Q&A: A treasure trove of archives

A conversation with Betsy McGinnity

Betsy McGinnity headshot.

Betsy McGinnity, director of training and educational resources

In a climate-controlled room on Perkins’ campus lies a treasure trove of artifacts that chronicles the school’s history of teaching children who are blind. Thanks to a grant Perkins received two years ago from the National Endowment for Humanities to assess the collection’s 19th century items, the public can now visit Perkinsarchives.org to view high-resolution images of everything from Henry David Thoreau’s job application to correspondence between Mark Twain and Helen Keller. Perspectives sat down with Betsy McGinnity, director of Perkins Training and Educational Resources and overseer of the archives, to talk about what’s new with what’s old.

What is the archives’ purpose?

As the first school for the blind in the U.S., we’ve always had a sense of history. Since we thought what we were doing was important, we kept recording and collecting it. But until we got the grant, we didn’t have the resources to organize our collection.

What kinds of items are in the archives?

Most of our content is paper, fascinating stuff: correspondence from our first director, letters incoming and outgoing, beautifully handwritten. There’s a book from 1648 on how to educate people who are deafblind, and a budget analysis from the 1920s and ’30s with numbers of staff and salaries. We have handwritten letters from a young Helen Keller to Michael Anagnos, our director at the time.

Our 19th century stuff is the jewel of our collection. Phrenology (a 19th century pseudoscience that linked skull shape to personality) was a big thing at the time; we actually have an (artificial) brain in the museum that’s numbered. There are beautiful machines, old braille writers.

Do you continue to find new items?

One time Molly (our archivist) was unpacking a box and in there was an original correspondence from Helen Keller we didn’t know we had. We’ve recently come across one of the earliest typewritten letters, from the inventor of the prototype typewriter, trying to sell this new technology to Perkins. Our early directors were packrats.

What items are most popular?

Anything to do with Helen Keller, and items connected to the history of educating the blind. Photos are popular. And our cast of (first deafblind student) Laura Bridgman’s brain.

Do you have a favorite item?

There are so many things, I’m hard pressed to name just one. But there was a fundraising campaign that started around the time of the rubella epidemic of the 1960s, Children of the Silent Night, which chronicled the stories of children who were deafblind. One of our employees came to me recently and asked about it – it turns out she was one of the babies profiled.

What’s next for the archives?

We’re working to digitize the entire collection; (Perkins President) Steven Rothstein was the catalyst for this. Perkins has a unique collection that has importance to all kinds of people, and this will make it accessible to everyone.