Collection, Condition and Context

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I have already come across some gems I can't wait to share, but before we dive in, I thought it pertinent to share some information about the previous and current condition of the collection. Those of you with personal collections may find some of this helpful.

As I related before, I first  encountered this collection at a homecoming event held by the church in 2007. The display was not inclusive, with some handpicked items being put out on tables, while the rest of the collection resided in the lower levels of the building. This was where my love affair with this collection began. The scrapbooks, journals and photographs were extremely alluring. One of the most extraordinary features of this collection was a series of glass plate slides on varying subjects. There were photographs of the 1937 flood mingled with photographs from China. The photos from China were meant to demonstrate the missionary efforts of Melvina Sollman. She was a young woman from Lincoln Park who devoted her life to missionary work in this Asian region. All of the glass slides were in their original boxes, with only a couple that were cracked. The only copies I have of these images are from snapshots I took while holding the slides up to a window. Unfortunately, I have not seen these slides since that homecoming event in 2007. I am hoping that they will turn up as I am permitted to go through more boxes of material, but that is yet to be determined.

The rest of the collection was in cardboard boxes. Some attempt had been made to encase photos and documents in plastic sheathing, but these were several years old, and not in any way stable for document preservation. The plastic was made of a stiff construction and held together with staples. The attempt at preservation was very admirable, and probably saved many of the larger photos from collecting dust or getting bent. However, now is a perfect time to get them out of this older casing of unknown construction. Prior to being handed over to the historical society I will place them in more stable storage containers - stay tuned  as I blog more about how each type of item will be handled.

Collection inside the "Cistern Room" with
Church Historian Carla Lewis
After the congregation merged into the smaller facility across town the collection was moved into a lower level room commonly known as the "cistern room". This was my second encounter with the material and despite my worst fear at such a room being used to house historical documents, the room seemed to be sufficient for temporary storage. I had recommended that the collection be moved to an environmentally controlled facility, but that would have been cost prohibitive. As a side note for those of you with personal collections, it is always preferable to house collections in the main areas of your house where the temperatures do not fluctuate widely with the seasons, and where moisture is not a huge threat.

My worry when seeing the collection in the "cistern room" was two-fold. 1. The pipes that allowed water to flood into this former cistern were still visible coming out of the walls. Despite the assurance that the pipes had been closed off, they hovered over the collections like sentinel cyclops, just waiting to pour forth with the next flood conditions. 2. Moisture in a basement situation can always signal a threat of mold. With this visit, I noticed the collection was now encased in fresh new plastic tubs, which was a good step to keep things a bit dry in case the cistern was not as dry as promised, but on the other hand, any moisture inside a tub could lead to mold. I was told right away that right after the move, the collection was temporarily held in a storage facility that had no environmental stability. Due to this instability, when the collection was finally relocated to the "cistern room", mold was discovered, and they threw a portion of the collection away.

As you can imagine, I couldn't breathe for a minute, pretty much screaming inside....but keeping my composure on the outside. No one could tell me what had been pitched, and therefore, we will never know what was actually lost. They did sequester a small portion into a separate tub with a "mold" label since it only appeared to have a small amount of mold within the documents, but mold is nothing to be treated lightly. That tub will be handled last with special conditions. It is recommended that you use masks and gloves to handle any documents that you suspect might contain mold. Once you have confirmed that there is mold present, please consult a professional. There are many conservation methods that can save the documents or stabilize them for digitization prior to destruction.

My next encounter with the collection was a couple of weeks ago, after the contract was in place, allowing for the digitization project to begin. When I went to pull a few tubs to begin the process, I quickly realized that any original organization of the collection had pretty much been lost. When the collection was moved from boxes to tubs, it was done so in no particular order. Tubs were filled....sometimes it appears from various boxes. The exception to this was a metal box with membership cards inside. These had been filed in there back in the mid 20th century. Due to the container's portability, it was transported intact. Since the organization of a collection is important when putting things into context, this metal box will remain in the same order while I digitize in order to pass on this organization scheme to the historical society. Another untouched organization is a large scrapbook. The pages are falling out, but seem to be in a fairly original state of organization.

Unfortunately, my last visit also discovered that the collection was now being stored in a room that was no longer dark and cool, but very hot.....which makes me even more anxious to get this project underway. I have already encountered photographs that have been stuck together due to the various storage methods. As I encounter preservation problems I will blog them here as a bit of a learning experience for the personal archivist. I have been through the first batch of material and have encountered some context issues which I will post about very soon.....stay tuned!