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Sunday, October 28, 2012

What Happens When an Original Archival Collection is Hidden, but its Copy Is Not?

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

Dealing with archival materials in libraries can be complicated for any number of reasons: identifying the creators and other contributors; devising an adequate catalog description; and properly preserving and housing the materials.

Portrait of Sir J.F.W. Herschel,
based on a painting by
H.W. Pickersgill, R.A.,
and engraved by J. Cook
One of the knottiest issues facing archivists and librarians is what to do when you have a copy of an archival collection, but you don’t know where the original collection is.

It’s not uncommon for researchers or faculty members to turn over hoards of notes, photocopies, and miscellaneous documents to libraries and archives upon their retirement, or after the completion of a major effort like writing a book. With luck, information about the original source of the materials will be provided by the donor.  But sometimes life is messy, and the library or archive is left holding on to things that may be of interest to other researchers, but questions of rights (especially for reproducing part or all of these kinds of collections) raise a red flag. Ideally, the librarian or archivist would be able to refer interested researchers to the repository with the original documents. But that information isn’t always known.

Earlier this year, I faced this confusing situation when I was asked by Lilla Vekerdy, the Head of Special Collections, to recatalog a volume of photocopied typescript and handwritten pages which had been sitting in the Smithsonian Libraries’ remote storage annex for years. During a periodic review of the items in the annex, Mike Hardy, one of our sharp-eyed Technicians, came across this volume and brought it to Vekerdy’s attention. The book contained documents referring to the mathematician and astronomer Sir J.F.W. Herschel (1792-1871), but little more was known about who had compiled the materials, and why, and how the volume wound up in the Libraries’ collections. As the Special Collections Cataloger, I was given the task of puzzling out the answers.

Originally, I suspected that the items which made up the volume might be located in the Dibner Library’s extensive collection of manuscripts on the history of science. Alas, no. So I looked for other clues. The volume itself contains two main sections, including an almost complete typescript biography of Herschel with a few handwritten annotations, and a group of supporting materials made up mainly of transcribed correspondence and various notes. In a few places, the initials “M.F.H.” appear, dated 1931 in one instance. The biographical section begins:

This chronicle is chiefly written for the many great-great grandchildren of Sir John Herschel. At the same time it will be read by his daughters who still take a lively interest in the matter … the object of this volume is to enable his descendants to form a mental picture of the conditions under which scientists pursued their aims.

Armed with the initials “M.F.H.” and the knowledge that whoever pulled together the original documents was probably a Herschel family member, I tried searching the internet to identify the compiler and/or the biography, which I assumed had already been published since the draft appeared to be so close to completion. When those efforts didn’t pan out, I turned to Twitter, knowing that some of my followers specialize in the history of science. I tweeted: "Herschel (astronomer) scholars: can you identify who 'M.F.H.' is, apparently cataloger of H. papers."

Sample of a heavily edited page
from the photocopied manuscript
of the Herschel draft biography
Rebekah Higgitt (a former Dibner Library Resident Scholar, now curator & historian of science at Royal Observatory Greenwich & National Maritime Museum and a blogger on history of science for The Guardian who tweets as @beckyfh), Thony Christie (who tweets as @rmathematicus and writes the Renaissance Mathematicus blog) and I tossed around a few ideas on Twitter: maybe "M.F.H." stood for "Miss Francisca Herschel," one of Sir J.F.W. Herschel's daughters, although that theory was a stretch, since those same initials appeared at the end of Francisca Herschel's obituary in the Feb. 1933 Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (v. 93, p. 228-229). Or, maybe the initials were for a lesser known child of Sir J.F.W. Herschel, whose amazing accomplishments include having been the father of twelve children. Higgitt suggested that I follow up with Dr. Emily Winterburn, a curator at the Museum of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Leeds who had written her Ph.D. thesis on the Herschel family. With a quick email exchange, Winterburn solved that mystery: "M.F.H." was Mira F. Hardcastle, a granddaughter of Sir J.F.W. Herschel (the child of his daughter Maria Sophia and her husband Henry Hardcastle). Working outside of the limelight, Miss Hardcastle was the faithful Herschel family historian, carefully compiling letters, journals, timelines, anecdotes and other scraps of information to illuminate the life of her grandfather as one of Great Britain's foremost scientists of the nineteenth century.

Grateful to Dr. Winterburn for having solved this part of the mystery, I focused next on locating the stash of original documents that served as the source for the Dibner Library's photocopied volume. This part of the story, still unfolding, will be covered in a follow-up blog post next month, so stay tuned!

Herschel Letters, Manuscripts, etc., 1838-1932. fMSS 001803 B Dibner Library

--Diane Shaw, Special Collections Cataloger, Smithsonian Libraries

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