Sunday, October 06, 2013

Tour of Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Thomas Edison National Historical Park Entrance


You might remember my nephew Tyler from other adventures we've had -- a Famous Fat Dave's food tour of NYC and a special food tour of our own devising. Tyler's now in the undergraduate engineering program at Rutgers University. With that in mind, I asked him if he would be interested in visiting the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange. "I'm all in!" he replied.

I quickly contacted the Park's archivist, Leonard DeGraaf, who very kindly made space in his schedule to give us a tour and show us some of archive's treasures. The tour was one of the most fun and interesting archives tours I've had -- not only due to DeGraaf's depth of knowledge and generosity, but also because Tyler had a great time learning about Edison and why archives are important to researchers and the public at large (from someone other than his Auntie Deb).

The big surprise came at the end of our tour when we sat down in the archive reading room to see some of the treasures DeGraaf had set aside to show us. Not only did we see some remarkable examples of Edison's documentation, but we learned that DeGraaf was about to publish a book! Since our visit, the book has been published (with a Forward by Bill Gates, no less), and it is called Edison and the Rise of Innovation. DeGraaf very kindly gave me select portions of the book which whet my appetite to read the entire text. The photos are beautiful, and the text is very well written.

About the Archivist

Leonard DeGraaf has just celebrated his 12th year as an archivist at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park's archives. DeGraaf says he became an archivist "because I enjoy working with original documents and making them available to researchers."

In addition to publishing his new book, his current project is arranging Edison's correspondence files for the years 1920-1931. Because the inventor was so connected to his businesses and interested in what the general public had to say about products, I can only imagine the linear footage dedicated to those correspondence files.

As archivists, most of us love what we do. DeGraaf is no exception. "I enjoy the diversity of archival work -- processing documents, writing finding aids, answering reference questions. I also enjoy learning new things. Edison was involved in so many different activities -- there is always something new to learn," he says. But as with any profession, ours comes with inherent challenges, mainly concerning storage space. At the Park, DeGraaf concurs, "lack of proper storage space to protect the collections is our biggest challenge."

When I asked DeGraaf what advice he would give a student or young professional, he replied,
I would advise students and young professionals to look for meaningful volunteer opportunities at cultural institutions and take advantage of free or low-cost training opportunities. Libraries, museums, and archives often offer workshops – a great way to learn new skills and meet other professionals. Anything you can do to enhance your writing and public speaking abilities – two important career skills – will also make you more competitive.

About the Archives and Collections at Thomas Edison National Historical Park

One of the most remarkable things about the Park is that "most of it is left as it was when Edison was here," says DeGraaf. The U.S. Congress designated Thomas Edison’s West Orange laboratory and nearby estate, Glenmont, as Edison National Historic Site in September 1962. In 2009, the lab and Glenmont were re-designated Thomas Edison National Historical Park.

The archive houses 5-6 million pages of material. While the Park has 29 full-time staffers, only two are archivists. The Park's patrons run the gamut from students and academics to all manner of media, park staff, and the general public. As far as the archive goes, most of its patrons contact the archivists by email or telephone. DeGraaf and his colleague respond to 800-1000 reference requests per year.

"Because Edison employed thousands of workers in his factories, we receive many requests from people doing family or genealogical research," DeGraaf clarifies. There are no personnel files, but there are payroll records. However, those records are not yet indexed or digitized (sounds like a volunteer opportunity to me).

Among the unsung heroes of the collection are Edison's business and financial records. Two examples are shown below.

The experimental accounts in particular are valuable because they give a snapshot of the work in the lab on a given experiment. Was is profitable? If not, why not? These are the relevant questions that researchers can answer by looking at the notebooks and account books. DeGraaf says, "We need more research on the operation of Edison's companies to understand why they succeeded or failed."

Another fascinating, but underutilized part of the archive "are the many letters Edison received from the public on a wide variety of topics. These letters offer an opportunity to study social attitudes about technology and invention in the early 20th century," says DeGraaf. 

Eighty of the collections have been processed, and he notes that while finding aids are sent out at request, the Park does need a way for researches to access a guide to the archives. Meanwhile "the Thomas Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University has published material from the Edison archives for the period up to 1919. Of this published material, documents for the period up to 1898 have been digitized and are available at the Edison Papers Project website:," says DeGraaf.

In terms of use, the Park's collection of 60,000 historic photographs is the most popular. For example, here is one of the man himself that DeGraaf kindly sent me. Edison is sitting at the desk that still resides in library shown in the photo of DeGraaf.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park.
While the archival collection is mostly paper-based, the museum collection contains 400,000 objects and 35,000 sound recordings on disc and cylinder formats. When Tyler and I toured the museum, we saw where Edison would audition new musical acts for his recording label.


Tyler in Edison's Music Room
Edison's Music Room

Edison's Music Room

DeGraaf's favorite items are Edison's laboratory notebooks. He says, "They offer an intimate look at how Edison approached invention and provide details about how he designed the phonograph, electric light, and many other laboratory products."

Edison's communal lab notebook, 1880, Experiment No. 1.
It is especially illuminating to see the shared research and meticulous data collected at the laboratory. It is even more profound to discover the impact all this work had on the world. DeGraaf's new book points out the monumental affect Edison's labs had:
When he was born in 1847, there were no industrial research laboratories, no phonographs, no motion picture cameras, and no electric power systems, let alone practical electric lights. In 1931, the year Edison died, the United States produced 320 lightbulbs and consumed 110.4 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. Seventy-five million Americans attended the movies each week, spending $719 million ($10.6 billion today) at the box office.
When the National Parks re-open, I encourage you to tour the museum and outlying buildings. Along with self-guided phone tours, some of the park staff give tours. Also visit Edison's home, Glenmont -- it's a short ride away on a large piece of property that should be especially pretty with the leaves changing now.

The archive is not open to the public, so I appreciate DeGraaf letting a fellow archivist and her nephew have an inside peek at the Thomas Edison National Park's archival collections.

Contact Information

Since National Parks are closed at the moment, I recommend emailing so that any inquiry would be waiting when the furloughed workers return.

Leonard DeGraaf
Thomas Edison National Historical Park
211 Main Street
West Orange, NJ 07052
973-736-0550, ext. 22

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Work Update: Exhibit

“Chester’s ‘Tommie’ Barker – a Year in Professional Women’s Baseball, a Lifetime of Memories” exhibit, Rossney E. Smyth Memorial Display Case, Chester Library, Chester, New Jersey. Photograph © Debra Schiff 2013.

I'll admit it. I'm a bit envious of libraries with multiple display cases and areas dedicated to exhibits. While the image above shows a fine, sizable display case, it's the only one we have at Chester Library.  If we had, perhaps a square museum case, I could place it in that corner all the way in the back by the quiet study rooms. I could outfit the case with one of our not-quite-rare, but certainly scarce, old books. For now, I'll be happy with the one above.

The exhibit shown in the image above is focused on the terrific Tommie Barker, our resident sports legend. She played professional women's baseball in 1950, not long before the end of the All-American Girls' Baseball League. Tommie (whose father wanted a boy and whose real name is Lois) played softball on a team she helped create, the Chester Farmerettes and previously on the Roxbury High School team before the League's tryouts in Irvington, New Jersey.

After earning a spot in the "camp" phase of the tryouts she took several trains to finally arrive in Indiana. Tommie earned her spot as the oldest rookie in the League at age 27, although she fibbed about her age and said she was 21. She was signed to the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Chicks for the 1950 season, and quickly made new friends in her teammates. The framed photo in the upper right corner of the image above shows her team photo.

Because Tommie's items are on loan from her personal collection, she agreed that I could make digital facsimiles of all the materials for a future online exhibit. The yearbook in the center bottom of the case is from the Chester Library collection, although it was a donation from a former Chester resident who wanted it to go to a good home. You can see Tommie in the yearbook on the left page, top-most photo.

When I visited Tommie to talk with her about her life and experience as a professional women's baseball player, I learned that she only played for one year because her father had become ill. "Back in those days," she said, "You had to come home and take care of your parents." When the League mailed her a renewal contract for 1951, she returned it unsigned due to her devotion to her father.

She didn't keep her uniform, but she did hold on to the round sweater patch (on the right) and the shield-shaped uniform patch (on the left). They are in excellent condition, and I placed them on top of some black velvet cut in a way that I hoped would make them pop even more against the light blue background. The blue paper is actually archival wrapping paper which is acid-free and buffered. I thought that it would provide a stable background for the items in the case.

The other framed items include a tinted black and white portrait of Tommie and her certificate from the Baseball Hall of Fame, which had inducted the League in 1998. When I unframed the items to make digital facsimiles, I discovered two other photos in the portrait's frame. First, there was black and white signed portrait of Tommie in the same pose, and a baby picture with three children. When I see Tommie next, I'll ask her about that baby photo.

I used small bench weights to keep the framed items in a tilted standing position, hiding them with other items. For future exhibits, I will likely wrap them in black velvet to make them less noticeable. One of the items used to camouflage the weights is a digital facsimile I received from the Grand Rapids Public Library. It is a copy of a 1950 program from a Grand Rapids Chicks game. The Special Collections librarian at GRPL made a digital copy of a few of the inside pages, including one that shows the team photo. I'll hang onto that one for the online exhibit.

The baseball is held in place by a coiled string weight that you cannot see from above. These types of weights are typically used to hold book pages open. They resemble white shoelaces. Finally, I also used the tilted frames to hide some silica gel packets to help prevent humidity from causing damage to the items.

On top of the case, I used an acrylic stand to hold a list of the items within the case. I hope that it helps to discourage patrons from using the case as a stand for their items. Because the case is currently located between a copier/print station and another copier, I've seen my share of people setting items on top of it.

Last, but far from least, I was able to locate an historian who is an expert on women in baseball for a companion program on July 25. Leslie Heaphy is the author of the Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball, and is an associate professor of history at Kent State University. Tommie Barker has the date on her calendar, and although the 90-year old has had some health challenges, she can't wait for an evening of women's baseball history in her hometown of Chester.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

The Service Side of Being an Archivist and Local History Librarian

Some may characterize library service as being available at the reference desk for appointments, phone calls, email and web requests, and "walk-ins." However, library service is all-encompassing, from the moment a patron enters or contacts a library until (s)he leaves/disconnects. Libraries are places that people trust for their ability to provide answers whether via the reference desk, a book or database, a special collection, or any number of resources, especially the library workers. It is for that reason that I take an holistic approach to library service.

At both of my employing libraries, I regularly work with some terrific volunteers. In Chester, one is a Friend of the library who shares great photos of her husky dog and clips newspaper articles for Local History. She had attended one of my "Caring for Your Family's Treasures" workshops and asked if I might help her with some specific preservation questions concerning some old photos and a Bible. I readily agreed because

1. She asked for my help, and that's what I do...HELP.
2. Preservation isn't work for me, it's fun.
3. I was excited to see what she would bring to my office.
4. The request entailed shopping for archival supplies, and those web sites are my kind of candy stores.

Later, the Friend brought to my office a huge family Bible, cabinet cards, and larger mounted photos all dating from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. The Bible clearly had some binding issues and had been used (as many are) to hold genealogy documents, which had become acidic and fragile. Some of the photos were in better shape than others, however all were notable not only for the sentimental value to the volunteer, but for the subjects' expressions, costumes, and poses. After we measured them, I placed the photos into suitable folders until she could put them into polyester sleeves.

She also asked me to help her select supplies and house the Bible because it was so large. The illustrated family Bible would require a custom sling to help place it inside (and remove it from) the box she would purchase. Typically, a special collections department would purchase a custom drop-front box for such an item, but these types of custom boxes can be cost-prohibitive for many people (such as our volunteer). In her case, I let her know that I would be happy to create a way of working with a box already available in dimensions suitable to her needs.

I guided her to items that she would need for this project. She navigated the University Products site easily and placed her order within an hour of her first showing me the photos. We were able to stay within her budget and begin her early preservation work.

The Friend was very grateful, and her gratitude was contagious. Not two days after our shopping session, she brought to my office the president of another local organization who needed help preserving the group's 20+ scrapbooks. As ever, I was happy to help.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Book Review: The World's Strongest Librarian

In his recently published autobiography, The World's Strongest Librarian, Josh Hanagarne shares his experience navigating life with Tourette Syndrome, how libraries and librarians changed his life, and his understanding of (and some struggles with) the Mormon culture and faith. Josh's great love and admiration for his parents weaves its way throughout the book, especially during times that could try any parent's patience. The book, like Josh's long-standing blog of the same name, is a well-written work that honestly tackles thorough self-examination with a great deal of humor.

It cannot be understated how inspiring and moving this work is. Many books share extraordinary stories of ordinary individuals beating the odds, surviving terrible disasters, and so on. One aspect of this book's appeal is the accessible way Josh explains what seem like monumental challenges with Tourette's. He has a definite voice, and while I would like to say his humor is self-deprecating, it really isn't. It just doesn't come at his expense, and I am glad of it. He pokes fun at funny situations, and I laugh right along with him. Out loud at times.

Another fun (well, fun for those of us who work in public libraries) example of Josh's humor is the use of Dewey Decimal subject headings at the start of each chapter. They provide a concise description of where he would catalog the chapter in his library and a bit of a visual joke. Speaking of the library, I especially enjoy the descriptions of his interactions with patrons at the main branch of the Salt Lake City Library. (If you haven't been, I suggest a visit the next time you're in town as it is an architectural marvel worth exploring.)

From Salt Lake City July 2009

I have been a quiet fan of Josh's writing since 2009, when I first read his unique blog. He provided this blog with an excellent guest post, A World Without Calendars. He's been guest posting in loads of places these days and has been touring the U.S. speaking and signing his book for appreciative audiences. If you have the chance, go see him, especially if he is reading from his book. There's nothing like hearing an author read his or her own work. And, don't forget to pick up a copy of The World's Strongest Librarian.