The Home Archivist – Getting My Hands Dirty

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Home-Archivist-300x170 2By Jessica Dunkin

In the last Home Archivist post, I described how I came to be in possession of a box of nineteenth-century letters. In this post, I open the box again for the first time.

When the MacKendrick letters arrived at my house in early August, they were quickly shuttled into the basement and I assumed that they would stay there for a few weeks, if not a few months. An unexpected illness, however, found me home alone for the last two and a half weeks of the summer. Not feeling well enough to tackle more pressing tasks, I decided to have a look at the letters. Those of you that follow me on Twitter will know that it proved to be an enchanting experience.

After gathering together the necessary supplies (folders, archival boxes, pencils, camera, etc.), I relocated the dusty, smoke-scarred box from the basement to the dining room table, the largest work surface in the house. I had spent quite a bit of time thinking about how I would set about working with the letters. In the end, my approach was simple. I opened the box and began to remove the contents, placing each bundle on the table. I took pictures of each layer, so that I would have a record of the box’s organization. Even before I started thinking more seriously about archival practice, I knew that the original order of a collection is important, not least because it is suggestive of how the collection’s creator, in this case Amelia or John MacKendrick, imagined the documents and their connection to one another.

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For the most part, the letters, which were addressed to or penned by John or Amelia, were bundled together by year. Graying string or twine held together stacks of 20 to 50 letters. Some of the bundles were marked with pen or pencil crayon indicating a year, e.g. 1894. Later, as I opened the bundles, I discovered that most were more mixed than they first appeared. The 1897 bundle, for example, included letters from 1891, 1895, and 1896. Not all of the letters were in bundles. An old shoebox containing loose letters sat at the top of the box; these letters span the period between1888 and 1903, although most are from 1890 and 1891, when Amelia and John were courting. There were also a handful of smaller unbundled piles of letters. These may have always been loose, or they may have come undone with time.

With stacks of musty letters spread around the table, I had come to the end of my plan. Now what? Like any good scholar, I turned to Google. Much of the material I found online was concerned with archival theory rather than archival practice. One of the more relevant documents I encountered was A Manual for Small Archives(1994), a guide produced by the Archives Association of British Columbia (AABC) “to help persons in small archives, with limited access to training, few employees, and restricted finances and time.”

The general instructions for processing textual documents seemed simple enough. Open the bundles, extract the letters from their envelopes one-by-one, remove any metal bits (I have only encountered one pin to date holding together invoices for canned foods), and carefully unfold the letters, flattening them out along with their envelopes. A brief aside, while I was debating what to do with the bundles, I received a tweet from @HistoryLecturer: “Do you have to untie the knots, or may you cut the string?” This was not something that I had contemplated, and I was prepared to contact the family to ask (there was no direction in the AABC manual). Thankfully, the bows were still functional and the strings came apart relatively easily.

More daunting were the conservation instructions, especially given how filthy the letters were. The manual encouraged me to dust “loose surface dirt” with a small paintbrush and remove “any smudges or stains with an art gum eraser.” A number of the letters have stains from flowers or other plant bits included in the envelopes. The majority also bear testament to the fire they survived while in storage in the MacKendrick family home in Galt, Ontario, their edges darkened by smoke. I chose not to remove smudges or stains. I like the idea that the letters retain their historicity, that is, their physical make-up tells us something of their past. According to Cathleen Barker, I am not alone in that sentiment. In From the Hand to the Machine,she writes, “As artifacts age, they undergo changes that are important components of their history. Therefore, to preserve this evidence, as long as the stability of the artifact is not compromised, paper-borne artifacts should not be subjected to invasive conservation treatments and certainly not to restoration procedures.”

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It seemed prudent to clean the letters, though. According to Barker, surface dirt and dust if left in place can cause abrasion, while dust alone invites humidity “creating potential sites for mildew and mold growth.” I hunted around in the craft drawer unsuccessfully for a paintbrush. In the end, I substituted a pipe cleaner, although after a few minutes trying to use the pipe cleaner, I realized that I was unlikely to finish processing the hundreds of letters laid out before me at that rate. I decided instead to use cloth cut from well worn cotton t-shirts.

The system that I established looked something like this. Take a letter from the top of the shoebox or bundle, tip it over a plastic bag and gently dust the larger debris from the surface of the envelope into the bag using cloth number one. Then gently wipe the surfaces of the envelope with a second cloth. Once clean(ish), remove the letter from the envelope and repeat this process with the inside of the envelope and the letter itself. I should note that this system worked because the vast majority of the letters were in very good condition. Most were written on good quality paper that had withstood the test of time. Only a few letters were on newsprint or tracing paper. These I put to the side, as well as bundles and letters obviously affected by smoke and mold.

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Once the letter was clean, I placed it on top of its envelope in an acid-free folder. Recognizing that the envelopes would provide me with information about the correspondents and date should the letters themselves not do so, I wanted to keep the two documents together. Simply placing them on top of one another was a temporary solution, as I had yet to find Plastiklips and I knew not to use metal or rubber-covered paper clips (both will eventually break down and damage the pages they hold together). Depending on the thickness of the letters and the dates, I typically put between three and ten letters in each folder.

In an effort to preserve the original order (discussion of the final organization of the letters will be reserved for a future post), I indicated on the folder labels if the letters therein were from the shoebox, a bundle, or were loose. I also noted the year of the letter on the folder. If the year of the letter was different than the reference on the bundle, I made note of this. I also made note of any special details such as the presence of a dried flower or a letter that was stuck in its envelope.

In the spring, I had an opportunity to visit the Library and Archives Canada Preservation Centre in Gatineau. As our group passed through the textual documents lab, I noticed a technician laying out letters page-by-page onto large sheets of very thick paper. Once the sheet was covered, she placed another over top and repeated the process. I presume that the large sheets were then placed in a press. In an ideal world, I would have done the same so that each of the letters would have been subject to the same amount of pressure. As I did not have the luxury of a second dining room table, I was limited to placing the letters in folders and then placing the folders between editions of the Catholic Encyclopaedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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I processed roughly half of the collection this way. Having done more reading in the interim, I am a bit uncomfortable about some aspects of my initial practice. For instance, I wonder about the consequences of wiping dirt and dust, both abrasives according to Barker, across the surface of the letters. I am slated to speak with a conservator from the Canadian Conservation Institute for my next post on “problem letters,” including letters that were unopened, that were stuck in their envelopes, or that were damaged. I will be sure to ask about general processing practices, in addition to working with more fragile documents.

In this first stage of processing the MacKendrick collection, I focused my attention on opening, cleaning, and flattening the letters. I couldn’t help, however, but occasionally be drawn into the letters themselves and by extension into the lives of Amelia and John. I leave you with portions of two letters written to John by his former pupils in the early 1880s that put a smile on my face when I was tiring of the dirt and dust. More of these to follow…

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Jessica Dunkin is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University. Her doctoral dissertation, “Canoes and Canvas: The Social and Spatial Politics of Sport/Leisure in Late Nineteenth Century North America” (Carleton University, 2012), explored the annual encampments and regattas of the ACA from 1880 to 1910.In addition to working with the MacKendrick letters, Jessica is researching physical activity programming for urban working-class women in Canada in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. You can follow her on Twitter at @dunkin_jess.

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