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: 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

Intellectual processing and trips to New York: An update

It’s been too long since I’ve updated this blog, so I figured it would be good to start writing again by filling you all in on what’s been going on with the processing of the collection. A lot of people I know have been asking me how the government shutdown affected me, if at all. The upside: because I’m an employee of the ACLS and not the Library of Congress, I was able to continue working through the shutdown. The downside: I was not able to come in to the Library to continue physically processing the collection. Luckily, I had almost completed the physical processing of Part II by the time the shutdown hit, so I hunkered down at home and started doing some intellectual processing – that is to say, I started working on editing the finding aids for the collection.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with archival terminology, a finding aid is a catalog entry for an archival collection. Because finding aids are meant to describe entire collections (which can range from one item to millions of items), they are usually much more detailed than any catalog entry you will find for a book. The amount of detail in a finding aid can vary widely between repositories and collections, but often included are:

  • the title, dates, creator(s), size, format(s), and language(s) of the collection
  • information about the origins of the collection and the history of its physical custody (what we call provenance)
  • notes about how the collection was processed
  • information about copyright, access, and restrictions
  • a biographical or organizational history of the creator(s)
  • a scope and content note, which gives a narrative description of what is included in the collection and highlights important aspects of it
  • an itemized list of what is in the collection – often broken down by folder, but sometimes by box (less detailed) or item (more detailed)

Just to recap some basic information: Right now, the ACLS collection has three parts (Part I, Part II, and Part III), which are roughly broken down chronologically (though there is quite a bit of overlap). Part I was already processed when Caroline, my predecessor, arrived. Caroline started the processing work for Part II, and I continued it when she passed the torch on to me. The last part of my work will include processing Part III  and working with the ACLS on how to organize and maintain the records currently being produced in order to transfer them to the Library of Congress in the future (this will be focused heavily on electronic [born digital] records).

While working from home, I wanted to go over the finding aid for Part I. One of my jobs is to edit and finalize this document, and to make sure that it fits well with the finding aids for Parts II and III:

Part I Finding Aid

I also started reworking the finding aid for Part II, which is being created via Excel. This is a fairly new approach to large organizational collections at the Library, and has only been used in one collection previously (you can view that finding aid here, if you’re interested in seeing it). The benefit of using a spreadsheet format is that researchers will be able to intellectually sort through the materials in any way that works best for them: instead of having a rigid document with everything in one specific order decided by the archivist, the document is fluid and changeable according to user needs. Here’s a very simple example – the normal breakdown of the ACLS finding aid will look something like this:

Unsorted spreadsheet

As you can see, the series are split up by the subseries, and then those subseries are broken down further by folder title (there’s one more level of detail in the finding aid for this collection, but let’s keep this simple for now). Let’s say that a researcher wanted to find all of the speeches and lectures by all ACLS Presidents, though – it would be much easier for that researcher if the finding aid were organized by folder title rather than subseries. With a spreadsheet, the researcher can make that happen through the sort function – in Excel, that’s the button that looks like this:

Sort function

Sorted spreadsheet

With a finding aid that has hundreds or thousands of lines, the option to sort the collection in different ways could make things much easier for a researcher.

I realized a few things while looking through the finding aids for Parts I and II. First, I will need to go through the materials in Part I and rework the finding aid so that it is more detailed and more well-matched with the descriptions for the other two parts of the collection. This will take time, but all of my supervisors agreed with me that it was worth the extra time and effort to have a more comprehensive document for researchers to use. Second, I will need to spend a lot of time editing the existing spreadsheet for Part II, which is what has been taking up the bulk of my time over the past month.

Because spreadsheets are (as I mentioned before) a fairly new way of describing collections here, we’re still trying to figure out the best way to approach them. Some of the questions I’ve been asking myself are relevant for any collection (how much detail should I include in the description?), while others are specific to the spreadsheet format (how should I break this down – one row per box? one row per folder?). Before I started editing it, most of the spreadsheet was broken down per box – that is to say, there was one row entered for every box. I realized a few weeks after starting this job that this would make it very difficult for researchers to sort the spreadsheet – for example, if one box has speeches, correspondence, and articles from Stanley Katz’s office, those three types of materials each need their own row on the spreadsheet. Some boxes have only correspondence in them, and only need to take up one row. Some have twelve different types of documents in them, and need twelve rows. Much of my time during and since the shutdown has been spent adding extra rows to the spreadsheet in order to separate materials in this way. Each time I break down one row (one box) into multiple rows (multiple types of documents in one box), I need to pull that box from the shelves and look through it to find the date range and number of folders for each row. So on the spreadsheet, the description goes from this:

Box level spreadsheet

To this:

Folder level spreadsheet

As you can imagine, this will make it much easier for researchers to use the spreadsheet for sorting, which is exactly why we’ve decided to use the spreadsheet format in the first place! With more than 900 boxes that were described in a “one box, one row” way, it’s taking a lot of time to do this. On the upside, I am learning what I need to do with Part III in order to make everything flow more smoothly, and hopefully researchers will find the collection much easier to use – in short, everyone wins.

In addition to spending time figuring out what to do with the finding aids, I took two trips to New York during the shutdown. The first trip was just for a day, which was enough for me to meet some ACLS employees (they are all wonderful!) and go over some major talking points regarding the collection. During this meeting, we talked about the finding aids for Parts I and II, went over some thoughts about future plans, and decided that I should return to New York the following week to do some initial weeding of the Part III materials. The boxes for Part III are still in the ACLS warehouse in New Jersey, but will be sent to the Library of Congress very soon. Some of these materials will not be included in the collection, however, and sending them to the Library only to send them back to New Jersey would be a hassle. I was able to separate the Part III inventory into three categories: 1) boxes to send to the Library of Congress, 2) boxes to keep in the New Jersey warehouse, and 3) boxes that would need to be looked at for further review. The third category included boxes with non-detailed descriptions as well as those that contained a mix of materials that should be sent to the Library and materials that should stay in New Jersey.

The Part III inventory originally included 401 transfiles (boxes which are approximately the size of filing cabinet drawers). Of these, we had 49 pulled out of storage for me to physically sort. It took me a few days to go through them (that’s a lot of material!), but was well worth the effort. I moved a lot of folders from one box to another, took a lot of notes, did a lot of relabeling, and ultimately ended up with 25 transfiles that would be sent to the Library and 24 that would not. Here are some photos documenting my sorting adventures:

The perils of leaving empty space in a box: folders fall over, papers slide out, things get jumbled.

The perils of leaving empty space in a box: folders fall over, papers slide out, things get jumbled.

To be sent to the Library of Congress – the yellow note on the right gives details about extra materials that I pulled from other boxes and put into this one.

To be sent to the Library of Congress – the yellow note on the right gives details about extra materials that I pulled from other boxes and put into this one.

The boxes I physically sorted through in the New Jersey warehouse – sometimes being an archivist means you get to partake in weightlifting activities.

The boxes I physically sorted through in the New Jersey warehouse – sometimes being an archivist means you get to partake in weightlifting activities.

At the end of my week in New York / New Jersey, I had decided along with ACLS staff that 265 transfiles should be sent to the Library to make up Part III of the collection while 136 should stay behind in the New Jersey warehouse. That’s some serious weeding!

So where are we now? I am continuing to edit the finding aid for Part II, and will be editing the finding aid for Part I after that’s completed. In addition to creating these finding aids in a spreadsheet format, I’ll be transferring them over to a standard word document for researchers who are more comfortable with that and also using Encoded Archival Description to make them easier to find through search engines like Google. The aim is to have Parts I and II completely finished and available to the public by the end of the calendar year. Exciting times ahead!

Using Organizational Records

Now that I’m deeply entrenched in a project centered on minimally processing the records of ACLS, my mind constantly wanders to thoughts of organizational records and the best ways to promote these unique materials to researchers.

I know you all wonder about this too!

Organizational records, like all records, follow the path of the creator. But, it’s not always that easy. Organizations ebb and flow, they change leadership and staff; sometimes the mission shifts, or they get subsumed by another organization. At other times, they close their doors and retire! No organization is perfect, so we can’t expect their records to be.

But, that’s when organizational records get interesting!

Picture a sunny day: the sun moves across the sky in an even manner; a person stands beneath the sun and as time progresses, her shadow takes different shapes. Ahh, spring warmth, how I adore thee!

Okay, so now let’s bring it back to archives. The sun represents time or history; the person standing in the sun is the organization, and the inevitably shifting shadow is the record. Sometimes the records fit the footprint of the organization so well–it’s never seamless, but it gets close. Sometimes, the records only capture a portion of the organization’s form, and still, other times, the records are misshapen, they are barely recognizable to the original.

In conducting some research for this post, it has become clear that organizational records are not the most glamorous topic for scholars to address in published papers. There are case studies of users engaging with organizational records, sure, but when you pose questions about the records themselves, the creators, or even the archival processing of those records, there’s a paucity of literature. In fact, most of the writing I found that muses on these brand of records as case studies detailing how people use the records…namely, to illuminate the way in which an organization functioned. One of the better pieces includes Valerie Harris’ and Kathryn Stine’s 2011 article about organizational records during the 2008 presidential elections. There are also a few interesting pieces about the role of arrangement and description (part of the holy trinity for archivists) among organizational records collections.

In some ways, this makes sense. Organizational records are usually large and somewhat predictable. Sometimes they are very detailed, other times they aren’t. There’s a variation in the content, but not as much as one would expect from, say, personal papers. In a 1981 essay in American Archivist, Frank Burke characterized, “the dendritical structure of organizational records.” Recently, the Society of American archivists published a brochure to discuss the importance of organizational records here.

[Photo: a visualization of all the keywords I recorded while describing the Committees, Programs and Projects series, which includes the materials described in #s 1 & 2 of this post.]

In the last few months, I have found numerous points of interest in the materials that make up the ACLS collection. As a user, I’m not certain I would look to this collection for records to offer perspective on pivotal historical moments. Alas, here they are! Below are a few examples of points of entry that may be of interest to researchers.

1.     Committee on Studies of Chinese Civilizations (CSCC) that sometimes paired with Joint Committee on Contemporary China (JCCC)

With records dating from the late 1960s through the 1980s, these programs intended to establish a relationship between American and China scholars. Specifically, the programs planned seminars, conferences, programs, and major development projects such as “preparation of a historical bibliography of Chinese maps.” And how timely these programs were, because smack dab at the height of their progress, in 1972, President Richard Nixon took an important trip to The People’s Republic of China, the first trip of any U.S. President since its establishment in 1949. This means that ACLS has records of Chinese-U.S. humanities collaborations years before Mr. Nixon formally opened trade relations with the country.

By the way, ACLS maintained additional collaborations with humanities scholars in the country with Committee on Scholarly Communicatoin with the People’s Republic of China (CSCPRC), the Committee on Advanced Study in China (CASC), and Center for Chinese Research Materials (CCRM).

2.     Joint Committee on Eastern Europe (JCEE) along with Joint Committee on Slavic and Eastern European Studies (JCSEES), Subcommittee on East Central and Southeastern European Studies (SECSES), Coordinating Committee for Slavic and Eastern European Library Resources (COCOSEERS), American Council for Emigres in the Professions (ACEP) and International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX).

1989 was a big year for the eastern bloc, a group of eastern European countries that fell under communist rule after World War II. By the time the revolutions struck the area, starting with Poland and moving to Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania, there had been civil protests in the region for quite some time. But, this blog isn’t a history lesson, so if you want to learn more about the important historical moments leading up to the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 with the end of the Warsaw Pact and the subsequent development of new nation-states, go pester a professor! This is about ACLS!

The records found in this collection that detail the work of the programs and committees listed above start in the late 1960s and extend through the 1990s. Slavic and European studies grants, conference materials and scholarly papers pepper this collection and serve as a reminder that humanities scholars and researchers reached across geo-political boundaries to accomplish goals together. And what better way to learn about a region in flux than to view it through the lens of its academic observers!

3.     Office of Scholarly Communication (OSC) and its later iteration to include Technology (OSCT). You can read a bit about the organization in an earlier post about its 1987 leader here.

This is one of my favorite aspects of the collection to date. As someone who dabbled in history (yes, I am characterizing my graduate work as a minor dalliance), I have some understanding of the breaking (as in, not yet broken) system of academic publishing in peer-reviewed journals and getting books deals with publishing houses that have enough time and energy to devote to your work. We are all familiar with the concept of “publish or perish,” but when the cycle of publication is working against many academics, especially ones newer to the field, then it seems like everyone, including our collective knowledge base of fresh ideas, can succumb to perishing.

This is a problem that has been plaguing the academic community for years now: some voices prominent in the debate push for publishing houses especially those affiliated with universities to re-prioritize this work. Others suggest moving full-speed ahead in the digital publishing world. In other words, if you aren’t in peer-reviewed journals valorized by your field of expertise, do it yourself!

It may come as no surprise that in the early 1970s, ACLS teamed up with University of Virginia and the OSCT to attempt to answer a simple question: how does this impact academics? They developed a survey, disseminated it to thousands of working academics, aggregated the data and presented the findings. Survey respondents revealed statistics on the number of articles they published as well as the number of journals they actually read in a given year. This survey influenced the OSCT on their mission in a fast-changing environment. These days there is a resurgence of this debate, and when it began in the 1970s, ACLS played a part.

[Photo: a visualization of all the keywords I recorded while describing the OSCT sub-series, which includes the materials described in #3 of this post.]

Records follow the creator. ACLS is an international humanities organization that has succeeded in accomplishing myriad goals in their 94-year history. When researchers knock down the doors of the Library of Congress (just kidding, that would be rude), this collection will offer more than predictable organizational records. Instead, in these folders are glimpses of major episodes before, during and after their history-making moments.