the collection arriving. We let potential users know we have a collection even if it is closed, or even if it is not available until processed.

What recent acquisitions are you particularly excited about?

Anne: The Kinnicutt albums: a couple photograph albums from this wealthy woman from upstate New York, who went on this crazy pre-WWI road trip with her chauffeur, friend, and valet. They are traveling on roads that look like trenches, all over the eastern U.S., tons of photographs of them camping.

Kathy: But they are dressed in these fancy clothes, as if they were going to the afternoon symphony!

Does the Schlesinger actively acquire born digital material? 

Kathy: We have very few entirely digital collections, but many of our new collections are hybrid. We have three people who specifically work with digital materials, so we capture websites and make those accessible. For example, CUB (Concerned United Birthparents)—the HOLLIS record will tell you whether we have captured their website, and you can see it, directly from the catalog record. We capture a bunch of blogs, and we talk to people about their email and their discs. We have a donor who just sent her hard drives and a box of old cell phones, and we can take the material off of the devices. Folk singer Holly Near sent us a hard drive of fan mail, which is fantastic. We have the papers and records of this phenomenal photographer, Paula Caplan, who traveled the world and did a lot of work on women in Afghanistan. All her records came as discs.

What are the biggest challenges to working in acquisitions and curation, and have they changed with the advent of digitization? 

Kathy: Digitization has changed the method, perhaps, but not the goal. There are genres of materials that we have collected for more than 60 years and go back for over 200 years–diaries and letters. We have lots and lots of diaries and letters. We are not going to stop collecting diaries and letters just because the medium has changed. Now those letters might be in email; many young women use a blog as a diary. It might not be what we think of as a traditional diary—it is not private writing; but just because the way they keep them has changed does not mean we will stop collecting them. The situation is the same with newsletters. We have long runs of newsletters; now some of them are digital only, so we have to go out and harvest them in that format.

Women’s lives involve every aspect of what everybody does, so how do you keep up with them and decide, when there is so much going on, who are the people to reach out to? What are the organizations to contact? Are they going to save the same sorts of materials? For young women doing mostly digital activism, what are they going to have as their records? We are excellent at working with ‘boxes of stuff’, but these women are not necessarily going to have ‘boxes of stuff.’ It means what they save is different, and what we bring in is different.

Anne: Arrangement will have less of a function, I think. We will still need to determine what items we have, are there privacy issues, and how are we going to describe and deliver them. Those are big challenges—especially the privacy piece. Many donors will say, “Oh, you can open the collection. It’s fine; there is nothing in there,” but when you go through and read the papers, maybe there are student grade sheets or personal family details revealed. People often do not know what they are giving us, and that is going to be especially true with born digital. As more materials come in born digital, it becomes less an issue of arranging and describing, and more of appraising and describing.

Lily Troia serves as the Appraisal and Acquisitions Section Social Media Intern. She is currently pursuing her MLIS at Simmons College in the archives concentration, where she serves as the Dean’s Fellow for Digital Media Outreach. Lily was recently awarded a Rutgers University Institute of Jazz Archives Fellowship. She will begin a internship at the American Archive of Public Broadcasting this summer, and currently directs social media strategy for the Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies.