The first collection I worked with at the APS was Persifor Frazer’s (aka Mss.B.F867). It was a small, gentle, primarily data-entry job that largely served as an introduction to Achivists’ Toolkit. I mainly logged in letters from 1884, almost all of which were from British scientists replying to Frazer’s invitation that they all come down to Philadelphia for an American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting. The British Association was having a meeting in Montreal, so they’d already be on the right continent.
The Scope and Contents Note for most of these letters was “Plans to attend the meeting” or something similar. A few regrets, and as the date approached some yeses turned into nos. When describing the letters, I often needed to enter the writer’s name: the system has a lot of people in it, but the American Philosophical Society’s focus is, well, American, so many of the British personages were not yet represented. I was introduced to the Library of Congress Authorities: if I could make a likely identification I used the LOC naming convention; otherwise I simply entered the name as deciphered. (Some long-ago processor, back in the days of typewriters, had taken a stab at the signatures.)
Despite the mindless-data-entry components of the task, it was still a useful exercise. AT is straightforward (though I found myself wanting to set up little Perl translations to clean up data, as in my last job; at this point, I haven’t done anything more advanced than add and delete items, so I don’t have a good sense of how useful it is when one wants to make global changes). But I do like learning by osmosis. Proximity to the original material–particularly a large sample of original material–yields information. Not necessarily tremendously useful information, but it still provides an insight into the people and period (and one’s own preconceptions).
- Google is my friend. (Even though Google has crossed over to the Evil side of the street. Oh, Google, there is still good in you! Just chuck Verizon down some handy shaft, and then we can start talking about things like the toxic implications of the book settlement. Returning might be as tedious as going over, but you can do it!) I found references to (and often writings of) some of Frazer’s correspondents.
- The amazing, wonderful person who deciphered signatures was not always correct. Superior technology helped maintain consistency and turned up a couple errors. R. F. Gwyther owes the correct spelling of his name to a Google Books result, which found a paper on waves.
- Man, did some of those guys have bad handwriting! My own is pretty lousy, and I guess I fell into the mental trap of assuming that in the time before typewriters literate gentleman cultivated legible (even elegant) script. Nope, not so much. There were some that I literally could not read. If you’d told me they were written in Arabic, I’d’ve believed it (and pitied the poor Arabic reader who tried to decipher it); I would also have accepted chicken scratches and automatic writing in Martian. I am indebted to the aforementioned amazing, wonderful person.
- There was often a slap-dash approach. Sometimes there was elegant stationery, as one might expect of the class of men who could afford to indulge their amateur enthusiasms. Sometimes there were scrawls on scraps of paper. It was a nice reminder that I shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking about the 1880s costume-drama-wise. Writing letters was a way of doing business, and the greater hassle/time lag of using pen and paper didn’t necessarily translate to greater formality. Sometimes business is conducted suit and tie, with documents vetted by the legal department. Sometimes you just dash off a “me, too” e-mail before lunch.
- When folding over papers to make a little card, with writing on (usually) the four faces, the fold was often on the right-hand side. I found this disconcerting. It’s weird enough when I’m reading manga; but this was left-to-right writing in English. It wasn’t just a matter of a personal quirk. Many writers did it, and in fact some of the letterhead was adapted to this presentation: the address or embossing or whatever was in the upper left of a landscape-oriented page.
- Watch those gender assumptions. A letter from E. M. King referenced a female traveling companion who would not require a separate room. Curious as to who would come out and say that, I learned that E. M. King was Mrs. E. M. King, so bunking with another woman was hardly scandalous. I subsequently read a bit on King’s Rational Dress Association, turning up this piece among others and wishing that I had taken at least one Victorian class as an undergrad. King offered to give an address, but I don’t see mention of it included in the report of the meeting.
- “Science” doesn’t mean the same thing in the twenty-first century as the nineteenth. Now King would be classified as a social activist, no matter the scientific slant she promised in her speeches. She is perhaps an extreme example, but it was also disconcerting to see the statisticians, geographers, etc. on the guest list. At a time when I expect to see highly specialized conferences, the idea of “scientists” and those in sister fields coming together to chat—and, apparently, finding it useful (or at least sufficiently enjoyable to endure a trans-Atlantic voyage)—is a reminder that the past is an alien place.