The Archives at Perkins

Archivists Jen Hale and Susanna Coit discuss the Perkins Archives.

Aired Date: September 24, 2019

In this interview, Perkins archivists Susanna Coit and Jen Hale discuss the role and collections of the Perkins Archives.


Valerie: Hello and welcome to Perkins eLearning to Go. Each week, our hope is to provide you with an inside look at special education topics– in particular, visual impairment.

Through a series of interviews with leaders in the field and a fresh look at our webcast series, we know you will learn something new when you are on the go. Now it’s time to sit back, relax, and let’s hear what this week’s podcast is all about.

Welcome to Perkins eLearning to Go. This is Valerie. The Archives Department at Perkins is a bit like a theme park for someone who is a historian.

Within the depths of the archive room, one can expect to see artwork, sculptures, and many hints at what life was like in the way back when. There’s even a rock. Jen Hale and Susanna Coit are Perkins School for the Blind archivists. Both ladies are graduates from Simmons University and both started at Perkins as interns in the Archives Department.

I find this department fascinating with all kinds of interesting treasures and asked if they wouldn’t mind coming onto the podcast to discuss the archive’s ins and outs and explain the rock.

Susanna and Jen, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate you coming down.

Susanna: Thanks for having us.

Valerie: So Susanna, could you tell us more about what the Archives do? How to get the items that you process for cataloging them?

Susanna: So we collect, preserve, and share items about Perkins’ history, as well as the history of the education for the blind. We get items donated from inside the Perkins community most frequently. But also we sometimes get donations from people who are not connected to Perkins at all.

When something is received in the archives, we start by creating what’s called an accession record, which helps us keep track of where it came from, what it is, and what our plans are for that item or collection. Provenance– which is basically where something came from or information about the ownership– is a fundamental principle in archives. So this is a really important step.

Jen, what do we do next?

Jen: Once we have all this important information documented, the next step is to process the collection– which I think is one of the most fun parts of being an archivist. And the first step to that would be that you would look at everything you have and really try to take in what it is you, have what’s the history behind it.

And then you’re going to decide if you’re going to keep it in the same order you got it in or you’re going to rearrange it. Generally speaking, as an archivist, you never want to rearrange materials, because that organization is going to tell you about the person who collected it, the organization that collected it.

However, in many instances, you’re going to get stuff that was added to and taken away by different people many times over the years. So it’s just a mess. These are artificial collections. And a lot of our collections are like that. They’re just this grouping of things and they’re out of order. So we will put them in an order that makes sense for people looking for them, put them in order, or left them as is.

You’re going to put them in archival housing. And make sure they’re safe– folders and boxes– and then you’re going to create a finding aid, which is just fancy words for a guide to the collection. So if you’re looking for something in the collection– you want to know if we have it, or you want to request a research visit– you would go to this document. And you would be able to see what was in the collection.

Valerie: Sort of like the Dewey Decimal system for archives.

Jen: Yes, but the difference here, really, is in a library, you’re going to catalog everything. And in an archive, you can’t. There’s just too much. And we want to get it as accessible as soon as possible as we can. So we’re going to do it in groups.

So correspondence by so-and-so from these years– it’s really about thinking about how to group things efficiently so people can find them. But also we’re not– we don’t have the time or money to write down every little item. And it would be hard to navigate something that big.

Valerie: But Susanna mentioned you determine what do you want to do with it later– or the purpose of it?

Susanna: Yes, so when we get a collection, we try to anticipate how it might be used and what the value is to our users and researchers so that we can determine what the value would be.

And we look at how we might process it. Are we going to do it as one big collection or break it into smaller collections? Or what level of description are we going to do? So there’s folder level, item level, box level. So we consider that when we receive the collection.

Valerie: Certainly a letter or a photo might be used in a college term paper or report for its purpose. I do know you also have artwork. So is that something somebody might borrow for an event? Or what is its purpose?

Susanna: So one of the fundamental differences between a library and an archive is that an archive doesn’t lend out materials. And you can’t really go into an archive and browse like you might browse a shelf in a library. So when people want to use our materials, they come to the archive and go — use the materials on site. So they can’t borrow them like that.

We do have– a lot of our artwork is digitized so it can be viewed online. And people can access it that way.

Valerie: So how long has Perkins had an Archive Department?

Susanna: The archive was started as a project that was funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant in 2011 by Charlotte Cushman. The project– she really focused on making materials available digitally and worked with the Boston Public Library to get that done.

She also created a basic website so that the Archives had an online presence, and really made people in the Perkins community and outside more aware of what we had. She was so successful and demonstrated the value of having that presence, that it became a permanent project and her work was continued by the second archivist, Molly Stothert-Maurer.

Valerie: Her name keeps popping up– Charlotte’s name– in these podcasts. I think it’s the third time She’s just amazing. She’s done a lot.

Susanna: She’s done a lot. She is a trained archivist. So she’s done everything, I think.

Jen: Our predecessors, I think, did such a wonderful job that today Susanna and I are really providing access to collections nationally, internationally. But also within the school, we have this presence that we didn’t have before– that we’re much more part of the school and events and conversations.

And rather than just providing old photos for marketing, I feel like we’ve really integrated into the school. And we’ve been used to cheerlead staff and really talk about– or remind people that they are part of Perkins’ history. And this is the amazing history we have.

And I think we’ve had the most wonderful reactions from staff people we didn’t know. People we maybe don’t talk to a lot on campus in various departments come up to us and respond to a story about a staff member in 1888 who isn’t famous but had a wonderful life story.

Valerie: And so this is– in the grand scheme of the history of this school– this is a relatively new– the archive is relatively new.

Susanna: Yeah, especially in the grand scheme of things. 2011 is very recent in Perkins’ history.

Valerie: What happened to these items prior to the Archive Department?

Susanna: So Perkins staff– especially the research librarians– have always– or seemed to have always– recognized the importance of the work that Perkins is doing. So they have always kept records. We have correspondence to and from our early directors. And they had that correspondence bound.

Ken Stuckey, who was the research librarian from 1965 until 1998, kept everything. So Laura Bridgman’s teachers kept journals about their teaching methods. We have a complete run of our annual reports, so every department and aspect of Perkins has always kept the stuff that they have worked on.

In 2011, however, the process became more formalized. Jan Seymour Ford, who was the research librarian at Perkins from 2001 to 2015, took it upon herself to create an inventory of what was actually in the Archives– which was no small project.

Jen: I guess I’ll just interject a little bit to say that even though everybody did sort of save everything, there is evidence that we — the second director– had to send correspondence to other schools to ask for missing annual reports, and that we do have some framed document that basically says– kind of acknowledges in the late 1800s– that we are no longer lending things out the way we did.

So while we kept everything, we had a very open policy, I think, about lending. And so at some point, there was efforts to replace things that we didn’t have– like the annual reports.

Valerie: So the reports– they decided back in the 1800s, they weren’t going to share any longer?

Jen: Well, they decided they needed to make sure that we have a collection that doesn’t leave the building.

Valerie: So that’s pretty– I don’t know– forward-thinking, I would think, for the 1800s– to think about the future that far in advance, that we were really going to need this later.

Susanna: We actually have, in our collection, annual reports from other schools for the blind across the country and internationally. And there have been times where those schools or institutions have contacted us to get copies of those annual reports. And we’ve digitized most of them so we can send them to the link so that they have a digital copy. But that is a demonstration of how our records– while we’re missing some things– are serving other institutions historically.

Jen: I think it’s very normal too– as time goes by, there’s space issues or there’s new policies. And there’s the history-lovers and the savers, and then there’s people that need space, or need to move something out.

So I think all institutions deal with this issue where you need to later on have access to something that you should have but you don’t. And I think there’s a very nice camaraderie. There’s a nice goodwill gestures. And I think digital access now makes that possible to share things in a way that maybe you couldn’t and provide access.

So we were lucky that before digital, we had people trying to help fill those holes for us.

Valerie: Yeah, and now, like you said, because it’s digitized, it’s just so much easier, that you don’t necessarily have to worry about the actual book coming back.

Jen: Oh, absolutely.

Valerie: They just look at it and, OK.

Jen: And we don’t have somebody flipping through the pages. We don’t have to worry about the binding. Somebody can zoom in. They can print it out. They can– I guess, it’s in a way, more accessible, because you’re not worried about the damage you’re doing to the book.

Valerie: So this is my favorite question to ask is, what is the most unusual item that is in the collection?

Susanna: That’s a tough and really fun question. We have a rock from Laura Bridgman’s house in New Hampshire– from the yard of her house in New Hampshire. And we’re not really sure how this might help a researcher. But it’s in our collection. And it’s available.

In terms of uniqueness, my favorite item is probably Helen Keller’s first writing sample and some very early embossed books.

Valerie: How about you, Jen?

Jen: I think the most unusual is a plaster cast of Laura Bridgman’s brain. Laura Bridgman was considered the first person who was deafblind to be formally educated. And the methods that were used to teach her were used to teach Anne Sullivan, who taught Helen Keller.

And she’s been sadly overshadowed by Helen Keller. She’s a very important part of our history. And she was also incredibly intelligent. And at the time she died and before that, phrenology was a science– an accepted science. Our director believed in that.

And the reason we have that is because it was used for phrenology study, which is a pretty ugly part of history. But what I really like about it is it speaks to, I guess, during this time and prior to this time, there’s an assumption that if you cannot see, then you don’t have intelligence.

And I think this object really represents the question do you? And trying to understand why somebody like her was so intelligent– and how could she learn? And how could she be a part of this world when she can’t see or hear? So, yeah. I think it’s a really kind of macabre object, but really fascinating, and tells a really interesting story.

Valerie: Now, I know many people might not know, we have a Tactile Room at Perkins in the Howe building for the kids to go and to be able to feel what a goose feels like. Are those part of Archive?

Jen: No.

Valerie: OK.


Jen: They may at some times be part of that. There is once in a while a little overlap. But for the most part, if it can be used for students, that’s where it lives.

Valerie: OK.

Jen: So the WPA– beautiful, beautiful models– we have blueprints for those. We have mentions of them in annual reports and lanterns. So we handle that part of it.

But I think it’s really wonderful that it’s still used. And it’s really fun to identify those things– those taxidermies or those objects– in photographs of the past. And that we still have them, we still use them, I think is really special.

Valerie: Well, it’s very unique to– not even for a child who can’t see, but for any kid– to be able to go in and, oh, this is what a wolf– when are you going to be able to pet a wolf? Hopefully never. But you’re not going to– you don’t have that opportunity usually in life to be able to see those animals even live and in person.

Susanna: I think it’s a great example of how making things more accessible benefits everyone– because you’re right, I have never pet a wolf except for in the Tactile Museum. And, like Jen said, it’s really fun when we find photographs from the ’30s of, for example, a theater production that has the swan in the photograph. And we can go down the hallway and the swan is still there.

Valerie: That’s interesting. I think it’s really neat how everyone was thoughtful when using these items or cataloging or really forward-thinking, to preserve the history.

Now I know you started a new project. So you’re collecting oral history from some of the former and present employees at Perkins. Can you give a sneak peek about what we’ll hear from this? What’s the process for this?

Susanna: Sure. So we’re talking to people about their experiences at Perkins. You can expect to hear stories about how Perkins has changed over time and how it stayed the same, and what people have done at Perkins, how Perkins has affected their lives. There are some good stories.

Jen: We’ve actually done oral histories in the past. We have a collection online right now from 2004 of alumni and staff that’s pretty great to listen to. I think the real push for it this time was realizing that people were retiring, people were passing away.

And when we would attend those parties or read about them, you’re realizing that somebody had all these amazing stories that we never got to hear in person. So we’re making a concerted effort to try to get as much from staff as we can right now and expand it to alumni, to their families. Many families of people grew up on this campus. We’re trying to make it a regular program so that we’re doing these on kind of a scheduled basis.

Valerie: I think it’s a great idea that you have to do this because you’re right. I mean, there’s all these neat little stories that you can’t read about in a history book, you’re not going to have in the archives, but you do now. Unless it was in like a personal letter, you’re not going to hear how Billy bobbed for apples. You know, it’s just not going to be there. So to have this is fantastic.

Jen: Well, I think Perkins is so unique because people have worked here for 50 years. People have had their fathers and mothers work here. And now they work here. And I think it’s really important to collect personal stories and to collect those experiences. And most institutions that are academic, you want student life experiences. I mean, it’s nice to know so-and-so graduated at what year. But those special stories from the oral histories we have now, it’s meant a lot to people.

They have very fond memories– good and bad. It’s really interesting to hear what it was like to live here, what it was like to go to school here, or teach here, if you lived on campus and you were a teacher. Yeah, I always learn something new every day. And I think we need to try to capture– record that, document it.

Valerie: Yeah, definitely. If I wanted to learn more about the Archives or contact you to maybe use something from the Archives, how would I go about doing that?

Susanna: So people can learn more about the Archives and view all of our digital collections on our website And they can also follow us on our Instagram account @PerkinsArchives.

Jen: We have a newsletter that goes out quarterly. And this has everything from newly processed collections, new digital collections, special projects– really anything that we’ve been working on that quarter.

We also have all the blog posts that we do. And those I think are another fantastic way to learn about the archives in a more personal, informal way. Those are either parts of history we found interesting, or people we found interesting, objects– sometimes it’s really strange and odd preservation issues that maybe we want to show everybody.

But I think that’s another fun way to keep in touch with us and see what we’re doing. Oh– one of the projects we’ve been working on besides oral histories is preserving our vast film collection. And we recently were able to digitize and make accessible Deafblind Circus, which was produced in 1969.

And it is sort of a little nice window into an event they held here Perkins for the community where children in the Deafblind program created the circus. They dressed up. They helped do the props– the students and staff– and they put on a circus.

And it really was supposed to help show what these kids were capable of and how important interaction with the community is. It’s in color. It’s got sound. It’s so much fun to see the kids in costumes. And you can download a transcript. It’s audio-described and close-captioned.

Valerie: And you’re bringing history to life.

Jen: Yes. Yes, and we are working to get all of our Perkins-produced films up on that web page and get them accessible.

Valerie: Thank you, Susanna and Jen, for coming down. I appreciate it. This is a lot of fun.

Susanna: Thank you, Val. It was fun.

Jen: Thank you for having us.

Valerie: Thank you for listening to today’s podcast, I also would like to thank my guests, Susanna and Jen, for coming down and sharing their archive stories with us. If you are interested in learning more about the Archives, you can visit their website at And you can see some of the collection on their Instagram account, which is My personal favorite is the bicycle built for 11. Thank you so much.


A black and white portrait of Dr. Edward E. Allen. He stands, wearing a white shirt and striped tie under a very dark suit and vest. Allen's hands are in his coat pockets. He has a greying beard and stares at the camera. There is a blurry diamond-shaped pattern in the background. Circa 1910.

Centenary Address by Dr. Edward E. Allen

View of Girl's Close residential cottages with walkway lined with brick buildings on both sides with the Howe Building Tower behind.

The Perkins Bells: Sounds and history

Portrait painting of John Dix Fisher circa 1840

Dr. John Dix Fisher