BMRC Processing Project Blog
Introduction to Chicago Race History. Meets M/W/F, 9-5: on-location at Chicago Public Libraries and Chicago Transit Authority. 3 credit hrs.
By: Emily Minehart (BMRC Processing Intern)
A few weeks ago, I walked into work at the Harsh Collection at the Woodson Regional Library with my processing partner Beth in the mid-afternoon. We were both expecting to pull out our book trucks full of acid free boxes and set to work writing folder titles, but we were stopped on the way to our usual conference room. Our supervisor had given our space away to a meeting that was booted out of another room (Lesson: public libraries get crowded and ample space is precious.), so Beth and I did some work in the kitchen. When the other group’s hour was up, we went into our conference room to find it full of some wonderfully chatty historians of Black Chicago who were working on an oral history project. They were happy to learn about the BMRC and Mildred D. Johnson, whose papers we were in the middle of processing.
After a whirlwind of questions and introductions, an older gentleman who had been silently watching us flit between inquiries chimed in: he asked us if we had read Black Metropolis. We both shook our heads, no. The man standing next to me whispered, “You know who that is, don’t you?” Again, I shook my head. The room was full of new faces. “That’s Tim Black,” he said with emphasis. This time I nodded, wide-eyed. You don’t live on the South Side or attend the University of Chicago without having heard of Timuel Black. The man is a legendary Civil Rights leader and historian with close ties to UChicago. I was more than a little star struck. Mr. Black was clearly disappointed that Beth and I had not read Black Metropolis, and strongly recommended that we add it to our reading lists.
The kind soul who had taken enough pity on me to inform me that I was speaking to Mr. Black reiterated the importance of the book, and then asked about what I had learned in school. Confused as to what he meant, I talked about my UChicago history classes. He was referring to something else entirely. [I am paraphrasing from memory.]
“No, but you must have seen documentaries? Or read something relevant? You saw the pictures, at least.”
“I’m sorry, what pictures do you mean?”
“The dogs and fire hoses and beatings. Civil Rights.”
“Oh! Yes, yes I’ve seen pictures, and a documentary or two in high school.”
“Good. That was all real, you know. Young white folks don’t seem to know that. That the hoses and dogs were real, that our people went through that. But we did. And it’s hard for a people to come out of something like that. That’s why Tim wants you to read the book. And that’s why we’re here [he gestured to the gathered historians].”
I had no idea how to respond. Of course he was right: a lot of people don’t really know, and it is hard. He and his colleagues were so very excited to see two “young white folks” working on a project concerned with Black history, and so very disappointed that we were so ignorant of the subject. I don’t consider myself an ignorant person, but they had a point. In my suburban education, I did a biographical project about Rosa Parks, saw the standard-issue civil rights pictures that show up in most American history textbooks, and wrote a mediocre exam essay about the Reconstruction amendments. I live and work on the South Side, surrounded by the continued ramifications of its turbulent history. But how can I really know?
Later that day, homeward bound on the bus, I overheard a conversation between two Black gentlemen. [Again, I’m paraphrasing.]
“I don’t understand it! It used to be us [Black people] getting shot by the white people who hated us. But it’s not like that now. Now we’re shooting each other, Black brothers shooting each other. And the white people in Lincoln Park and Wicker Park…they don’t know. Or don’t care.”
“Yeah. And the gun laws are useless. Guns are coming from Gary [Indiana]. Black people in Gary are selling guns to Black people in Chicago and then they’re shooting Black people on the South Side. This place is a mess.”
That was a disheartening conversation, taking place on the heels of Hadiya Pendleton’s slaying and shortly before President Obama’s visit to the South Side to talk about gun violence.
I don’t know what the confluence of these conversations means. I don’t know what it says about the remaining unofficial but intense segregation of Chicago, or about the Black collective memory of Civil Rights and Jim Crow. I do know that it’s sad and wrong. I do know that Black Chicagoans shouldn’t have to worry whether or not suburban white kids know that Civil Rights really happened. I know that gun trade regulation loopholes needs to close. I know that my heart sinks every time I read an article about another Chicago shooting. I know that I’m learning a lot spending time on the South Side and in the Harsh archives.
Mostly, though, I know that the BMRC is doing something important. We’re preserving a history that has been swept under the rug, hidden and neglected because it’s hard. Because it’s an embarrassing part of living in America. Because it’s a difficult truth about Chicago. Because everyone is afraid to touch the “race issue” in a city that riots. But we have to touch it. We have to know it and own it if things are going to change. Black and white, north and south: we’re one city. We all get ticked off when there are CTA service cuts. We all get annoyed at the crazy weather. We all roll our eyes a little when a politician says they’re going to stop the cycle of corruption. The history (and present!) of Chicago is our history, all of us together. So let’s all know it, embrace it, and learn from it. Not just the fun and easy parts (Skyscrapers! Dying the river green! The goat’s curse!), but the messy, too. (Pullman strikes. Haymarket Square. The 1968 DNC riots. Machine politics.) This has to be a way, one way, to make it better. It has to get better.
By: TJ Szafranksi (BMRC Processing Intern)
In March, I will start a new career as a public librarian, meaning my career as an archivist has come to an end. It was a glorious run: 14 months of heart stoppin', document preservin', finding aid writin', subseries arrangin', container list listin', folder labellin', MPLP-in', archival exhilaration.
Let's take a look back...
My favorite collection is the first collection I processed. The Captain Harry Dean papers at DuSable Museum of African American History. You can read more about Captain Harry Dean right here.
My least favorite thing about processing was not being able to title a folder “Junk That We Can’t Figure Out Why It Was Kept.”
When I interviewed for this position, I was asked how I became interested in archives. I said that I loved collecting baseball cards when I was younger. I loved organizing them into different arrangements—all my White Sox players over here, all my Bulls players in this binder, all my Dan Marino’s in protective sheets. I linked the preservation and organization associated with card collecting to archives. I think I also rambled my way through an analogy about the sacredness of the object, and how I treasured some of my favorite cards (my Dan Marino rookie card), and how that was similar to working with archival records. It may not be the greatest interview answer ever, but I did find myself thinking about card collecting on a few occasions while processing. Opening a folder is a lot like opening a pack of baseball cards, and completing a container list is a lot like completing a set of cards.
My favorite thing about processing was feeling like I had become friends with people that I knew I’d never meet.
Despite handling over 10,000 pieces of paper and creasing over 5,000 folders (unscientific estimates), I've only suffered one paper cut. #magicfingers
At times, working as an archivist has made me want to save every single thing I own. At other times, it's made me want to throw away every single piece of paper gathering dust inside my desk.
Toward the beginning of my experience, I attended a conference where Richard A. Courage spoke. He talked about a newspaper clipping he had found in an archive, and how a single sentence at the end of the article gave him insight into the personality of Gwendolyn Brooks. I remember thinking that if I had come across that particular document while processing, I would have had no idea of its potential significance. It made me think about the disconnect between those who process archival collections and those who use archival collection. It made me think about effective ways to reconcile. I still think about it.
My supervisors, Bergis and Lisa, have been SUPERvisors.
My processing comrades, Elise and Dominique, have been comRADes.
When I think back on this experience in ten years, there are a few things I’ll remember. I’ll remember that it was dusty. This made me sneeze a lot. I’ll remember processing in a temperature controlled room. This made me cold a lot. And I’ll remember that my work, somewhere, sometime, made a difference for someone. This made the sneezes and chills not matter.
I wanted my last blog post to be a concise, poignant metaphor for my experience at the BMRC. I wanted to draw analogies between what archives are, and what working as an archivist has taught me. Turns out, all I could come up with was a collection of scattered thoughts, with some overarching connection, but no clear cut arrangement or structure.
(Hey, wait a second...)
By Ben Peterson (BMRC Processing Intern)
This is my first blog as an Archival Processor at the BMRC. I am shocked honestly that the task is somewhat daunting to me. I want to do it appropriately and I have never really written a blog before. In typical style for myself I started looking up examples of blogs (which I have read before, just in a different light I guess) and attempted to decipher how I would go about this. In the end, I figured out that I was honestly making too big of a deal out of the process and I just needed to start putting words on a page. This is what I came up with.
My road to this point has been an interesting one. Library Science as a field of study was one that came to me more out of practicality then anything else. Because of this, it is one that I have done a lot of educating about on the go. It has been a very different experience in learning than any I have been through before. I always knew archiving was the direction that I wanted to go with it, but what all that meant I was a bit unsure. Beyond the classwork, I needed to start working in the field so that I could truly start to make sense of this career. Going into my last semester of school, with some great coursework ahead of me, I was also extremely lucky to get the opportunity to come and work for the BMRC.
Now, a week and a half into my job here, I can say that I am even more excited for this opportunity, and to be working in this field, than I was before hand. I couldn’t ask for anything more in that regard. To get things started, my team partner Olle and I were to work on an accession for the collection of the National Organization for Women. This was literally the first processing job that I have ever done. I have a fair amount of theory and conceptual knowledge packed away in my mind, but this was hands-on for the first time.
We are currently working out of the basement of the Library of the Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. As I mentioned before, the collection is just a single accession of the National Organization for Women Records. Being a bit new to this, this accession, though it is rather small in comparison to a lot of collections, seemed to be the perfect size to begin with. It is just large enough to get the experience of working with a large grouping of artifacts, yet small enough to manage for a first approach.
Climbing out of the classroom and into the workplace with everything so fresh has so far been a really enjoyable experience. Applying what I have learned to the real life application that is processing has so far been incredibly enthralling. As well, coming in to a team with an experienced partner is truly making a difference. I am quite thankful for Olle, as he knows the ropes of how the BMRC works through these collections. Along with Lisa, I am nothing but thankful to have the guidance of these two with their willingness to answer my question as I am getting my feet on the ground.
The excitement of getting started and working with historical documentation again, (since I was doing research for my undergraduate degree) is getting to me, but in a very good way. I cannot wait to continue. The next day or so will see us wrapping up our accession of the Nation Organization for Women and moving on to the Daley Library at UIC. Once there, we begin work on the United Way collection house there. I’m truly excited at the prospect of getting to work on a collection from beginning to end. The challenge and the learning experience that come along with it, is going to be fantastic.
Until next time!
By: Dominique Fuqua (BMRC Processing Intern)
People really can speak from the grave. I know that sounds a tad bit crazy and straightjacket –worthy, but this statement holds truth. Working at the CBMR (Center for Black Music Research) for the past few months had me experiencing “supernatural” encounters. Different collections my partner T.J. and I worked on contained actual handwritten biographies from the individual(s) we were processing, such as Anna Gardner Goodwin. Goodwin, an operatic composer and performer, wrote her own personal biography regarding her life, upbringing, and education, which gained discovery during processing. This information from the direct source left little room for error and provided significant assistance in constructing the biographical note for the finding aid. Though the Goodwin collection was not extensive, her biography brought a sufficient amount of undocumented information to the forefront such as her parents’ interracial marriage and family musical lineage. If people started to document their life and career like Goodwin did then the public, especially researchers, would get more of an accurate understanding of different subjects and people without having to go on small scraps of limited information that leads them to infer certain aspects of their research.
Researching is a very drawn-out process, and finding original sources that are suitable for a topic can be hard based on its stature; however, rather big or small, if one finds personal information from parties that were actually involved, then information at that point gives a great deal of substance to the research. There is a ton of research being done merely using secondary sources that illustrate someone’s own interpretation about a certain subject matter. This could be deemed somewhat problematic because someone’s interpretations often contradict with fact. Yet a researcher that has information from a direct source, like the actual person they are investigating, tends to be more successful regarding their subject of study and there is a smaller chance that information has been tampered with by other people’s interpretations.
Goodwin’s wish to be remembered according to her “factual interpretation” of her life rather than another researcher’s interpretation demonstrates how she wanted others to view her in a manner that she presented to them through her own words. Original sources like Goodwin’s case hold more weight in regards to factual evidence than secondary sources solely based on its authenticity.
By: TJ Szafranski (BMRC Processign Intern)
This December marks my one year anniversary as a member of the Color Curtain Processing Project. So, what better way to celebrate than by posting these 10 archival related haikus. (That’s a normal way to celebrate, right?)
Oh, you’re so special.
Oh, let’s give you your own box.
Oh, you’re such a pain
Birthday or Christmas,
Get Well or Thanks, rest assured,
Snoopy will show up
My Favorite Pencil
Now you’re just a nub
But I won’t forget the times
We had together
You Mean It Wasn’t Always Online?
Cut out crookedly
In all shapes, sizes, smells:
A dime for each time
I wrote out “Correspondence”
And I could retire
To the Inventor of Post It Notes
Thank you, thank you, thanks.
Seriously, we thank you.
Thank you, thank you, thanks.
A Good Eraser
They say when you meet
the right woman, you just know.
Same for erasers
Temperature Controlled Workspace
Day at the office:
sweatshirt with hood up, gloves on—
under my white gloves
Now, I title my
folders before I stuff them
deep into my desk
Neat or Creepy
Spend weeks with their stuff
and you’re bound to become an
old friend of the dead
By: TJ Szafranski (BMRC Processing Intern)
Welcome to the long awaited part two of my processing primer. Part one of the primer was my attempt to answer the question, “So what exactly do you do?” I compared archival processing to baking a cake, but I never described some of the actual steps I take when I process a collection. That’s what part two is for. Keep in mind that not all archival collections are created equal. While many of the steps I’ll describe can be used for a number of collections, each collection presents unique challenges and opportunities.
Familiarizing: This is the first step in processing. During this step, I examine the collection as a whole—is it in good condition? are boxes labeled well? how big is it?—and I browse through some individual items—what’s the content? are there obvious connections? does anything stand out? The goal of familiarizing is to become acquainted with the collection enough that there are no major surprises down the road. The arrangement of the collection won’t be finalized during this phase, but I will begin to get a sense of what sort of order these documents have, or once had. For example, if I’m working with the Rocky Balboa papers, I might notice that about half of the papers pertain to his professional life (contracts and expense reports), and the other half pertain to his personal life (love letters to Adrian). This becomes the framework for the arrangement. Familiarizing is an important first step, but it’s also an ongoing process. As I continue working on a collection, I become more and more familiarized with it. For that reason, I only try to spend enough time on this phase so that I’m comfortable proceeding.
Arranging: Arranging means deciding how the collection will be organized—physically and intellectually. The decisions made here give us intellectual control over a collection. Archival collections are broken up into series, and possibly subseries, which represent major sections of a collection. For example, the Rocky Balboa papers might have four series: “Personal Correspondence,” “Boxing,” “Legal Contracts,” and “Publicity.” Arranging collections into series forms the basis for the finding aid, and an individual series can serve as an entry point for researches. Major decisions that need to be made in the stage include
What are the series and subseries?
How will each series be organized?
What material is included in each series?
For the most part, arranging is an intellectual step. Only after I’ve determined the structure of the collection will I begin physically moving things in and out of boxes. So, if you saw me “arranging” you might think I wasn’t doing anything but daydreaming and scribbling notes, but trust me, I’m arranging. Arranging needs to happen near the beginning of the processing because it guides the way the collection is handled. I will hone, or refine my original arrangement as I work with the collection more, but the basic foundations usually remain.
Separating: This step involves identifying certain types of documents and grouping them together. “Separating” can be a dangerous word for archivists. One of the pillars of archival work is original order, which means that collections should be organized in a way that reflects how the material was arranged by its creator. Therefore, we can’t always separate items from a collection based on a grouping that makes sense to us. However, sometimes there is no discernible original order. In these cases, separating material by type—correspondence over here, magazines over here, financial documents over here—is one way to gain intellectual control. Other times, physical condition necessitates separation. While working on the Metz T.P. Lochard papers, I spent time separating newspaper clippings from the rest of the collection because the clippings were in poor condition and needed to be stored separately from other documents.
Ordering: Ordering is arranging’s little brother. While arranging looks at how the collection as a whole is structured, ordering focuses on organizing specific parts of the collection. Ordering often occurs at the series level. If I decided that Rocky Balboa’s “Correspondence” series should be ordered chronologically, I’ll go through his letters and sort them by date. While working on the Lucy Montgomery papers, we put one series in alphabetical order. Ordering involves physically putting the material in a specific order in a box, and making sure the finding aid reflects that order. Not all series will have a strict order to them, but when they do, ordering usually takes up a substantial part of my processing time.
Refoldering or Reboxing: Yes, this step is exactly as exciting as it sounds. Whether for preservation concerns, or for better organization, sometimes I need to move material from the folders or boxes that they came in to new folders or boxes.
Labeling Folders: Again, as exciting as it sounds. This step ensures that the collection can be easily accessed and maintained. We label our folders with three bits of information: the title of the collection (Rocky Balboa papers), the title of the folder (Workout Logs), and the box and folder number (Box 3, Folder 44). Labeling can be a monotonous process, but there is something to be said for a box of freshly labeled folders. It shows that the collection has been processed and that there’s a rhyme and reason to its organization. If we bring back the baking analogy, I like to think of labeling folders as icing the cake.
Writing the Finding Aid: The finding aid is the final product that results from processing. It’s a guide to the collection for users. A good finding aid will relay details about the creator(s) of the collection, while giving a clear sense of what is contained in the collection. Creating a finding aid involves writing an abstract, a biographical note about the subject, a scope and content note about the collection, series notes for each series, and putting together a container list, which lists the boxes and folders in the collection. The finding aid can’t be finished until the collection is fully processed, but it can be worked on during the process. If I’ve spent a few hours ordering the correspondence series, I’ll take some time to write the series note while it’s still fresh in my mind, regardless of where the rest of the collection is in processing. Similarly, as I’m ordering a series, I’ll type up the container list as I go.
Absorbing: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this task, though I’m not sure it’s actually a task, or if I can properly describe it. Absorbing is not a technical term. It’s the term I use to encompass all the intangible ways that an archivist becomes accustomed to a collection. I don’t want this to sound like some mystical phenomenon, but it basically means that as you process a collection, you become better at processing the collection. Unconsciously, you’re able to adapt the collection in front of you to the standard archival practices, and things have a way of falling in to place. Sometimes the right series arrangement just dawns on you, or all of a sudden you realize what someone’s notations mean, or you can start predicting what papers will be in a folder based on the folders around them. (Okay, that sounded pretty mystical).
So, let’s summarize. What do I actually do when I process a collection? I browse through the collection, I make intellectual decisions that determine the how the collection will be arranged, I move stuff in and out of boxes and folders, I put things in order, I label folders, I write finding aids, and I go through a mystical absorption phenomenon. Just like baking a cake.
By: Dominique Fuqua (BMRC Processing Intern)
During my time processing the Dempsey Travis collection at Roosevelt University with my partner T.J., I have learned that organization can go a long way when working toward a deadline. The paperwork that Mr. Travis had accumulated over the years in regards to his realty businesses and writing were well-organized before processing took place, causing processing to be effortless when it came to managing time. Every box that was previously labeled before processing contained the content that was labeled on the box. If more collections were organized in a similar fashion, processors would have less time organizing and more time constructing well-detailed finding aid that can service researchers more.
However, my processing experience with the Margaret Burroughs collection at DuSable Museum did not preserve time like the Dempsey Travis collection did based on organization. When processing the Margaret Burroughs collection, a vast majority of information was in disarray. Every stitch of information that was gathered had to be categorized based on what it conveyed about Burroughs. For example, if there was a personal invitation addressed to Burroughs for a certain event, it would have been categorized in the “events” subseries under the “personal” series. Not to mention there was material stored in Burroughs’ collection that did not pertain to her. This situation was evident in the Dempsey Travis collection as well; nonetheless, irrelevant material was small in comparison to that of the Burroughs collection. Although, the Burroughs collection carried more difficulty with its organization than the Travis collection, it introduced me to ways that I could sort out unorganized information based on its context and significance to a collection.
By: Olle Larson (BMRC Processing Intern)
Within the past month, my adventures with the BMRC as a processing archivist led me to another blog worthy event. During the week before, of, and after July fourth, Kristin and I had the opportunity to get out of the basement of UIC’s Health Library and into UIC’s Daley Library on the east end of campus. After being down in the same place for 6 months, it was awesome going somewhere new. It was nice to meet new people, work in a new environment, and be above ground for a while. The nicest part of this excursion was being able to sleep in a little longer, since it was only an 8-minute walk to Daley as opposed to a half an hour hike to the other library from my place. But I digress…
We were called to Daley by Lisa to work on the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago Records because a researcher needed it and its arrangement was not usable for anybody. It was a decent sized and very interesting collection of papers. It was also a nice break from the rather dry and expansive compilation making up the Metropolitan Planning Council Records. The approach to the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago Records was considerably different from past collections. Unlike all the other collections we have worked on in the past, the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago Records was already intellectually arranged using MPLP, but it was physically left in the order it was received. Even though it was intellectually ordered, the collection would have been extremely difficult to use as a research because the finding aid and its physical order did not match up. Furthermore, it would have been just as frustrating for library staff to search through the collection in order to get the right folders for a researcher. So basically, we were called in to make this collection useable and easier to navigate.
When working on YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago Records, I came to an important realization about processing collections. One should never do just the intellectual order or physical arrangement and leave the other untouched. It is something that needs to be finished together in my opinion. If it isn’t, then the archivists that work on completing it may not know everything the previous individual had in mind for that specific collection. So my point is…just finish the collection completely do not do just half of it.
On a funnier note, this collection reminded me a lot of those snowballing DirecTV commercials that have been on lately. I don’t know if you know of them but I will give you a brief synopsis. Basically some problem with a cable provider leads to worse and worse life altering consequences, and the commercial ends with “a don’t.” Usually that “don’t” is using cable. Well in the final paragraph, I am going to duplicate this commercial’s script but relating it to our experience with YWCA.
When you only arrange a collection intellectually, its physical arrangement is disorganized. When its physical arrangement is disorganized, a collection is difficult for researchers and library staff to use. When a collection is difficult for researchers and staff to use, it needs to be reprocessed. When it needs to be reprocessed, it takes up an archivist’s time from other projects. When an archivist’s time is taken away from other projects, other collections sit still. When other collections sit still, they become inaccessible to researchers. Don’t allow collections to become inaccessible to researchers. Arrange a collection physically and intellectually- at the same time.
By: Dustin Witsman (BMRC Processing Intern)
For the past two and a half months I've spent my days traveling North to Evanston's Shorefront Legacy Center (via the ever-slowing CTA purple line). Started by Morris “Dino” Robinson, Jr. in his dining room in order to pick up the slack in the preservation of history of Evanston's African-American experience, Shorefront has grown to include community involvement, music, and youth programs, as well as housing over fifty archival collections. Since late May, I've organized and produced finding aids for around thirty of these collections using the increasingly-popular “More Product, Less Process” method of archival processing, and I'm still plugging away.
In dealing with the records of a relatively small area, namely Evanston's Fifth Ward, the interrelatedness of the collection material quickly becomes visible. Like a Paul Auster novel waiting to be written, items in the archive, seemingly unrelated, begin to show their similarities and make connections on their own simply by the very nature of their existence. The interconnectedness of the collections, mirroring their real-life creator's relationships, becomes something of a comfort through its familiarity—a juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated events and organizations from which emerge narrative threads to be used by researchers in weaving the tapestry of history (once they find the much treasured needle in the proverbial haystack of archival information). Luckily, these archival haystacks come with treasure maps in the form of finding aids.
In the case of Evanston, there are a few organizations that seem to serve as historical linchpins working to tie both the community and its members together. Social and civic clubs, much more than today, it seems, were “the thing to do”: they number must be in the triple digits. The biggest and most obvious of these being the town's first African-American church named Ebenezer A.M.E. Church. From its early beginnings in the 1880s, Ebenezer served as a cultural and social hub for many African-Americans in the area. Without even reading a history of the Church, this became blatantly obvious simply by the shear recurrence of material in each new box I'd open. It seems that nearly every social and civic leader had, at one point, a hand in the affairs of Ebenezer. Though, it seems the men’s’ roles here were more prominent than the women’s, who formed their own supporting networks of the clubs and organizations.
Anna Belle Frazier, for instance, was a community leader whose papers document her high levels of involvement with such organizations as the Order of the Eastern Star, the Ladies Auxiliary of the V.F.W., as well as her long-standing membership at Ebenezer. Shorefront also houses collections of material from the Order of the Eastern Star, of which several members' personal papers are held at Shorefront as well: this is not atypical here.
The more collections I processed, the more the relationships between each of the collections become apparent, making arrangement and organization much more interesting and fluid. The intellectual connections between the materials became so intertwined that one could conceive of a project in which one began with, say, an individual like Mrs. Frazier and follow the web through nearly every collection, gaining along the way something new and not found in the previous collection and not in the collection next to it, but, nevertheless just as pertinent and necessary to the project.
Now, of course as one is processing, there are certain items that stick out a little more than others because of some personal preference or association. Among the scattering of media and materials making up the all of the collections I've gone through at Shorefront, two items have jumped at me. Those who know me (and now those who don't) know that I'm a huge fan of Jazz, more specifically recordings put out on the Chess Records' pop/jazz subsidiary, the Argo Records label. From 1956 to 1965, Argo produced hits from such luminaries as Etta James, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Marianne McPartland, Al Grey, Buddy Rich, Ahmad Jamal, and Ramsey Lewis. The latter two performers had long careers with the label, and continued recording for them up to the end. The names of Jamal and Lewis were synonymous with modern jazz during this time. So it wasn't a complete surprise to find items relating them to Evanston, but surprising nonetheless and a great treat to find them where I did.
While processing the Anna Belle Frazier papers, I came across a landscaping invoice from August of 1968 for work done at the Ramsey Lewis residence. How this carbon copy ended up in Mrs. Frazier's personal papers we will probably never know, but the fact is, it did. There's nothing ground breaking about this item, but from it we can gather something, at least. Mr. Lewis had already released two albums by this time this year and would soon release a third (his Beatles “White Album” tribute, Mother Nature's Son); only two years prior, he had received a Grammy for his Wade in the Water, and he now decided to spend his money installing a home garden: perhaps it makes sense. It certainly is interesting to see what a popular musician decides to spend his earnings on during what some consider the height of his career. One wonders if the Japanese Garden and pine trees still stand some fifty years later.
On the other hand, the Evanston Branch of the NAACP records yielded a brochure from 1959 and their Second Annual “Epic of Modern Jazz” concert series which featured Ahmad Jamal. Not as surprising a place to find such a piece, but seeing as the rest of the materials in the records date from 1990 to the present, it begs the question, “How'd and why is this the only piece like it in the collection from that time?” Yet another question we'll probably never have an answer to, but it adds a bit of depth to the story of both Ahmad Jamal and the local NAACP: we see what kinds of cultural outreach the NAACP was doing at the time, and we see into the cultural/philosophical mind of Mr. Jamal as well—for, at the pinnacle of his career, he wasn't doing it for the money.
Working at Shorefront has been a great opportunity to both learn about the “More Product, Less Process” method and about the history of African-Americans in Evanston. I hope my having been here will serve future visiting researchers as much as it has helped my understanding.
By: Katie Obriot (BMRC Processing Intern)
Processing the papers of Dr. Christopher R. Reed was a great privilege. It became clear as we worked on this collection that Reed’s work is not only close to him personally but also touches the lives of local people in Chicago. For example, the uncle of a librarian at Roosevelt University library is mentioned in one of Dr. Reed’s books. And this librarian has also had many conversations with Dr. Reed about his family history, and the history of Chicago. It is evident that Dr. Reed’s work is vital to the city of Chicago and I hope his collection will serve as a tribute to him, and a resource for researchers and community members.
For this collection, I really wanted to include Dr. Reed in the process. It is not often that you have the opportunity to arrange the papers of someone who is still alive and working. But when you do, you have the unique experience of gaining more insight and information from them. A privilege that is lost when institutions have decades of backlogs to tackle, or more often when records are donated after the subject’s death.
So, for this blog post, I asked Dr. Reed a series of questions about his collection and his work (I also encourage readers to post questions):
What compelled you to compile and donate your records? And what do you hope people will gain from your collection?
First, I wanted to share information with both academic and laypersons that I collected over the course of research into various repositories from the Library of Congress and the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to the Chautauqua County Museum in Westfield, N.Y. to the Chicago History Museum. Within my Papers are hard-to-find printed materials, such as a copy of the constitution of the Moorish American Science Temple, the first edition of veteran black journalist, Lu Palmer’s, the Black-X-Press newspaper, a facsimile of the 1936 black nationalist Compass newspaper that called for an all-black forty-ninth state within the USA, copies of federal pension records of members of Illinois’ only black Civil War regiment, the 29th, U.S.C.T., and copies of records from the Chicago branch of the NAACP.
Second, I wanted to explain how I interpreted history in my writings on the inner dynamics of life among African Americans in Chicago. In this vein I was inspired by the words of noted scholar, W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) the following. “We seldom study the condition of the Negro today honestly and carefully. It is so much easier to assume that we know it all or perhaps, having already reached conclusions in our own minds, we are loth to have them disturbed by facts.” My research over the nearly last forty years since I introduced the first course on black Chicago into a history curriculum (at Northern Illinois University) in 1973 has been an inquiry into “study[ing] the condition of the Negro today honestly and carefully.”
Third, being a graduate of Roosevelt University (B.A. and M.A.) as well as a beneficiary of the fine teaching that inspired independent and inquisitive thinking and use of effective research methods instilled in history majors, I reasoned that there was no better place to locate my works than in this institution. Moreover, I felt obligated to recognize nine past teachers in the dedication of my fifth book, The Depression Comes to the South Side, 1930-1933.
Do you have any favorite materials or subjects in the collection?
I found the federal pension files of the Civil War soldiers most fascinating. Although I reviewed only a fraction of the files of the members of the regiment as I searched out those with Chicago connections, either as residents or temporary sojourners only in the city for the purpose of escaping slavery by reaching Chicago during the war or enlisting in the army, the records I copied at the Archives provide invaluable information. Appendix A of Black Chicago’s First Century contains a summary of the information used in a preliminary longitudinal study I undertook while writing this book.
Is there anything in particular that you would like us to highlight in your collection?
In addition to the pension files, I think the Chicago NAACP records deserve re-review; I was especially impressed by a 1925 memorandum explaining how and why a major shift in black thinking had occurred by the 1920s. It tied into the New Negro thought that was notable for producing some of the major creative works in literature during the Harlem Renaissance. It read thus: “[The African American] now will work with whites or permit them to work with him; but he resents it when they work for him – he being their ward. He wants to control to a large degree his own affairs. . . His racial conscience has been greatly developed. Our trouble in Chicago has been that this has been taken too much into account” strange to us today. to racial egalitarians, this independence in black thinking acted as a detriment to amicable race relations. My work with the award-winning, 2010 PBS documentary, Du Sable to Obama, should be added to the collection. My writings on the first half of life in black Chicago were used to enhance the writing of the original script.
Can you tell us what you are currently working on and/or participating in?
My sixth book, “Knock At the Door of Opportunity”: Black Chicago in the Early Twentieth Century, 1901-1919, has been recently accepted for publication by the Southern Illinois University Press, so I am moving on to my seventh, entitled, Popular Thinking and Critical Thought in Early Black Chicago, 1893-1945.
Will you continue to donate your records?
Yes. I have a pile of E-mails ready as of today, along with the manuscript for “Knock at the Door of Opportunity”: Black Chicago in the Early Twentieth Century, 1901-1919.
What is your process in compiling and organizing your records for donation?
I will follow the cataloguing process in place as of this date by the BMRC as soon as I master the archivists’ methodology and classifications.
Do you have any advice for people thinking of donating their records?
Follow the archivists’ classifications in any solid prospectus.
Is there anything you would like to add about your collection, your work, or your life?
Consult the 2004 Roosevelt [Alumni] Review, the February 8, 2006 ’N’Digo newspaper write-up, and the digitized HistoryMakers interview.
Do you have any questions for us?
How do you classify materials via your series, subseries, etc.?
The method of “More Product Less Process” aims to create groupings (or series) within the original order of a collection. So, for example, if we find a box of correspondence (letters, invitations, copies of e-mail correspondence etc.), we will create a series entitled: “Correspondence” and in some cases we can create subseries of “Correspondence” if we find that there is correspondence with one particular person, or about a particular subject (e.g. business or personal).
For a more in depth answer, I will direct you to the BMRC Processing Manual that we use for this project: http://www.clir.org/hiddencollections/BMRC_Processing_Manual.pdf.
Information on the way we arrange the collection into series and subseries can be found on pages 9-10, 13.