Monday Marvels: The Early Years

In anticipation of a blog entry I’ll be posting soon about re-processing Part I of the collection, I thought it would be fun to highlight one of the collection’s earliest items today. This piece of correspondence was written in 1920, just one year after the ACLS was first formed to represent the United States in the Union Académique Internationale (International Union of Academies). The document speaks for itself, so here it is:

Very early correspondence regarding the ACLS.

It’s always fun to find things like this in collections – formative thoughts about ideas, events, organizations, and projects that go on to become a Big Deal.

“Has anybody sent you information about our American Council with the long name…?” Surely that “long name” refers to the full name of the organization as stated in the Constitution: American Council of Learned Societies Devoted to Humanistic Studies. How interesting to look back through the lens of history and see the beginnings of an organization that is currently putting millions of dollars into fostering the humanities every year – they certainly have come a long way in the past century!

Monday Marvels

While processing collections, archivists occasionally come across documents related to someone who was very famous, powerful, or important in some way. We say that these items have intrinsic value – that is to say, the item is important partially because of its physical characteristics, and a photocopy of it would not offer the same type of value. We look for many types of value in archives; this is one that describes very specific types of materials. For example, a check signed by Louis Armstrong would have intrinsic value because of its physical association with the jazz legend. An actual signature on a document touched by someone with that amount of historical influence would normally be something that people would think is worth keeping, even if they would dispose of a very similar item signed by someone else.

Many times the value we search for is informational in nature – what can people learn from this document? Might anyone be interested in using it as part of a research project in the future? What does it tell us about a specific person or event, and how does that fit in with the larger picture of society in this time period? Sometimes, though, it’s great just to find something that was read by or written to someone with a big name; someone you’ve read about in school or seen on television, or someone you greatly admire for their actions and accomplishments.

The following document doesn’t strictly fall into the realm of intrinsic value (it’s debatable, anyway), but it was written by the ACLS to someone quite well-known: President Lyndon B. Johnson. This letter, written by former ACLS President R. M. Lumiansky, thanks President Johnson for his strong backing of the arts and humanities.

1967.03.01 Letter to LBJ

I suspect the special message to Congress mentioned is the one here; it’s dated just a few days before this letter was written. In this special message, President Johnson asks Congress to approve a $16 million budget for the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities, increasing it almost one-third from the previous budget.

It’s always wonderful to see people in power fighting for arts and humanities funding. Although the President did not personally write back to the ACLS, there is a response from his office thanking the organization for its support.

Monday Marvels

Since my two previous posts were about a fairly heavy topic, I thought I’d highlight something a bit lighter today. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve gone into some detail about how primary sources can help us feel the humanity inherent in history. That’s true for many reasons – just as these sources can let us glimpse individual stories from larger historical events and time periods, they can also give us physical signs that show us how human their creators really were – how very similar they were to us.

Take, for example, the 15th century Croatian manuscript that was found to have inky paw prints, presumably from a feline companion. The internet loves cats! Archivists love cats! Seeing this type of thing in archives and special collections can make us chuckle – but even more importantly, it can make us realize that even in the 15th century, even while physically writing books that are seen as sacred pieces of history today, people were just people. Their cats walked all over their work just like our cats walk all over ours. If you’re a cat owner, how many times has your little furry friend decided that your keyboard or homework or reading material would be the perfect place to plop down? It happened to people in the 1400s, too (maybe not with keyboards, but you get the point).

It’s always interesting to find the physical remnants of a totally normal life on documents – lipstick kisses on envelopes, dirty fingerprints, accidental tears, burn marks from cigarettes. These little reminders of humanity can make us feel even closer to history and the many interesting people who lived long ago.

This isn’t from the very distant past, but it was still fun to find in the ACLS collection. In October of 1943, someone undoubtedly got upset when they realized their coffee (or tea?) mug had stained this piece of correspondence:

Coffee stain

Enjoy, and remember: one day, your coffee stains might show up in an archival repository somewhere, giving a moment of amusement to a busy researcher.

Monday Marvels: Tiananmen Square, Part I

Like most archivists, I love studying the past in order to better understand the world we live in today. There are many great stories to be told, and many lessons to learn. That is why it is such a joy to find items in collections that directly relate to important moments in history. Encountering a letter from a soldier who witnessed firsthand a watershed moment in wartime; reading a speech given during a major civil rights protest; holding a photograph documenting the first instance of a new technology emerging: these things have a certain quality about them, and that quality is part of what draws people to primary sources in the first place. We read about these moments in history and social science textbooks at school, but seeing a firsthand account of them brings us something more – these objects tend to add more humanity to past events, allowing us to put ourselves into the shoes of these people, to see that actual human beings participated in these unforgettable moments, helping to shape their contemporary world as well as the one we live in today.

One such event took place 25 years ago – in the spring of 1989, student-led demonstrations were happening in Beijing, China. Gathering mainly in Tiananmen Square, the protestors called for widespread economic and political reform, and the government responded by declaring martial law. On June 4th, the military was sent to the square in an effort to displace the protestors. Arrests were made, and soldiers opened fire. Because the Chinese government refused to release any information about the event after it happened, casualty estimations range from several hundred to several thousand. I don’t condone using Wikipedia as a serious scholarly resource, but it’s great for learning basic information – the page on the Tiananmen Square protests is certainly worth reading if you’re interested. The BBC also offers a very short version of what happened in their “On This Day” feature. Most of you have probably seen the photo of a man (known only as “The Tank Man”) standing in front of a line of tanks – it is widely perceived to be one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, and was taken during these protests. Stories about the 25th anniversary of the June 4th incident have been peppering the news lately, showing up everywhere from Time to The Washington Post to The Guardian.

At this point, you might be asking yourself how this is related to the ACLS collection. I’ve written before about the international focus of the organization, so if you’ve been following along, you will see a pattern emerging – international programs are so important to the ACLS that there is currently an entire department devoted to them. Some of the boxes that arrived with Part III of the collection hold materials from the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China (CSCPRC, later known as the CSCC). I won’t delve too deeply into the details, but the CSCPRC was partially sponsored by the ACLS, which is why we’ve got some of their files here at the Library of Congress now. China has always been a main area of interest for the ACLS, and Chinese studies are heavily represented in all three parts of the collection.

In the first grouping of boxes I went through, I came across some grant materials from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Included were memoranda, pieces of correspondence, briefings, and notes about the Tiananmen Square protests to, from, and about scholars who were studying in China under the CSCPRC at the time. I thought it was worth taking the time to look more closely at these materials than I normally would, due to the historical importance inherent in them. Needless to say, I found them fascinating, and I hope that you all feel the same.

This first document, dated a few days after the June 4th incident, is a one-page letter from the Acting Director of the CSCPRC, Robert Geyer. In it, Geyer states that the committee is doing its best to get its sponsored scholars out of the country in order to ensure their safety. The seriousness of the situation is very clear:

CSCPRC - letter from June 7th, 1989

The following three-page fax sent to the D.C. CSCPRC office is worth reading in full, as it details the definite or assumed whereabouts of each of the program’s scholars on June 6th, noting that some scholars’ whereabouts were actually unknown at the time. I can only imagine how frantic and nerve-racking it must have felt to be in this situation, unable to find certain people. If you read nothing else, read the last paragraph. I can’t put into words how amazed I was reading this, so I will let the document speak for itself:


You might have noticed that Melissa Macauley’s name was highlighted in the above documents. That’s because they were with other documents related to her – for each scholar, the committee kept a packet of materials documenting their time in China. With Ms. Macauley’s permission, I give you one more document that I find to be particularly enlightening – a briefing from her to future scholars titled “Tips for a Safer, Happier Stay in the New, New China” from September of 1989:

Melissa Macauley - September 1989

The paragraph about demonstrations and mobs is especially interesting, with strong enough language that anyone reading it could imagine being there.

Documents like these ones always make me feel like time is suspending itself – there is nothing quite like a firsthand account of an important moment in history, the humanity jumping straight out of the source to engulf you in a true experience. I look forward to finding more documents like these as I continue processing the collection, and can only hope that researchers for years to come will use them to help us all better understand the human experience.

Monday Marvels

Last week I promised to start posting interesting records from Part III, so that’s what I’m going to do today! In general, Part III has more recent materials than Parts I and II. This means I’ll be able to share some more contemporary ACLS activities with all of you, highlighting some programs and aspects of the organization that are very much still alive.

One of the things that makes the ACLS so special is the inclusion of constituent societies under its umbrella. Many of the records in this collection focus on these member societies, and one of the most important ways in which they are able to communicate with each other and the ACLS is through the Conference of Administrative Officers (CAO), which “holds semi-annual meetings to discuss substantive issues in the humanities as well as practical and organizational aspects of society management,” according to the ACLS website.

The CAO originally started as the Conference of Secretaries back in 1925. The title was changed in 1988, and the CAO continues to be an essential part of the ACLS mission to strengthen the relationships between its member societies. Before receiving Part III and beginning to process it, I was told that I would be seeing a lot more CAO files in this part than the previous two. This is already true! Three of the thirty boxes that arrived on the first pallet contained CAO materials, including many administrative files. Most of the files regarding the Conference of Secretaries / CAO in the first two parts pertain directly to the semi-annual meetings, with just one or two folders per meeting in general. The CAO files in Part III are rich with information, however, and I’m excited to see more of them as I make my way through this next stage of the project.

My reason for sharing so much about the CAO is simple: The document I’m highlighting this week is from a CAO meeting, and was written by ACLS Vice President Steven Wheatley (with the help of other ACLS staff), whose passion and knowledge are acutely expressed in this document titled “International Programs of the American Council of Learned Societies.” I’ve already waxed poetic about the prevalence of international programs and committees overseen by the ACLS, so you know that the organization has a strong international focus. For this November 1994 CAO retreat, constituent societies also wrote reports about how they had dealt with international matters throughout their histories – these files could be an excellent resource for someone doing a project on international affairs (hint, hint)! As an aside, the CAO spring meeting is happening this weekend, right at the tail end of the ACLS annual meeting, which I feel very honored to be attending (you’ll be hearing about it next week!).

This document begins by stating that the ACLS was founded “to represent American scholarship in international fora,” so indeed, the very creation of the organization was centered on opening up scholarly relationships around the world. To date, I have found materials in the ACLS collection representing every single continent except Antarctica, which is quite a feat. This document outlines the goals, activities, strengths, and problems of the ACLS’ international programs. I always love finding documents like this – they help me understand more about the ACLS and its history, which of course allows me to process the collection in a more straightforward and comprehensive way. Happy reading, everyone.

International Programs, page 1 International Programs, page 2International Programs, page 3International Programs, page 4International Programs, page 5

Monday Marvels

I’ve finally finished Parts I and II of the collection and have started to process Part III! Before starting to post all of the wonderful things that will inevitably show up in Part III, I thought it would be nice to show some materials from Part I of the collection one more time. After all, people like to look at old stuff, and Part I goes back an entire century!

The original finding aid for Part I, which was written in the 1970s, was very bare-bones. For hundreds of containers, only the first and last folders were listed on the finding aid, and almost no date ranges were included. Because of this, I requested that the entirety of Part I be brought to my work area for easy access and heavily edited the container list by physically going through every folder in approximately 500 of the 757 boxes. I’ll write more about editing the Part I finding aid later – now I want to talk about one of the great joys of going through these materials and the original finding aid, which was discovering folders with really fun headings! Some of the best headings were in the Dictionary of American Biography (DAB) series, where the folder titles were often just the names of people who were (or weren’t) included in the DAB. My personal favorite is the folder for States Rights Gist (1831-1864), who was recommended for the DAB but not included in the final publication:

“The seventh son and ninth child of Nathaniel and Elizabeth (McDaniel) Gist, States Rights Gist was born in Union County, S. C., and named for his father’s political creed.”

What a conversation starter! Here’s the folder:

States Rights Gist - folder

The first page of the finished article is an interesting read, and has some fantastic penmanship where there are last-minute extra edits:

Edited article - States Rights Gist

The article draft, though, is even more interesting – this is one of the reasons archives are so important, because they can give you a glimpse into the writing and editing process (something many of us are worried about with the ubiquity of computers and ease of deleting one draft as you save the next). Here are both pages of the draft:

Draft article - States Rights Gist, page 1

Draft article - States Rights Gist, page 2

Some other names in the DAB series of which I am particularly fond:

Caesar Confucius Antoine
Smedley Darlington Butler
Wilberforce Eames
Percival Farquhar
Percy Scott Flippin
Alfred Habdank Korzybski
Walter Learned
Jones Lie
Charles S. Little
Ivan Ivanovich Ostromislensky
Epaphroditus Ransom
William Franklin Gore Shanks
Willard Walter Waller

Many of these people were included in the DAB, and many have Wikipedia pages – go ahead and look them up!

Monday Marvels

Do you like art? Maybe a better question would be whether there are people who don’t like art – between visual arts, creative writing, dance, film, music, and all of the other art forms out there, there’s a lot to like! I love it (full disclosure: both my middle school and my high school focused on art), and I always stand behind the idea of the government giving more funding to arts programs, especially those in educational facilities.

Do you know who else liked art? William Ainsworth Parker, former Secretary for Fellowships with the ACLS. In 1954, the American government was debating H.R. 9111, which Parker described as “the most comprehensive attempt in recent years to increase the participation of the Federal Government in a program for the arts.” This description is from his supportive statement to the U.S. House of Representatives on June 8th, 1954. At a time when some people were arguing against arts funding because it might end up going to left-leaning anti-Americans, Parker argued just the opposite: “…it would also provide a positive answer to Communist propaganda against this nation.” What better way to let the world see the spirit of America than through its art?

A democracy which from the outside appears to be machined and spiritless will not win converts or friends. This nation, in all of its diversity, is a living ideal to less fortunate men and women in other countries. For our own sakes, we must turn a spirited face towards the peoples of the world.

Well said, Mr. Parker.

This statement shows that the ACLS has long held a place of importance in American society – enough importance that a representative of the organization was asked to speak in front of the House, and the organization itself was asked to be “one of the agencies assigned responsibility for submitting recommendations to the President concerning positions on the proposed National War Memorial Arts Commission, on the Commission of Fine Arts, and on the Smithsonian Art Commission.”

Of course we still see people arguing today about whether the government should play a role in arts funding, so this is a pertinent topic even now. What do you think? Would you have supported H.R. 9111?

Parker's testimony - page 1

Parker’s testimony – page 1

Parker's testimony - page 2

Parker’s testimony – page 2


Monday Marvels

Sometimes working with documents from the past can give you a deeper understanding of today’s world, allowing you to see how certain terms originated or how specific types of work have changed over time. Such is the case with the documents I chose for this week’s Monday Marvels entry.

In English (and surely this is true in other languages, as well), we often use words and phrases that originated decades or years before they evolved into their current meaning. That’s right: language evolves! You can see a recent example of language evolution in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of literally, which now includes the following:

c. colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’

…which was not in the 1989 second edition. That’s right, ‘literally’ now literally also means ‘virtually.’ Who would’ve thought?

We also use a lot of words, phrases, and images that originated out of now-antiquated actions, tasks, or objects. This is especially true in the world of computing. When you’re writing a document in Microsoft Word, how do you save it? You might hit Ctrl+S, but you could just as easily click on the “save” icon. What does that icon represent? A floppy disk, of course!

Floppy disks - photo by George Chernilevsky via WikipediaFloppy disks – photo by George Chernilevsky via Wikipedia

Looks familiar, right? It pains me to think that some of you reading this might never have had to actually use a floppy disk to save your work – most of us who were alive and using computers in the ’90s probably still have a few of these (or boxes of them!) laying around at home, waiting to be rediscovered.*

How does this all tie in with the ACLS collection?

Surely you’ve used the phrases “cut and paste” or “copy and paste” while working with word documents. It seems obvious, but the reason we use these phrases is that people actually used to cut (or copy and cut) up documents and paste (or staple) them back together in a new order while editing. I’ve found this in the ACLS collection in a number of folders, and wanted to share one with you:

Text was cut up and physically rearranged during the editing process before computers.

This document is a great example of how archival collections allow us to see the evolution of a document: from the beginning stages through the editing process and finally on to the finished product. This is immensely helpful to researchers, and I fear it is largely being lost in the age of computers where a simple keystroke can replace one edit with another without providing any documentation whatsoever of the changes that have taken place. Food for thought: if you expect to send your papers on to an archival repository someday, please think about saving drafts as well as final versions!

As an added bonus, here is an example from the ACLS collection of how people sometimes used to put footnotes into their work:

A pre-computer age footnote.

Beautiful, right? I’m a big lover of footnotes in general (cite your sources!), having spent so much time writing papers in the Chicago Manual of Style format – so I loved finding this in the collection.

Have a great week, everyone! Enjoy your archives!


* I hesitate to go into the details of personal archiving and the fragility inherent in electronic documents (both in terms of physical storage and format) because that’s not even just another can of worms; it’s a whole world of them. I’ll post about electronic records at some point in the future, but know this: if you still have old important documents on outdated media (floppy disks, for example) and you know you will need or want to access them at some point in the near or far future, you’ll want to transfer them as soon as possible, assuming they can even be opened and read at this point.


Monday Marvels

Ask an archivist why they were first drawn to the field, and there’s a good chance they’ll tell you it was because of the stuff.* Many of us are interested in history and like the idea of combing through collections of papers during the work week: finding unique documents, discovering previously unknown stories involving real people and events, even just smelling the delightful scent of decaying paper (yes, that’s what you’re smelling when you step into a building with lots of old books). When you get down to business, archival collections are full of fun things. So I was thinking, what better way to give this blog a much-needed kick than to highlight at least one fun thing from the ACLS collection every week?

Here’s your first Monday Marvel – let it serve as a pick-me-up at the beginning of the week!

Letter from Stanley N. Katz to Kevin Guthrie in which Katz mentions JSTOR - in 1996!

Letter from Stanley N. Katz to Kevin Guthrie in which Katz mentions JSTOR – in 1996!

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember that I once wrote about how the ACLS has a history of embracing technology. I mentioned in that entry that I’d found some letters related to JSTOR, and here is one of them for your viewing pleasure! For those of you who aren’t familiar with JSTOR, which was founded in 1995, it’s a huge digital library where people can search for books, journal articles, and primary sources. Simply put, if you’ve done scholarly research in the past decade and a half, you’ve probably used JSTOR. I remember it as one of the few databases I knew about and used as an undergraduate, so I was really excited to find this letter in the ACLS collection.

There are a few things of interest here:

  • It’s from Stanley N. Katz (ACLS president from 1986 to 1997) to Kevin Guthrie (founding JSTOR president and now president of ITHAKA)
  • It’s dated March 1st, 1996 – very early in the life of the database!
  • In the letter, Katz responds to Guthrie’s request asking him to view a demonstration of JSTOR. Imagine seeing such cutting-edge technology as it’s still being developed! Of course Katz said yes; who wouldn’t?

Kevin Guthrie’s original letter is also in the collection, but you’ll have to come to the Library of Congress to see it. I’d love to post it (Guthrie has fantastic penmanship), but need to abide by copyright laws for obvious reasons!

There you have it – one small reason why archives are awesome. Happy Monday!

* Disclaimer: It’s true that many people get into the field for different reasons, and lots of archivists become even more enthralled with their work as they start to embrace other facets of it (outreach, reference, exhibit work, controlled vocabulary, collaboration efforts, preservation and conservation, appraisal, digitization, crowdsourcing, ethical and legal issues, records management, and oral history are just a few topics that come to mind here).