I really dug From Polders to Postmodernism, which is indeed concise (and, frankly, the Conclusion does such a nice job of boiling everything down that it alone is well worth reading for those in a hurry). The entire book can be read as a literature survey…which sounds modest, but is very useful, and I am pleased that this library school thesis, at least, exists. Cook’s introduction prepares the reader for an appraisal-centric argument, which is a perfectly cromulent approach to the material. By opening with the Dutch Manual (as opposed to the French Revolution), Ridener kept the focus on modern professional practices.

My exposure to archival theory comes largely from classes. The first one focused more on the practical end of things, though there was some theory; the current class is more traditionally academic, but in addition to theory-heavy writings the syllabus is populated with a fair bit of outsider literature. Which is to qualify my impressions of writing within the field based upon limited exposure in terms of material read, as well as time spent thinking about this stuff.

That said, my impression is one of a cage match between Jenkinson and Schellenberg. This can lead to a sense of pointlessness in theoretical writings, either because there isn’t that much daylight between the two (it’s a question of emphasis, not overall practice) or because they are so diametrically opposed (Keepers! Thrower-outers! Englishmen! Americans!) Ridener roots Jenkinson and Schellenberg not only in their times (overlapping, just to further complicate things) but in their institutions and job descriptions.

He specifically categorizes more recent theory as the “Questioning Period”: dominated not by a single manual-writer, but a set of theorists reacting to social change (as opposed to wartime needs), self-conscious in their professional practice and theorizing. This was the most useful aspect of the book, from my perspective. Instead of a hand-wavy acknowledgment that post-Schellenberg theory exists, Ridener described it and gave it equal weight.

On a vocabulary and structural note, I was not aware of the definition of “polder” when I began reading. It’s not terribly relevant, but it is a nice grace note: beginning by building something up out of nothing, ending with the postmodern deconstruction. (The next paradigm is predicted in general outline—the most hand-wavy portion of the book, but that’s appropriate for something purely speculative, and it emphasizes the continuing progression† of theory. Sadly, from an aesthetic point of view, whatever comes next is unlikely to fit into as neat a structure as construction-to-deconstruction.)

* It’s a D&D vocabulary joke.

† Progression’s a slippery thing, through a historiographical lens…but leaving all that aside, the temporal progression of “what comes next” is an interesting and important thing to contemplate.

The Oatman murders

In the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-others category, there is a September 12 letter to John LeConte from Asa M. Abbott regarding the Oatman family. The letter was undated, but given the subject matter and contextual clues (references to a four month wait for the initial news and the general paucity of information) I felt pretty confident dating it as 1851.

Google the Oatmans and you find a familiar tale of Indian savagery and abduction. (Familiar in the sense that the players and themes had stewed in the public imagination for over a century—relocating the stage to the southwest results in only superficial changes.) You’ll also find a couple different editions of Captivity of the Oatman Girls on Google Books, which includes a very nineteenth century description of a brief encounter with a “Dr. Lecount” and his efforts to assist the family (and heroically restrain his apparently suicidal Mexican guide and treacherous Apaches from killing one another—really, all he needs is the hat and the whip and he’ll get down to doing some two-fisted science).

There is something prurient about the letter, which offers apologies and explanations for its existence, then asks for details about the family’s last days. It is somewhat perplexing: why not ask the surviving son, rather than a third party? A desire for an impartial narrative, consideration for Lorenzo’s feelings…there are a host of possibilities, which either reflect well or very poorly upon Abbott’s character and motivation.

As noted in the finding aid, the vast bulk of correspondence is incoming. I wonder whether and how LeConte replied to Abbott’s letter.

Beautiful objects

Last week I was poking through the APS’s oversized files, verifying the existence of a surveyor’s exercise. (Take heart, gentle reader: the mystery map with some connection to the LeConte clan does indeed exist.) When pulling open an it’s-probably-not-filed-here-any-more-but-this-cabinet-doesn’t-need-a-key drawer, I came across a map of the moon.

Death notices

It’s sad to see death notices. It’s especially sad near the end of the correspondence series, approaching the end of LeConte’s own life, when the letters are fewer and farther between (especially after the flurry of 1877 activity, when his supporters wrote Rutherford B. Hayes). “You’ve had your run,” the record seems to say, “now it’s over, nothing more to do.” Depressing. Not simply because it’s a reminder of one’s own mortality, but because there is a certain affection for the writers of this material. Jules Putzeÿs is a great name*; I always felt happy to see it on a folder label—and then there was his death notice, and he would never appear on a label again. It’s rather silly. Obviously nineteenth century correspondents are all safely dead by now. Those folder labels even helpfully inform one of their birth and death dates. But still, the death notices are mournful items.

* Janos Xántus is another great LeConte name. He sounds like an industrialist who either fights crime in spandex or is himself the criminal mastermind.

Last day

Wednesday was the last internship day. I had a generally good, productive day, topped off by boneheadedly setting off the alarm. Had to happen at some point, I guess. I’m hoping to get back to the APS on a volunteer basis. If I can piggyback some regular volunteer hours on top of a part-time gig somewhere, with The Daughter back in day care for a couple days a week, everybody wins. Time to start shooting off the old resume.

Repetitive but still kind of fun

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).

Continue reading

Victorian Gothic

John L. LeConte’s invite to the opening of the new Academy of the Fine Arts building has an illustration very similar to the Frederick Gutekunst photo currently on the PAFA website; the foreground figures (presumably included for scale) are different and the perspective is slightly off. I wonder if the Gutekunst photo was the basis of the illustration, or if that was simply deemed the most pleasing angle from which to view the building.

He was identified as “John L. LeConte M.D.” (in contrast to the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, which sent tickets to “Dr. and Mrs.”) I don’t know if he was practicing at this point, but medicine wasn’t a driving force in his professional life; in the 1870s he seems to’ve divided his time between omnidisciplinary publication and lobbying for a federal appointment. Was “M.D.” simply the most convenient title to apply? Was there an intention to harken back to his military service in the Civil War? Was “M.D.” already a marker for social rank in the U.S., and how much of that was a reaction against British conventions?

And yes, I have been thinking lately about contemporary conventions of addressing M.D.s as “Doctor” and J.D.s appending “Esquire” when other practicing professionals, to say nothing of Ph.Ds, are in a more uncertain position. I don’t think it’s sour grapes, just bemusement at how fashions change and a frustration with cultural priorities and the popular regard—or lack thereof—for education and learning for its own sake. Even the APS is dedicated to “promoting useful knowledge.” What about useless knowledge? That’s pretty cool, too.

Baa baa black…calf?

Much mid-1870s verbiage is devoted  to the issue of “calf-hair” or “half-hair” goods. I am of course amused (from my specialist-steeped twenty-first-century perspective) to see an entomologist engaged in debate over the scientific classification of fiber and the commercial implications (non-woollen products were exempt from certain import duties). Even knowing that later in the decade LeConte made a bid for Commissioner of Agriculture, for which knowledge of livestock was presumably something of a prerequisite, it is still a good illustration of the Omnidisciplinary Scientist in action.

Uninformed font speculation

I came across an interesting 1874 font choice. Exterminator B. Pickman Mann* printed up letterhead outlining, in a few paragraphs, his services. Name in large, fancy gothic above, block caps in the unadorned serif font of the body. (I should become a font geek, then I’d be able to describe it more accurately.) But the office address and hours are in a larger, bolded, sans serif. Is that just intended to call attention to the relevant information? Is the dissonance just a matter of my offended design sensibilities? It is reminiscent of fields pulled from elsewhere, which now don’t need to be differentiated but sometimes still are (because that somehow makes it seem like a personal form letter?)…so was it perhaps the same thing? The paragraph text is pretty specific to Mann’s business, so I have a tough time imagining anyone else using the template. Maybe he did, or planned to in case he ever moved his office? Perhaps investigation into 1870s printing technology would shed some light (or at least eliminate possible explanations).

* Did he have a model? A gigantic creepy cockroach of dubious geometry, perhaps?

Descriptive demons

I skimmed a letter from Sarah to Helen (niece and wife, I believe), and almost described it as “gossip.” Which is not untrue, but such a dismissive term; using it—especially in what is already an overwhelmingly male-dominated context—would feel like ovarian betrayal. I said “interpersonal news” instead.

Labels and folders are, currently, precious. I resisted the temptation to leave uncorrected a physical label and AT entry dated March 21, 1874. It’s clearly the 31st—clearly written on the page, and clear from the scope and contents note in AT that it’s the same letter. I am sort of proud of myself, but at the same time recognize I’m just being anal because any user would’ve easily been able to find the letter even with the minor discrepancy. But somewhere down the line maybe it means one fewer snarky footnote about misdated materials.

I studiously ignore the semicolons at the end of item titles. This is presumably an artifact of importation from Access. (Although other fields, like date expression, lack deliminiting characters, and you’d really hope they’d pick something a bit less fraught, at least a carrot. I have not yet asked Access to talk to AT.) I cleaned up the Frazer collection manually, because it’s small. LeConte requires either an automated clean up or someone far more anal and masochistic than me. I don’t fret about the persistent “Le Conte” or inconsistent rendering of dates (though I think about both). Nor have I worried my head about accent marks (another presumable side effect of importation), except on the labels I type up myself. “Lacordaire, The#odore” is eminently human readable.