Processing collections is one the best parts of working in archives. Even as a student intern, fresh faced from Simmons College’s archival program, I was able to spend time with old, delicate, and relevant materials that would otherwise lie beyond my reach. I worked with two collections during my time here: the Printed Ephemera collection, and the Blindness in Popular Fiction and Nonfiction collection.
The Printed Ephemera was a unique collection to work with, because it hardly contained the traditional, administrative materials that one would expect in institutional archives. Besides a few memos and receipts, my boxes mostly contained invitations, holiday cards, calendars, or event programs for all sorts of Perkins events in the 1950s. But while organizing together blank stationary and unused tickets, I began to ask myself what the relevance of this collection was: why would anyone look at this?
The historian in me responded with many answers. On the level of inquiry and research, this collection could help color the history of the public life of Perkins. What sorts of events did they promote and for whom? Many of promotional mailings were sent on behalf of the deafblind students at Perkins as part of the “Children of the Silent Night” campaign, which skyrocketed the resources of deafblind program and, along with Helen Keller’s celebrity, garnered a great deal of attention for the school’s mission. On the other end of the spectrum, Perkins’ regular and annual events, such as the open houses or Christmas concerts, could demonstrate for the community the happy realities and potentials of visual impairment, countering cold popular sentiments which, in part due to these public events, have grown warmer since 1950.
But beyond these half-baked theses, this collection can offer a more personal touch to the viewer with a sentimental connection. At one point while processing, I held the program for the 1956 Christmas concert. There followed a madeleine moment: lost in my own memory, I recalled my grandmother telling me long ago that she would go to Perkins’ Christmas concerts with friends, and once or twice, with my dad and uncle as small children. Half-eerie, but still somehow it felt like destiny, I realized that she was there for all these concerts, contributing to the cause and resources of the school. And here I am, seventy years later, making sure that this history can be remembered.
My second collection, the Blindness in Popular Fiction and Nonfiction clippings, felt much more immediately relevant. And, at first glance, it looked much cooler. But, at a second glance, it looked in desperate need of attention: two boxes, stuffed full of old, yellowing, crumbling clippings, with little information available about where these came from or what they are. Thankfully, after unpacking the first box, I found that the last person who shut the lid had (loosely) ordered these clippings chronologically, starting in 1735 with a “folder” (a folded piece of printer paper) filled for every year until 1984. With this organization already in place, half my job was done! But if a glossy Cosmo cover from 1984 hugs this delicate clipping from 1735 for much longer, the other half of my job won’t exist anymore.
It’s unclear how long these clippings lived in these boxes, bedfellows with each other in makeshift folders of acidic paper. Many were yellowing or fringed, but everything was safe, or at least salvageable. While moving the most delicate items into new and proper archival folders, I removed tape, rubber-bands, paperclips, staples, and in a moment of archival hazard, a rusty pin that had pricked my finger. But none of this material was damaged beyond beauty. Cloth newspapers from 1808 still felt soft; the mastheads and cover pages retained their power to grasp your attention; and the myriad of advertisements brought home the bourgeoning consumerism of early America. Since I found these materials, especially those from the 18th and 19th centuries, to be so interesting in both physicality and content, I went into detail describing and caring for each item. The Best Practices for archives with a significant backlog (every archives) is to focus on broad levels of organization usually at the folder level, and eschew the time-sink of item level descriptions. But when the items are so interesting, good luck telling an archivist not to take their time.
It was only halfway through rehousing this collection that I realized what it was. Along the lines of the Magazine Files at the Hayes Research library here at Perkins, which contains photocopies of articles related to blindness published long before the founding of the school and through on to today, this collection seemed to be mostly fiction about blind characters. Of course, no collection can be so nicely homogenous, and many nonfiction articles also found their way into these boxes. But the distinction hardly matters here, because (as my inner historian sees it) the main filament in this collection is the discourse and language used to discuss blindness and visual impairment throughout history. Exactly the sentiments that the 1950s Perkins events were trying remedy, these clippings document unsavory attitudes and illustrate demeaning conceptions about diabilities that prevailed that the time. These might not be the stories you enjoy reading today, but they are necessary to remember. Otherwise, it might be easy to slip back into dated and thoughtless language.
Clearly, I enjoyed working with these collections, unique and singular as they are. But it takes me to a new level to see them in context with other items of Perkins history, and to witness their uses and interpretations beyond their first creation. Archives can be magical places of history, memory, and reality, especially in as rich and thoughtful of a place as Perkins.