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Monday, November 1, 2010

I Found My Mom In the Archives

The theme the Society of American Archivists (SAA) set forth for October is American Archives Month 2010 was "I found my [blank] in the Archives."  The festivities this October are part of a larger effort by the Society of American Archivists to celebrate their upcoming 75th anniversary with 2010-2011 focusing on "I found It in the Archives!"  Their goal is as follows, "Public awareness. And building a greater understanding of who archivists are and what archivists do."  In an essence it is like celebrating October is American Archives Month - all year long. 
So here is my contribution November 1st.  We are post-Archives Month, and I write this knowing that the libraries, archives and special collections of the Smithsonian Institution will continue to share their thoughts on the profession, their passion for the collections, and their current project obsessions here with you.  What I hope for now is that YOU will start to add your thoughts, your passion, and share your current projects with the collections at the Smithsonian Institution or within your own home.  SAA is launching a nation wide contest idea, but for this post I'm going to keep it simple.  

I found my mom in the Archives.  Well, I knew she was coming actually; I invited her.  As the Smithsonian Institution Archives and Special Collections (SIASC) council and the October is American Archives Month (OAAM) subcommittee went into high planning gear in August I knew I was going to need my mom.  Mom (real name Rebecca) was a project manager in her former corporate life, not to mention quite the baker.  I inherited my obsession with post its, penchant for color-coding, and love of spreadsheets from her.  I brought my mom in for the month of October so that essentially there could be two of me in one place.  She helped me plan for and manage the 35+ volunteers we had for the day of the Fair by putting together action packets, creating buttons, and making sure no one went hungry.  Literally... see the spread to the right.

Having my mom here for the month was so efficient I was able to utilize her for other projects that have been laying around the Archives, begging to be done.  First I had her  help me pack and inventory 300+ squeezes from the Ernst Herzfeld papers, (see image to the left).  That kept her busy for all of 3 days, and ensured I didn't need to spend one more full day of my time packing and tracking them for the next 3 months.  

I then set her upon the Charles Lang Freer correspondence.  Freer is our founder and one of our most important collection of papers here are the Freer|Sackler Archives(See a youtube video showing highlights of his papers).  Over the years, and an archivist or two before me, the correspondence appears to have been added to physically but no updates had been made to the folder numbers, the box labels or the finding aid.  For example any given box can start with folder number 8, go to 25, then start over at 1 with many correspondents being bumped to the next box.  Normally this is not enough to warrant a "red alert" or a high prioritization for fixing the 29 document boxes of correspondence, but lately there has been a surge in researchers interested in Freer leading to more frequent frustrations on my part for having to double check every correspondence box I pulled.  I'm an archivist.  I like to have things in order.

Mom went through the boxes of Freer correspondence, and as she neared the end of her time here in the Archives she shared with me her thoughts and revelations based on her experiences this month.  They were things that I knew all along, but to have some one "from the outside" be able to articulate so clearly what I knew to be true inspired me to write and share her thoughts with you.  Here is what my Mom found in the Archives:

Rachael: First things, first.  What's the coolest thing you've seen here?
Mom: Peacock Room. [Why?] I think it best represents Mr. Freer and his gift to the nation, by helping artists who were struggling and trying to make a name for themselves, and it demonstrates his loyalty to his friends. I just feel a sense of peace when I go in there.  After reading through his correspondence, I realize how important his collection was to him, and why he was so passionate to share it with the nation.

Rachael: Can you talk a little bit about your first perceptions of what being an archivist is like?
Mom:  I really didn't understand the passion behind what was housed, and the importance it has in helping people to understand the gifts that Freer gave to the nation.  One of the first jobs I was tasked with was packing squeezes from ancient archaeological sites such as Persepolis, Pasargadae, etc., and realizing the history that they represented, and why it is important to have a repository for documents such as this.  Many of the important historical places and documentation of historical events are no longer accessible.

Rachael: Now that you've had an opportunity to come to work with me, what are some of your observations on the day to day stuff?
Mom: Busy.  I had the wonderful opportunity of watching many researchers visit your archives, and watch in wonder as they discovered the answers to what they were searching for.  It was like Christmas morning!

Rachael: You were here for a very big month for us archivists.  Can you talk about some of your interactions with my colleagues the day of the Fair?  What was the general feeling?
Mom:  That they are all very excited about what they are doing.   And the general feeling of importance of continued interaction to spread the wealth and knowledge that they have the honor of caring for.

Rachael: Based on your experience of being a project manager, did the Archives Fair unfold like typical projects do?
Mom: Yes and no.  A lot of up front work paid off to make it appear as though the Fair was set up and run flawlessly.  I think a lot of this has to do with the passion of those you work with, and their belief that this sort of outreach is important.  One thing that I found disappointing was that there were people who wanted to be involved, but were not supported by their larger units to contribute to the event that benefited everyone.  The lack of funding of such an important event was stressful.  In my experience in the corporate world, when a mandate comes down to authorize a project or event; funding and staff sources were made available.  The Smithsonian has mandated that you make collections available online, coupled with a need to hold outreach events such as the Fair - I don't know how the staff can try and do all that is expected and hoped for of them without more help in staff power and financial assistance.

Rachael: In going through the Freer correspondence, what revelations did you have on the importance of his papers?
Mom: That he was a self-made man and that he worked hard for what he had.  He was passionate about what he collected and continually shared his thoughts and his collections to better disseminate his knowledge and appreciation of Asian art.  He was a very giving person, and he definitely had a vision for what he collected, why it was important, and that it needed to be shared with people from all walks of life.  He continued patronage, and even through a long illness he fought to continue to make sure that others had what they needed - whether it was money, prints, catalogs, or whatever was needed to continue to share his beliefs.  He did not suffer fools gladly...

Rachael: Any other little gems you found while reading his letters?
Mom: I thoroughly enjoyed reading correspondence between him and Frederick Stuart Church.  Church's letters and envelopes were always covered in sketches and doodles.  The most humorous of course was when they involved Church and Freer hiking the Appalachian Trail together.

"No danger from Rattle Snakes bile if you only take proper precaution."
Rachael: What has the archives come to mean to you now?
Mom: That it wont be enough for me in the future just to go to a gallery and look at the art being exhibited. By learning the history of each art object and how it came be created, collected, and cared for by Freer (and now the Smithsonian) it gives me a much greater or deeper appreciation for what I am viewing.  After reading these documents I felt a need to go back to the Gallery to see the art he wrote about. And on a completely different note: the importance of volunteerism and support of institutions such as this.

Rachael: Any closing thoughts your have for us?
Mom: Now I understand why you are so dedicated to what you do as well as your sincere desire and commitment to ensure that all have access to the wonderful treasures housed in the Archives.  Having the opportunity to go through some of Freer's correspondence, and understanding the history behind the artwork, as well as a deeper understanding of world history at that time, it gave me a much deeper satisfaction to view the art work housed in this wonderful institution.  In a broader sense, having met many of your colleagues, I see the importance of collaboration and of public outreach so that others have the opportunity to see and learn from the wonderful treasures that are available.


  1. Wonderful piece Rachael! Now I see that the theory "The Apple doesn't fall far from the tree.." is correct!

  2. Thanks to Rachael's mom, Rebecca, for sharing her thoughts and experiences of the Freer/Sackler Archives. A very enjoyable read.

  3. Awesome interview Rachael. Maybe one day Sue and I can meet your family too.

  4. This is wonderful, Rachael! I'm glad your mom had such a great time!

  5. I found my mom in the archives too.. well, actually, our collection at the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. Since her retirement two years ago, mom comes in twice a month to catalogue anything I've got for her. She has worked on a collection with over 800 photographs. Her experience with sewing and needlework came in handy when she catalogued a small trunk of women's clothing. And it is a joy to have in her my work space. Three cheers for moms!!

  6. Thank you all for your lovely comments, and thank you Kristin for sharing your mom story! Three cheers for moms indeed!

  7. Thank you so much for your time on Friday. It was very informative and I will use examples of what I saw many times over in my presentations and teaching. Thanks again so much and be sure to tell David that I really appreciated his passion for the work. I am glad that both of you get to spend your days doing what you love.