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