Special Collections practicum student Tess Will - Blog Post #4
While my semester is nearing its end, I still have a few more weeks to squeeze in the last bit of work on the Evans’s letters! When I last checked in, I had just begun my work with the Anchram H. and Elizabeth K. Evans Civil War Letters collection.
As a recap, this collection mostly comprises correspondence between Anchram and Elizabeth Evans during Anchram’s time in the army during the Civil War. The Evans lived in Brunswick County in a small town named Town Creek and were a farming family before and after the war. From what I gathered from the letters and some brief research on Ancestry.com, Elizabeth and Anchram got married in February of 1861 when she was just 16 and he was 22. Marriage at a young age was much more common in the nineteenth century, but it still blows my mind to think about how young Elizabeth was. Anchram enlisted in the army in early 1862, and the couple had their first daughter in October of the same year. From what I could put together from the letters, it seemed like Elizabeth lived with Anchram’s family while he was away.
I was assigned several tasks for this collection, but I began by reviewing their letters for content related to yellow fever, notable Wilmington families, and information about life at the time. I did this by reviewing the existing transcripts and the letters themselves. Consulting both was necessary because the original transcripts weren’t quite reliable. Reading cursive handwriting on aging and damaged paper is very difficult, especially when dealing with spelling errors, unfamiliar turns of phrases, and references to unfamiliar people and places. By reading every letter, I could put together information for what became the scope and content notes for the finding aid. For this collection, I provided a very brief description of every letter that will hopefully lead researchers to the collection. This is called “Item Level Description,” and it is not performed for every archival collection because it is a very time-consuming task.
Reading through the collection helped me form a better picture of the Evans family and their lives, and it helped immensely with reorganizing. For the most part, there was not much to be done to reorganize the collection because they would be kept in chronological order, but there were a number that were either undated, partially dated, or even dated incorrectly. By being familiar with the letters' content, I could help ascribe dates to those partially dated or correct those that weren’t quite right. While my practicum is technically just about complete, I should have time to wrap up the collection before the semester ends and I graduate! As I type this blog post, the finding aid is live on Randall Library’s website and can be accessed by researchers. I hope I will have time to digitize the letters in the collection, as they are quite fragile. By providing digital copies online, the collection will be available to a wider range of researchers and reduce the time they have to be pulled for onsite researchers, extending their lives in the archive.
This semester, I’ve learned a lot and honed many important skills, including my attention to detail. I only spent ten hours a week in Special Collections, so it was important to be organized and leave myself notes on what I completed the week prior and what to start on for the next week. Making mistakes in a workplace that deals with many moving pieces is very easy. I’ve caught mistakes from previous archive staff in my collections and made a few myself, but I catch them when I can and fix them. If I can’t fix them or need assistance, I seek support from my supervisors. I haven't been afraid to ask for help for a long time, and I think I would advise everyone to work on that.
As for my learning goals for the semester, I think I’ve made substantial progress in them all. I feel more comfortable working with ArchivesSpace and feel that I could use these skills to navigate other types of cataloging software for archives or museums. I’ve also engaged with many professional texts thanks to the readings put together by my supervisors. I read a number of articles and book chapters on all sorts of topics, including climate change, copyright, digitization, outreach, and more! I believe I also made progress in working to identify and eliminate archival silences. For example, while reading the Evans’s letters, I was able to identify a letter that referenced the transfer of three enslaved persons from father to son. While I can’t tell their stories or even record their names, I am happy to bring them to light, even if it's just in the scope notes of my finding aid. I still can’t believe how quickly this semester has gone by but I am proud of what I have accomplished. I hope that my work will be helpful to future researchers and inspires others to join a field that brings me so much joy.
Well, I guess this is farewell for now. I’ve got more work to do!