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Thursday, September 9, 2010


Sometimes the smallest collections can be the biggest cataloging challenges.  In 2008 the Archives Center acquired a small collection of just 38 pastel drawings, but deciding what topics should be covered in the SIRIS catalog entry and researching all of the added entries took hours.  The Marilyn Church Courtroom Drawings, 1975-2004, provide glimpses of some of the most dramatic moments in trials, hearings and lawsuits of some of New York City’s most infamous crimes and cases in the late 20th century. The notoriety of the cases represented by this collection meant that they were very heavily covered in the media, but because of the prohibition against cameras in courtrooms in most courts in America, the only visual coverage of a court case was provided by courtroom artists whose drawings were later reproduced in the news media.
 The Scope and Content note in the SIRIS entry for this collection contains probably the longest run-on sentence in any SIRIS record in the system: 366 words!  Though this collection is divided into several topical series, such as “Medical Ethics” and “Political Violence,” listing every case and a few words describing what they were about seemed the best way to write it because all of the items in this collection are the same type of document, and all are of equal importance.

The cases represented in this collection strike at the heart of topics that arouse passionate debate everywhere, but nowhere more so than in New York City, where most of the incidents or alleged crimes occurred. The 1990 rape trial in what came to be known as the “Central Park Jogger” case is a good example, in which racial tensions in the city were heightened and the evidence, or lack of evidence, debated endlessly.  Others relate to terrorism and organized crime, issues that provoke fear in most people, but especially those living in populous urban areas.  The trial of John Hinckley, Jr. for attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981, aroused debate about the definition of insanity and how to balance protection of the public from the mentally ill with maintaining mentally ill people’s civil liberties.  Some cases relate to extremely contentious ethical matters, such as surrogate motherhood, euthanasia, and in-vitro fertilization, subjects that will probably always be controversial.  The 1980 case of Senator Harrison A. Williams, who, among numerous others, was caught accepting bribes from FBI agents posing as sheikhs, spurred debate about the rightness of such sting operations. Because of the controversial nature of these topics, it seemed important to add subject headings for each. In all, 24 new subject headings were added, along with 22 new entries for names.

For some court cases, index terms used were names of plaintiffs, such as Brooke Shields (who in 1981 sued a photographer over nude photographs taken of her as a child) or Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (who sued photographer Ron Galella for harassing her).  Others have entries for defendants, such as Sid Vicious, or David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz (in both cases, tried for murder). Others, such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing trial, and the “ABSCAM” case, were so infamous that they already had Library of Congress subject headings.  Other cases had multiple defendants, such as the “Landmarks Terror Trial”, and the added entry “Terrorism – United States” was used.  The subject term “Trial” had been used in SIRIS only a couple of times before. This entry uses the term 12 times, with subheadings including “Malpractice,” “Assassination,” and “Bribery.”

When the Archives Center acquired this collection, it represented a new direction in collecting. Previously we had little on American judicial history.  This collection, which has excellent potential for exhibit use, is a first step in that direction.  But more than a collection about our justice system, it is also illustrative of many aspects of life in twentieth century America: race relations, the perils of celebrity, the dangers of urban living, politics, the military, the right to bear arms, freedom of speech, the media, terrorism, and many other topics which occupied Americans during those years and still do.  So don’t be surprised if you come across some unexpected names in SIRIS, like Martha Stewart, Tupac Shakur, Michael Milken and General William Westmoreland. They, and others, are all illustrated in this collection.

Cathy Keen, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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