Shining New Light on Hidden Collections

Hidden Collections staff member, Anastasia Matijkiw, surveys archival materials at the Villiger Archives of St. Joseph's Preparatory School in Philadelphia, PA. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia, as the birthplace of America, is also home to one of the oldest historical societies in the United States: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The Historical Society’s unparalleled collection encompasses more than 350 years of history, including more than 600,000 books and printed materials; 20 million manuscripts; and over 300,000 visual treasures. Numerous small repositories across Southeast Pennsylvania also hold rich and important archives, but such independent collections are in many cases “under the radar,” unconnected to professional archival or historical networks and unknown to researchers.

In 2011, nearly 190 years after its birth, the Historical Society took an innovative and collaborative turn. With funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Historical Society created and led a five-year project to preserve and make accessible more than 1,440 archival collections in 172 small repositories in and around Philadelphia.

Most of the participants in the Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories are volunteer-run nonprofits, whose archives include personal correspondence, diaries, photographs, juvenilia, patents, financial ledgers, maps, membership rosters, burial plots, architectural and design plans, and other types of documentation related to people or organizations of historical importance.  

HSP_2.jpgEast Poplar Playground, North Philadelphia, ca. 1940s-50s. Courtesy of Fairmount Park Historic Resource Archives.

The archives are windows into the lives of inventors, explorers, missionaries, designers and other pioneers of their fields; they include both internationally famous Americans, like Orville and Wilbur Wright, and relative unknowns who did important work, like Frank Shuman, Anna Russell JonesWilliam Edgar Geil. In some cases, the archives are not personal papers but tell the story of communities through organizations, including one of the earliest and most prominent service organizations for people with intellectual disabilities and a recreational park born out of the leisure and automobile craze of the 1920’s.

“There are hundreds of institutions in the Philadelphia area, so the range of what they own and what they needed help with is all over the map,” said Jack McCarthy, director of Hidden Collections. “In some places items were organized, cared for and well-housed, but unconnected to the research world.  In other cases, we would go in and it would be utter chaos,” he said. “We found really important collections that were not in the right environment for preservation, not stored or organized properly, and not accessible to the wider world.”

“There was one institution with a historical building that had an old stone walled basement, which flooded, and all the records were moldy and deteriorating. You’d touch something and it would disintegrate in your hands, or you’d go to an attic with animal droppings and things eaten by mice,” he said.

In addition to helping repositories learn how to archive properly—starting with the basics of storage in acid-free boxes and away from damp basements—Hidden Collections helped the nonprofits create taxonomies of what was in their possession so that the archives could be discovered through libraries and online resources.

HSP_3.jpgDocument storage conditions observed by Hidden Collections staff. Photo courtesy of Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

“Almost all of them have a website of some kind, but they didn’t have a way of letting the world know what they had in their collection,” McCarthy said. The goal was to bring these collections to light, to be viewed by scholars, journalists, genealogists, amateur historians, property researchers, and the general public.

Take for example the papers of Wharton Esherick, a sculptor who has been called “Dean of American Craftsmen” and the founder of the current Studio Furniture Movement. 

“Before the project, the best word to describe the archives was ‘chaos,’” said Laura Heemer, who is curator and program director for The Wharton Esherick Museum in Paoli, PA, near Philadelphia. “There were papers stored all over in drawers, cabinets, and cardboard boxes in closets.”  The disorganization made hosting researchers impossible.

“Through this project, we now know the types of papers we have in our possession and it’s been exciting to start using them. We went from chaotic boxes full of paper materials to a well-organized, searchable archival collection,” Heemer continued. “We can now accept research requests, which helps us fulfill our mission. We will continue to benefit from this for years to come.”

Carolyn Coal, a Cal State Fullerton professor who is producing a documentary about Esherick, was an early beneficiary. “Before the HSP project, Carolyn would have faced a jumble of unorganized papers in no particular order, and she may not have found some of the important papers she used in her work on the film,” Heemer explained. Coal expressed gratitude that her research experience was a good one, thanks to the Hidden Collections project. 

HSP_4_Esherick.jpgWharton Esherick sitting at his trestle table in his studio, ca. 1931. Courtesy of the Wharton Esherick Museum.

Bob Skiba is the curator for The William Way Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, a prominent LGBT organization in Philadelphia, founded in 1975. The archives were always a key part of the Center; its John J. Wilcox Jr. Archives grew out of the personal archives of activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca, who left Philadelphia for San Francisco in the 1980s.  

“In those early years, when media mentions of gay men and lesbians, and especially trans people, were rare and typically negative, early activists consciously archived not only their own papers, but, luckily for us, every newspaper article, magazine feature and journal that dealt with LGBT topics,” Skiba said. The archives include not only media clippings and papers from and about important individuals and organizations, but also the ephemera of every day LGBT life: photos, pins and buttons, posters, flyers, t-shirts, diaries, and videos. 

Skiba described Hidden Collections as “a godsend” for his organization, and says participation also had a personal impact on his sense of mission and community. The first time he attended a Hidden Collections event was an “a-ha” moment for him.

“I looked around and was stunned by the incredible diversity of small, but vitally important collections in the greater Philadelphia area. I realized that we all shared the same problems -- funding, staffing, technical skills, accessibility -- that we could not solve easily on our own, but that a program like the Hidden Collections Initiative could be invaluable in solving.”

A key part of Hidden Collections was also how the Historical Society helped organizations that were previously working in isolation from one another by connecting them to one another through events and via a new listserv, Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

Barbara Gittings picketing at the Second Annual Reminder Day demonstration outside Independence Hall, July 4, 1966. Courtesy of the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives.

For Skiba, Hidden Collections expanded the sense of his organization belonging to a larger community, particularly because William Way is around the corner from the Historical Society. “Some of them would come over on their lunch hour and help process collections. I bribed them with cannoli whenever I could,” Skiba said.

Hidden Collections also expanded Skiba’s sense of how history happens. “As a curator, my goal has always been to make LGBT history an integral part of the American story. I realized that every organization there was trying to do the same thing: to make their voice heard. Every minority in America—racial, ethnic, religious, gender and sexually variant—must be the stewards of their own histories,” Skiba said. “I became aware that our collections were part of a much larger and encompassing project to document regional history and culture.” 

To that end, McCarthy emphasized the Historical Society’s commitment to amplifying what Hidden Collections has accomplished so far, and improving upon the methods that have been used. 

“Our project is unique in that no one has done this kind of thing to this extent,” he said.

The Historical Society is publishing its methodology, workflows and suggested best practices for preservation, digitization, and cataloging online. He and his colleagues are prepared to serve as thought-leaders on why and how to bring hidden collections in other regions to light. “We are committed to helping other parts of country do this, too.”

Kenneth Finkel, a professor of American Studies at Philadelphia’s Temple University, whose career is rooted in regional historical research, advocated Hidden Collections as a “national model.” 

That fits with what Mellon program officer Donald J. Waters described as the reason the Foundation wanted to fund Hidden Collections in the first place. “No collection stands on its own,” he said. “This initiative recognized as its major premise that collections are stronger when connected to each other.”