Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

African American Photograph Album: How to Process?

July 17th, 2017

In order to make manuscript collections available to researchers, we have to describe what we have so they know whether it is of interest or not. Typically archival description provides information about what is in the collection itself, as well as some contextual information to aid researchers in understanding more about why materials may be in the collection—a biographical note or administrative history of the creator of the collection, for example, or information about how Spencer acquired the collection. This additional information may come from the collection itself—the creator handily leaves a copy of their resume in their files, or the organization has created annual reports that provide some historical information about them. It can also come from external sources, such as websites and materials the creator and/or donor provided the curator when transferring the collection to Spencer, including notes the curator took when discussing the collection with the donor.

Sometimes, particularly with photographic collections that have little to no textual material donated with them, processing staff have very little to go on when creating a finding aid to help researchers. Take, for example, a collection of cabinet cards and tintypes that had been assembled into a photograph album. These photographic images are beautiful, posed portraits of African Americans in late 19th-century eastern Kansas—but we have very little external information about these images. We’re not even sure how we acquired this collection, or the story behind the creation of the photograph album. If any portrait is identified with a name, it’s hidden on the back, and we haven’t taken the album page package apart, even if the album overall was disbound due to its severe deterioration.

Photograph of a family group

Family group, circa 1890s? African American Photograph Collection.
Call Number: RH PH 531. Click image to enlarge.

In this kind of situation, we provide what information we can. We can describe simply at the collection-level, or we can attempt to describe at the file or individual item level, but those descriptions will necessarily be generic: “Tintype of a soldier in a Civil War-era uniform.”

Tintype of a soldier in Civil War-era uniform

Tintype of a soldier in a Civil War-era
uniform, circa 1880-1900.
African American Photograph Collection.
Call Number: RH PH 531. Click image to enlarge

We can also provide rough date estimates for when the portraits were made, based upon the clothing worn by the sitters and upon the photographic processes used.

Photograph of an unknown woman

This woman’s overskirt—draped at the back of her dress
helping to create a bustle—tightly-fitted sleeves with cuffs,
and fitted basque-type bodice all indicate her photograph
was probably taken around the mid-1880s. African American Photograph Collection.
Call Number: RH PH 531. Click image to enlarge.

Photographers’ names, often provided on the bottom of cabinet cards and cartes de visite—think about watermarks on professionally-made digital photographs in the 21st century—also provide clues about where and when a collection is from. The photographers found in this collection mostly appear to come from Topeka, Kansas, with some also from Atchison, Lawrence, and perhaps other towns in the eastern part of the state.

Photograph of an unknown woman

The text under the image indicates it was taken by F. F. Mettner,
photographer of Lawrence, Kansas. Also notice the girl’s giant
leg o’mutton sleeves; this style was quite popular in the mid-1890s.
African American Photograph Collection. Call Number: RH PH 531. Click image to enlarge.

There are many decisions that go into processing a collection like this: Do we take apart the individual album pages to see if we can find more identifying information? Do we leave as is because this was how the images were intended to be seen (and who knows if anybody wrote anything on the back anyway)? Do we describe at a detailed level when we cannot provide names, or are we content with providing a simple collection-level description and hope that researchers are able to realize there may be a treasure trove from that collective description?

Photograph of an unknown gentleman

Who is this gentleman? If we knew his name,
what other information could it provide?
African American Photograph Collection.
Call Number: RH PH 531. Click image to enlarge.

No matter what we choose to do, archival description cannot capture the beauty of the women’s and children’s dresses and men’s suits—the sitters no doubt wearing their Sunday finest—the personalities that peek through even these stiffly posed studio portraits, the stories that may be hiding in the pictures themselves.

Photograph of an unknown woman

Portrait of an unknown woman, circa 1880-1900.
Marcella is especially fond of this photograph.
African American Photograph Collection.
Call Number: RH PH 531. Click image to enlarge.

If you have any information about any of these images, or others in the collection, we would be happy to add that information to the finding aid. To request to use the collection, contact Public Services staff at ksrlref@ku.edu. To provide more information about the collection, please also contact our African American Experience field archivist, Deborah Dandridge, at ddandrid@ku.edu.

Marcella Huggard
Manuscript Processing Coordinator

Meet the KSRL Staff: Marcella Huggard

November 30th, 2015

This is the fifth installment in what will be a recurring series of posts introducing readers to the staff of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Joining us in October 2015, Marcella Huggard is Spencer’s newest team member; she’s the Manuscript Processing Coordinator.

Marcella Huggard. Archives Manuscript Coordinator

Marcella Huggard working with materials in the beginning stages of being processed
in what is lovingly referred to as Smaug’s Cave.

Where are you from?

I grew up in Valparaiso, Indiana, which is what I like to call a suburb of a suburb of Chicago. Since then I’ve lived in Illinois, Colorado, and Kansas. My mom is from Topeka so I came to Kansas a lot as a kid for family reunions.

What does your job at Spencer entail?

I’m in charge of coordinating the processing of the unpublished manuscript materials at Spencer. This includes personal papers, diaries, correspondence, business records, organizational records, and a wide variety of other materials that can be found in the personal papers of KU alumni and faculty, the Kansas Collection devoted to regional history mostly dating from 1854-onward, and the Special Collections.

Processing entails arranging and describing these collections of materials in order to make them more easily available to our researchers and to let our patrons know what we actually have. Often we receive collections in a fair amount of disarray, and we have to make order out of chaos—and describe that order—so that our patrons know what we have even before they come in our doors.

How did you come to work in special collections and archives?

I was in my junior year of college and trying to figure out what I wanted to do after college—I knew I didn’t want to teach, but I also wanted to use my history degree. My college’s career center helped me find an internship at a nearby historic house museum, and the following fall I got to do an internship at my college’s archives, among other duties transcribing the 1820s love letters of Eli Farnham, one of the college’s founders, and his future wife. After that kind of introduction to working with historical materials, I was hooked. I worked on my Masters at Colorado State University-Fort Collins, where I was able to concentrate both on museum studies and archives administration in order to broaden my career opportunities.

What is the strangest item you’ve come across in Spencer’s collections?

I haven’t yet gotten to dive too deeply into the collections here—I started working at Spencer in late October—but I did come across an accession document for an inkwell I have yet to track down. I was also just introduced to a mask worn by Moses Gunn in Titus Andronicus.

What part of your job do you like best?

I really enjoy solving problems, and processing archival materials is a series of problem-solving!

What are your favorite pastimes outside of work?

My husband and I love to ballroom dance (not that we’re any good, mind you). I also sing with the Lawrence Civic Choir and a small group of women called Heartland Harmony operating out of Topeka, and I really enjoy trying out new crockpot recipes.

What piece of advice would you offer a researcher walking into Spencer Research Library for the first time?

The advice I offer to any researcher wherever I work that I think applies here at Spencer too is try to touch base with a Public Services staff member before you come—at least start looking at the catalog and finding aids so you have a good idea of what might be available for you to review. Letting our staff know you’re coming before you get here is always a great idea because they can give you lots of great information about what to expect when you arrive and can help you fill out your research requests, streamlining the process when you come to the library so you can dive right in!

Marcella Huggard
Manuscript Processing Coordinator