My time in Special Collections

Throughout the past month, as a part of my graduate apprenticeship I have been working with the Johnson-Nance Family Papers, a manuscript collection from the early twentieth century at Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, at the College of William and Mary. My apprenticeship at Swem began in August 2010 briefly after I moved from Tucson, Arizona to Williamsburg in order to begin my graduate studies in early American history. One of my first tasks as part of my graduate apprenticeship at Swem was to create a lesson plan for the William Taylor Correspondence, a collection consisting of letters between Taylor and his wife during his service in the Civil War. This collection was one that had already been thoroughly processed in previous years, including a finding aid, transcriptions, and digital scans of each item. When I began work on the Johnson-Nance collection I was presented me a very different task as this collection had just recently been acquired in July 2010 and entirely unprocessed.

Making sense of the new documents began with opening up a small box full of an assortment of paper correspondence, vintage Christmas cards, and a few other miscellaneous items. The items that made up the bulk of this mixture, however, were a variety of small colored envelopes, their once vibrant whites, blues, and pinks faded with age. Long retired stamps and a block of scrawled cursive script transmitting the recipient’s name and their address decorated the front of most. The broken black ink of postal marks pounded into the faces of each envelope immediately revealed a variety of early twentieth century dates with 1923 and 1946 being the most prevalent years. Scanning over the recipient names, “R.G. Johnson,” “Lilian Nance,” and “Mr. & Mrs. R.G. Johnson” encompassed almost the entire collections’ former ownership. Upon further inspection of the collection, and later biographical research on the individuals, the names would be identified as Robert Garrett Johnson (1895-1987) and Lilian Hancock Nance (1898-1990) both of Moneta, Virginia.

Processing began by sorting each item of the collection into piles by year, spread across a table. When finished with this sorting, the earliest letter was found to be from 1914, the latest from 1955. The next step was to organize each year’s items chronologically by date and month. Once this was completed, I proceeded to remove the 1914 letter from its envelope and began to read, progressively moving forward through time. With each letter I recorded the date, the sender, sender’s location, recipient, and recipients location, creating item notations for the collection’s new finding aid. It didn’t take long to realize what the purpose of the letters were. Robert Johnson and Lilian Nance both grew up together in Moneta and the first letter from 1914 involves a teenage Lilian writing to her longtime friend Robert who was in his senior year of high school at the time. The nature of the letters transforms with Robert and Lilian’s relationship over time as they begin to date in the early 1920s and soon become engaged. 1923 marks the year that the majority of the letters hail from, Lilian and Robert writing to each other two or more times a week (though not all of the letters are extant in the collection). In 1924, the couple marries and the letters between them abruptly stop, they presumably having begun their life together under the same roof with no necessity to write one another any longer.

Reading through the love letters of Lilian and Robert was a fun and enjoyable experience, following all of the different experiences that they went through. Many of their writings include mention of friends and family, dates that they went on, visits with each other at church on Sundays, Robert’s tobacco growing work, and several interesting and sometimes funny anecdotes. Reflections on current events are also present. In a May 1917 letter to Robert, Lilian expresses her feelings about the impending entrance of the United States into World War I:

How are you about this war these days? I don’t want Uncle Sam to send our troops to France to be trained, but I am longing for Germany’s tyranny to be crushed. I can’t see how those cruel, merciless people are allowed to live, that is if the reports of their deeds be true. And I don’t believe a nation built on such principles can prosper long.
Lilian’s concerns reflects larger themes in American history at the time and it was intriguing to read about these from the personal letters of someone who experienced the anxieties of the prospect of a growing and then almost inconceivably destructive war. Some of the more lighthearted topics in Lilian and Robert’s letters include “joy rides” in Robert’s automobile, discussion of Robert’s cat named Jack, taste in music, dances and parties they attended, and anticipation of the release of the movie The Birth of a Nation in 1923.

Following their marriage in 1924, the remaining correspondence is made up of relatives and friends writing to “Mr. & Mrs. R.G. Johnson.” I enjoyed looking through the several period Christmas cards and postcards from the 1920s, each of them showing early illustrations of Holiday greeting cards. A large batch of letters from April 1926 include the many congratulations for Robert and Lilian’s first child, a son, Robert Jr. Two other children, Ada and William, are subsequently born to the couple. In 1946, a huge amount of sympathy cards express the sorrow for the couple when they lost William to death at the age of fifteen (though the cause is unclear).

Following the arrangement of the actual collection, the creation of the finding aid, and subsequent entry in the SCRC Collections database, I next scanned the entire collection for more accessibility of the collection to researchers. When completed, the total document images totaled over 800 pages. As an historian, I find the digitization of archival collections to be a great benefit not only to researchers spanning from historians, sociologists, and genealogists, but also to the archives itself. Allowing researchers to access a collection digitally means less time that collections, often old and fragile, need to be handled physically.

It was great being able to handle and read through a collection of letters that have yet to be utilized for historical research. Overall, the experience of processing a newly acquired set of documents for the Swem Special Collections was an enjoyable and insightful.

Austin Smith is a graduate student in the Department of History and the 2010-2011 Humanities Computing Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.