Sunday, October 12, 2014

Work Updates: The Big Exhibit and a Third Gig

From Plainfield Public Library Detwiller Architectural Drawings Exhibit 2014

The Big Exhibit
Shown above is the terrific Charles H. Detwiller, Jr. Architectural Drawings Collection exhibit at Plainfield Public Library created by Sarah Hull, Senior Archivist and Head of Local History, Special Collections and Genealogy; Jeff Wassen, Visual Materials and Exhibition Coordinator; Jane Thoner, Genealogy Librarian; and Sandy Gurshman, Special Collections and Reference Librarian. My contribution to this impressive display (which covers walls in the main reading room, Plainfield Room, and Meeting Room 2, as well as 4 exhibit cases) took place much earlier during my processing of the collection favorites in 2010 and 2011. The favorites are a small percentage of the now 16,000 sets of architectural drawings that represent each of the Plainfield architects, each type of structure in the city, and the best examples to use for exhibits.

When I took on that project, I applied the condition-reporting techniques I'd learned working at the Zimmerli Museum. My documentation included, among other things, taking measurements of each set and making recommendations for future exhibits. At the time, I didn't know where I would be working when those objects would be displayed, but I did know that the information I collected would be useful at some point. Since beginning his work on the exhibit, Jeff has let me know that my measurements, recommendations, and information slips kept with the rolled blueprints/drawings were helpful in their decision-making process.

From Plainfield Public Library Detwiller Architectural Drawings Exhibit 2014

The exhibit is extraordinary. It covers a wide range of architectural styles from the first building permit in 1896 to mid-century split-levels (the collection itself spans nearly 150 years). There are houses of worship, schools, homes of different types, apartments, stores, and even a drawing of a fancy snack cart for Muhlenberg Hospital. Below is a truly unique example -- a Central Railroad of New Jersey documentation of a train derailment in Cranford from 1924.

From Plainfield Public Library Detwiller Architectural Drawings Exhibit 2014

There are 25 architects' work on display. The archivists and librarians were able to locate information on 11 of them. For example, Col. Evarts J. Tracy, Jr. lived from 1868-1922 and was the great-great grandson of Roger Sherman, who signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Then there was Oscar S. Teale (1848-1927), who wasn't just a Plainfield architect, he moonlighted as a magician known as "Ottilidio," and called Houdini a close friend.

From Plainfield Public Library Detwiller Architectural Drawings Exhibit 2014

While those are notable stories, one of my favorite architects in the collection is Augustus L.C. Marsh (1865-1942). His attention to detail and flourish made his designs and talent famous with the wealthy families of Plainfield, as well as New York City, where he worked at the firm Marsh & Gette until he moved his offices to Plainfield.

From Plainfield Public Library Detwiller Architectural Drawings Exhibit 2014

The great collector and architect Charles H. Detwiller, Jr. (1916-1991) (shown above) saved this collection from certain ruin. As the story goes, Plainfield had been storing all the drawings and blueprints at the Wardlaw School until Wardlaw moved to Edison and the duCret School of Art bought the building. The city would have disposed of all the historical documents had it not been for Charles Detwiller. Son of an architect and father of two architects, Detwiller rented a storage facility for the thousands of sets of plans to save them for future generations until he donated them to the library in 1982.

Detwiller worked on many historical preservation projects including the Drake House in Plainfield, East Jersey Olde Towne in Piscataway, and others along the Atlantic coast. His residential works make up a fair amount of the collection. I've worked with many of the now fragile and acidic sketches of additions and new homes in locations as far flung as Montana (where he designed a fishing library with shelves bolstered by carved wooden fish). He's also the man behind the fancy snack cart I mentioned earlier.

From Plainfield Public Library Detwiller Architectural Drawings Exhibit 2014

I am sorry that I didn't have the opportunity to meet Charles Detwiller. Because I've spent so much time with his collection, as well as his own work, there are questions I wish I could ask him. For instance, what types of concerns arise when you speak with a client about the miniature golf course he wants for his garage (see the image below).

From Plainfield Public Library Detwiller Architectural Drawings Exhibit 2014

The Third Gig
Speaking of Detwiller, he and his wife Catherine also were active members of the Plainfield Historical Society (PHS). Earlier this year, PHS wrote me into a small grant to take a survey of their collection, make recommendations to bring the collections under intellectual and physical control, and do some processing (time permitting). I'm still at PHS one day per week, and very much enjoying the small and large discoveries in the Drake House. The volunteers and staff are lovely people who are dedicated to making the House and its collections more accessible and interesting to its visitors. On many a Sunday, I find much-needed and long missing photos of the House during a pivotal time period or a letter giving more insight into the relationship between a famous spinster and her mentor. Each week, there is an exciting new discovery, and I'm very grateful to be a part of that excitement.

Other Work News
Additionally, I recently celebrated two years as the Local History Librarian at Chester Library. The universe's gift to me on the occasion was to send a wonderful 83-year-old lifelong resident to me with a collection of postcards. It seems to be our trend now to digitize items on loan to us in order to increase their accessibility to our patrons both far and wide. His collection is no different, although this time, I have the great pleasure of video recording our patron talking about his Chester postcards and what the town was like during the 1940s and 1950s. My plan is to post an online exhibit on the postcards (much like this one), and add these short oral histories to each postcard page. I think it will add a wonderful new dimension to experiencing these postcards of Chester.

Our patron also has lent us his collection of The Mendham-Chester Tribune newspapers to digitize. I'm in the process of writing a grant for that project. Those papers add to our current collection of local papers and fill in an important gap -- the 1936-1939 time period. I can't wait to read those papers!

Overall, it's been an exciting time at Chester Library. This week, I give a Genealogy 101 presentation and have another video recording session with our soon-to-be internet sensation. He really is a natural at it. I'll be posting a link to the exhibit here when it's available. Because he has many postcards and we're taking quite a bit of footage, I expect the finished exhibit will be online in early 2015.

Until then, I encourage you to visit the Plainfield Public Library at 800 Park Avenue in Plainfield, NJ to see the remarkable Charles H. Detwiller, Jr. Architectural Drawings Collection exhibit. It will be available for viewing until November.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Tour of the RIT/NTID Deaf Studies Archive

Deaf-Mutes Journal, 1899

Typically, the cultural heritage institutions I've toured aren't directly connected to me, except in terms of my interest in their holdings and archivists/curators. However, the Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute of the Deaf (RIT/NTID) Deaf Studies Archive's collections have a different affect on me.

During my MLIS studies, I took two courses that resonated very deeply with me and influenced the descriptive aspect of my archives work in a large way. The two courses were Human Information Behavior (HIB) and Art Librarianship. In the Art Librarianship course, one assignment was to create an annotated bibliography for a very narrow topic. I love a good annotated bibliography (and a challenge), and I had a very narrow topic from a paper I had written for HIB -- "Information Seeking Behaviors of Deaf Culture Artists."

I don't remember how I came across Deaf Culture Artists, but I thought the artists (and deaf patrons as a whole) might be a vastly under-served group when it came to library services. Both the professors of these courses recommended that I submit the large paper, with the attached bibliography, to Art Documentation, the journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America. I was grateful for the encouragement because the paper was eventually published.

Ameslan Prohibited, Betty G. Miller

During the writing/editing of the published paper, I was in contact with two wonderful members of the Deaf Culture Art community, Dr. Betty G. Miller and Patti Durr. They both were very helpful and gave me a great deal of information on De'VIA and RIT's programs, respectively. When MARAC announced that it was holding the Spring 2014 meeting in Rochester, I knew I had to ask for a tour of the Archive.

About My Hosts, Becky Simmons and Joan Naturale
Becky Simmons, RIT Archivist and Joan Naturale, NTID Reference Librarian were very kind and gracious hosts. Becky provided me with a background on the overall RIT archives, while Joan highlighted collection standouts and explained their cultural importance. Prior to joining RIT, Becky served in multiple positions over 18 years at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. Joan's background includes teaching high school English to deaf students at the Alabama School for the Deaf, serving as English Instructional Specialist for deaf students at Northwestern Connecticut Community College, and Librarian at the Austine School for the Deaf. She also taught American Sign Language and English classes to middle and high school students at Austine. Becky has been at RIT for 11 years, and Joan will celebrate her 15th year in July.

During the tour, Joan also introduced me to Jeanne Behm, RIT American Sign Language & Deaf Studies Community Center Coordinator. You'll meet her later in two videos (below). Both Joan and Jeanne were interpreted by Jonathan Hopkins, NTID Associate Interpreter. 

Becky Simmons, RIT Archivist, with Newby Ely Collection posters featuring deaf characters.

Joan Naturale, NTID Reference Librarian, with Deaf Characters in Films Collection posters featuring deaf characters.

About the RIT/NTID Deaf Studies Archive
The Archive is a subset of the RIT Archive Collections, which also contains the university archives, a substantial art collection, and special collections. According to its web site, the Archive's charge is to document "RIT’s central role in educating the Deaf and hard of hearing in the United States and draws from Rochester's significant Deaf community. The main focus of the archive is Deaf culture, Deaf studies, Deaf education, Deaf theater, Deaf artists and Deafness."

Established in 2006, the Archive includes NTID records, collections by and about Robert Panara (the first deaf faculty member), Harry Lang research files (another longtime NTID faculty member), Deaf Rochester Film Festival records, Student Life tapes, Lights On! Deaf Theater records, Lee Brody TTY Phone Collection, Patti Durr Deaf Holocaust Survivor Interviews and Films, International Archive of Deaf Artists, and many more (follow this link to see the entire list).

Joan says, "The most popular collections are NTID History materials, NTID/Deaf Theater materials, Tripod, Deaf Films Posters, the Panara collections, Lang collections, deaf artwork, the first videophone, Ahira Webster diary, and Deaf during WW II/Holocaust materials." The Archive has 2-3 visitors per week, not counting e-mail and phone inquiries. The types of materials patrons can experience include paper, photographs, artwork, electronic files, and videos.

Of the many items in the Archive, Joan's favorites are "Deaf artwork because many deaf artists express themselves via De’VIA, a unique art form, but there are talented traditional deaf artists as well... Panara collections because he was the first Deaf faculty to teach deaf studies, particularly deaf characters in literature and film, and he is a talented writer/poet and sign artist."

In the video below, Joan uses materials from the Deaf Characters in Film Collection (purchased with library budget funds) to tell me about Charlie Chaplin's deaf actor, Granville Redmond.

She also favors the Lang collections "because of his in-depth research and biographies on influential deaf people in various fields that we didn’t know were deaf such as Ruth Benedict, Dorothy Fisher, etc."

First Videophone used on campus

Other materials that top Joan's list: "The first videophone that was used at NTID for a few years in the late 1960s, which was created by a Rochester company and shows that NTID was innovative and ahead of its time; the deaf survivors of WWII materials; Tripod materials because this was the first bilingual/bicultural school in the U.S. located in the LA area where both deaf and hearing children were taught together using sign language with two teachers also using sign language; and the Ahira Webster diary (from Fredonia, NY) which describes life at the N.Y. State School for the Deaf in Fanwood in the pre Civil War era."

Regarding the Ahira Webster diary, see the video below for Joan's explanation of how it and the newspaper at the top of this post were found.

The video below shows Joan talking to me about Webster's diary itself.

In our email correspondence, Joan told me that that the collection that has had the greatest impact on the patrons is the Deaf Art/Deaf Artists collection. She explains, "Many are attracted to the visual arts and a Deaf Art course is taught on campus. We have a Deaf Union Flag created by a French Deaf artist, Arnaud Balard, which shows a turquoise hand outlined in gold against a dark blue background. The colors have symbolic meanings: turquoise represents sign language and the sky; gold represents knowledge, light, hope, enlightenment and sun; and dark blue represents Deafhood, an individual and collective journey to combat audism and embrace Deaf Gain. Paddy Ladd, who coined the term Deafhood, established the Blue Ribbon ceremony to commemorate deaf people’s experiences around the globe, and this color is used by the organization The World Federation of the Deaf (the Nazis also assigned this color to identify deaf people during WWII)."

The video below features Joan showing me the flag and explaining its meaning.

In Fall 2015, NTID will be celebrating 25 years of De'VIA art, and will be exhibiting some of the works. Currently, De'VIA works are on exhibit at the RIT American Sign Language and Deaf Studies Community Center at the Wallace Library (downstairs from the Archive), in Joan Naturale's office, and at NTID's Roscia Hall. On the way to the Center, we dropped by Joan's office where she showed me some De'VIA art (shown below).

L’abbé de L’Epée (lightbox), created by Arnaud Balard, 2012

Deaf Women Soup created by Ann Silver, 1995

At the Center, I met Jeanne Behm, RIT American Sign Language & Deaf Studies Community Center Coordinator. In the two videos below, she talks with me about Arnaud Balard's work George Veditz, as well as Uzi Buzgalo's Artwork, Flower of Lanugage.

Rochester, N.Y. has the largest deaf population per capita, even larger than Washington, D.C., where Gallaudet University sits. Because the Archive collects materials on the history of NTID's founding; deaf education; and many more influential materials on local, U.S., and international deaf culture, it serves the need of preserving this important portion of our collective historical memory. If you travel to the Rochester area, don't miss visiting the RIT/NTID Deaf Studies Archive.

Contact Information
Becky Simmons,, (585) 475-2557
Joan Naturale,, (585) 286-4635
The Wallace Center
Rochester Institute of Technology
90 Lomb Memorial Dr.
Rochester, NY 14623

Friday, January 03, 2014

Doing More with Less -- Using Newspaper Ads and Loaned Postcards for a Holiday Exhibit

Fall and Winter Holidays in Chester Exhibit, 2013. Photo Copyright Deb Schiff, 2013.
Holidays in Chester Exhibit. Photo credit Deb Schiff, copyright 2013.
In early October 2013, I began asking my coworkers and volunteers if they had any holiday objects, photos, or other items I could borrow for the upcoming Holidays in Chester exhibit I was planning. Unfortunately, no one had anything to offer. I then turned to our most generous donor, Joan Case, to ask if she had anything I could display.

Later that week, Joan came to my office with a giant smile and a three-ring binder filled with the most marvelous holiday postcards from the early 1900s and 1910s. They had been sent to her mother and uncle when they were children. The cards were in excellent condition and properly housed in polyester sleeves. Importantly, they scanned and printed well when I made facsimiles for the months-long exhibit (November through early January). While I'd love to use the originals in an exhibit, it would be a shame for these gorgeous cards to fade while on display under UV lights.

All of the items in the exhibit (with the exception of a turkey-shaped salt shaker and some fabric leaves I'd bought at the dollar store) were facsimiles. Because the postcards were overwhelmingly Christmas-themed, I needed to supplement them with a diverse array of holiday items. I also required enough items to populate the main display case by the front desk and the new small, wall case I recently purchased. The little case is mounted on a wall adjacent to my office. The facsimiles in that case show the backs and fronts of holiday postcards, so that patrons could see the warm greetings sent to Joan's family members.

Holidays in Chester Exhibit, image 2. Photo copyright Deb Schiff 2013.
Holidays in Chester Exhibit. Photo credit Deb Schiff, copyright 2013.
Although it also was Christmas-themed, I made a smaller facsimile of a masthead from the Christmas 1944 issue of The Honor Roll newsletter. I remembered what a striking image of the town it had, and thought it would provide a focal point for the main display. You can see it in the upper right corner of the photo above this paragraph.

The remaining items in the exhibit originated in The Mendham-Chester Tribune and the Observer-Tribune, its successor newspaper. These materials included local stories that highlighted the season, as well as advertisements. Surprisingly, there weren't many holiday stories that could be used in the exhibit. Perseverance pays, however, because I did manage to find one item highlighting former Mayor (and famed chicken farmer) Janet Abeles cooking in her kitchen (lower center of the photo above).

The early (1950s) Tribunes' publishers kept a tradition of selling ads to local businesses for a special holiday section. These notices included thank yous to patrons, holiday greetings, and reminders of items for sale. Often, they featured lively holiday designs.

Holidays in Chester Exhibit. Photo credit Deb Schiff, copyright 2013.
Holidays in Chester Exhibit. Photo credit Deb Schiff, copyright 2013.
Above is a close-up photo of three advertisements and one postcard. The original postcard has a lovely 3D effect with raised gold sections indicating a folded-back area where an attractive, blonde, early 19th century woman dressed hat to toe in holiday red is carrying a gift. It's a lovely card and the facsimile doesn't do it justice. Thankfully, our donor has hinted that the card's future includes becoming part of her family's collection at the library.

The advertisements include one for a Jeep on sale at Apgar's Garage, as well as two New Year's Eve parties at the Chester Inn and Red Cricket Inn.

Two major exhibits are in the works for 2014:
  1. Celebrating the 350th anniversary of New Jersey, I'll be mounting an exhibit showcasing select sections of our 1860 New Jersey Topographical Map. The exhibit will be coordinated with a featured speaker, Maxine Lurie, on April 29th.
  2. The 10th anniversary of the Chester Library addition and renovation takes place in 2014. We have many blueprints and photographs that will be highlighted in the exhibit occupying the cases during the second half of the year.
As I continue to learn more about exhibits, I try to put my new knowledge into practice. The greatest teacher has been the viewing of other exhibits, whether in libraries, museums, or other institutions. So, my cultural institutional friends, don't be surprised if I pinch one of your better practices!