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Friday, August 10, 2018

Behind the Archives: Donation and Acquisition of a 10,000-Piece Collection

Collections frequently take a long journey from acquisition to access. Many of the patrons who visit the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History (NMAH) are there to use this amazing repository for research, but don’t know how the material got there. 

This question of how and who donated or sold the material made me interested in finding a donor or seller who gave a collection to the museum and would be willing to tell me about it. That’s how I was introduced to William (Larry) Bird, Ph.D. and his postcard collection. This blog post will take you through my first-hand experience with the donation and acquisition process.

Larry is a bit of a donor anomaly, as he is a former Curator at NMAH in the political history division and is now a curator emeritus in the same division. I had the pleasure of sitting down with him and discussing his very large collection. His picture postcard collection consists of over 10,000 postcards of a very unusual variety. Larry described how this collection was begun accidentally, stemming from another project he was working on at the time. He first became interested in postcards with holiday themes as depicted in window fronts, stores, and parades, for his book Holidays on Display. Larry became increasingly fascinated with postcards and attended paper and postcard shows. This is how he amassed most of his collection, because “you could get one of them for basically a nickel.” He also clarified that the reason many of them were so cheap was due to their being primarily from the 1950s with a glossy finish. To the “high-brow” collectors these were postcards whose value was low, and therefore they didn’t mind letting go of them.

BIG HAIR: Early American by Hanover Kitchens Limited Hanover Ontario Canada
Early American is the atmosphere created by this attractive kitchen, with its authentic looking hammered iron hardware and rich brown Honey Beige color. Courtesy William L. Bird. Archives Center, National Museum of American History. 
However, to Larry, these postcards captured moments in American history and what we deemed worthy of putting on a postcard. Many of them advertised products and services. “[It was a great window into] people and their stuff.” He donated his collection to the Archives Center in May of 2018. Bird curated the collection in three ways. First, he always had specific objectives while collecting. Second, he physically arranged the postcards into topical categories like “Dams” and “Horses”. Third, he created a Flickr account that links fun and innovative topics across categories. An example of such a category is “Saddle Up,” containing “vintage postcards of horses, ponies, [and] riders riding.” These categories give us a peek into the many stores, motels, hairstyles, clothes, and other entities that have since disappeared. When asked which category of his collection was his favorite, he chuckled and replied, “Big Hair.” Big Hair is also categorized under “Allure and beauty” and “Vintage postcards”. The image featured here was actually an advertisement for kitchen cabinets, but placing it in the “Big Hair” category provides added cultural meaning. Due to the way he organized his collection, the Archives Center now can maintain his insights while processing. 

Bird also digitized ALL of his postcards and made them available via Flickr. The Archives Center will get to take advantage of his work by using his scans to provide access to the collection. With Larry’s role finished, the collection is now ready to continue its journey into the hands of researchers.

Foucault Pendulum, Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC
The Foucault Pendulum demonstrates the rotation of the earth. The earth (and therefore the floor) rotates daily, while the pendulum always swings in the same straight line and therefore lags behind. Courtesy William L. Bird. Archives Center, National Museum of American History. 
The job of an acquisition archivist is a very exciting and complex endeavor. An archivist is a person who strives to “understand and preserve the past on behalf of the future”. Acquisition is the first step the collection takes on its way to being preserved for the future and taking its place in the repository. When a collection makes its way into a repository it is usually either a donation or a purchase. Here at the Smithsonian Institution, there are policies in place that must be followed in order to acquire a collection for the Museum’s Archives Center. The Archives Center’s primary acquisition archivist is Craig Orr. Craig explained to me that the first step he takes is to make sure a prospective collection fits the mission of the Museum and Archives Center. Once he has determined that a collection will "fit," he must get it approved by the chair of the division. While this sounds easy enough, many questions arise when an acquisition is proposed. The acquisition archivist and the chair of the division might not see eye to eye every time when interpreting the mission of the repository. However, once approved, if the collection is over ten cubic feet in size, it also must be approved by the Collections Management Committee. Larry donated over 10,000 postcards but, but the collection size was less than five cubic feet and therefore not reviewed by the committee. The collection now awaits processing in the Archives Center. It was truly amazing to see a collection from the side of the donor and take a peek into the realm of acquisitions.

Today due to the progress of technology we seldom use postcards as a quick means of communication. Most new postcards are purchased nowadays as souvenir items. While they have fallen out of fashion, Larry’s postcards, now Archives Center collection number 1465, the "Larry Bird Postcard Collection," gives us a glimpse into the American past. Through these snapshots of America, we are able to see what photographs were once deemed worthy of circulating as postcards in our ever-changing society.

Sarah K. Rung, Summer 2018 Intern
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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