Fall 2009 Semester in Review

Posted on January 21, 2010

Greetings from Swem Library at the College of William and Mary!  My name is Michael Lusby and I am currently an intern in the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC). My internship began in the fall of 2009, which was also my first semester in the Master’s program for American History at William and Mary. Beginning with very little experience in archives, I quickly increased my familiarity with the work of archivists through a myriad of projects and tasks.

At the outset of my internship, I began with perhaps the most rewarding and fascinating project of the semester, the Houstater Family Papers. I received this collection with only a minimal description in Archon (the SCRC’s Collections Database). After spending a substantial amount of time going through the documents, I provided a finding aid with greater depth and reorganized the collection according to type and chronology. Henry Houstater’s records were by far the most compelling. Despite being a staunch Democrat from upstate New York, Henry quickly enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 and died in combat in 1862. At Camp Barry, an artillery training camp just outside of Washington D.C., Henry produced several handwritten newspapers entitled “The Camp Barry Herald.” In some cases, these papers seethed with political dissent and at other times, they were light hearted. Whether personal anecdotes or political rhetoric, “The Camp Barry Herald” was interesting because it underscored the heterogeneity of the Union Army and illustrates the experience of a less-renowned soldier in the Civil War. Personal documents from other Houstater family members, most notably Henry’s sister Harriett, are also contained in the collection in addition to a plethora of nineteenth-century financial records.

Another fascinating collection that I worked on last semester was the Catlett Family Papers collection. This collection contained many letters addressed to a Confederate veteran of the Civil War, Arthur Catlett. Although there are no letters from Arthur, the letters from his family members to him explain the living conditions for the family he left in Virginia after the Civil War (Arthur had moved to Texas). When the collection arrived at the SCRC, all of the letters were housed in a three-ring binder along with transcripts for almost every single letter provided by the collection’s last owner. My task for this collection was to carefully remove the letters from the binder, organize them chronologically with their transcripts and place them into acid-free containers.

I did similar work with the Violet Barnett Diaries as well. This collection contained diaries kept by Mrs. Barnett between the years 1931 and 1972, with the exception of only a handful of years. In creating the finding aid and description of the collection I read through the diaries where I found entries that illustrated the activities of the Grange and fiscal problems her family encountered during the 1930’s in Pennsylvania. It seems that Violet suffered a stroke in 1972 which caused her death shortly thereafter. A poignant moment in the collection appeared in Violet’s 1972 diary where, after suffering her stroke, her son cared for her in her last few days and kept entries in her diary. He concluded the diary on the day of her death with heartfelt words about his mother.

In fall 2009, I had the opportunity to create the descriptions and finding aides for several collections, but I was also tasked with re-housing the collection of John Tuthill’s Papers. Although it had already been thoroughly organized and described, the documents had yet to be housed in acid-free boxes. After a substantial amount of time, I re-housed all of the collection’s materials and edited the finding aid to reflect the changes made.

Although the majority of my time was spent with the above tasks, I also did some work that did not focus on a specific collection. A class came into the archives during the fall 2009 semester and I was asked to provide a typed transcript of the document they were scheduled to work with, “The Gospel as Preached in the South.” I also tackled a handful of reference questions that came into the archives, such as verifying the location of a residence in Albemarle County, Virginia for a visitor’s genealogy project.

Some of the tasks that I performed were perhaps less glamorous than my work with archival collections but they were equally important to understanding the work of an archivist. To this end, I assisted visitors and researchers at the front desk and instructed them to the general rules and procedures required for Swem’s Special Collections. In addition, I also did some paging for the SCRC by retrieving materials that visitors requested. When several letters on loan to the Virginia Historical Society were returned, I opened them and reconciled their content and condition. I did the same with materials that received treatment at a preservation facility and were returned as well.

Troubleshooting EAD records that were receiving errors from the Virginia Heritage website proved to be a difficult of these auxiliary tasks last semester. I approached these problems with a general ignorance of the technical aspects of html and .xml documents. Having endeavored to fix the errors that occurred with several records (with mixed results), my familiarity with this formatting has increased dramatically.

My internship in the Swem Special Collections Research Center has been extremely rewarding. Not only have I gained a general sense of the work required by the archives, my own research skills have benefitted from exposure to a wide array of materials. I have also become comfortable with using the SCRC Collections Database and I am able to process finding aids and descriptions with greater ease than when I began. Now, starting with a strong base of knowledge, I look forward to challenging work and increasing the breadth of my skills in the ensuing semester.