Storing History Dale Keiger --------------------------- Special to The Gazette James Stimpert's office looks like an archivist's office should. There's stuff piled on every horizontal surface--papers, boxes, file folders, books, envelopes, message forms, notes. There's not a lot of room left for Stimpert, who looks at the top of his desk and says, "We've been hearing about the paperless office, but it isn't here yet." Stimpert has been the Milton S. Eisenhower Library's archivist for the past 12 years. As such, he oversees the Homewood campus's institutional memory--its collection of letters, research notes, memos, photos and other documentary material indexed, filed and stashed on steel shelving on the A-level of the library and in Krieger Hall. He also archives material from the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. As Hopkins moves forward day by day, it is trailed by a paper wake. Stimpert and his colleagues--Nancy McCall at the medical archives, Elizabeth Schaaf at the Peabody Institute, Phil Albert at the Applied Physics Laboratory--catalog and maintain that documentary wake. There are several ways to measure an archive. Stimpert has done it with a yardstick. "I estimated last summer that we have 4,000 linear feet of holdings," he says. That is, 4,000 feet of shelves stacked with acid-free boxes of paper. Four thousand feet and growing. Schaaf employs a more visual image to size up the Peabody archive. "If you put it in a pile, it would probably be about a mile high." McCall's domain, known formally as the Alan M. Chesney Medical Archives (and the recent recipient of the Distinguished Service Award from the Society of American Archivists), contains over 50 collections of personal papers, including those of pre-eminent Hopkins physicians and researchers: William Osler, William Henry Welch, Helen B. Taussig, Adolf Meyer, W. Horsley Gantt and Hugh Hampton Young, among others. The Chesney archive also contains architectural plans, fiscal records, lecture notes, speeches, unpublished manuscripts, diaries and research journals. An institution's archive serves a variety of purposes. It's a resource for those who govern; administrators facing a policy decision can go to the collection to find out what's been tried in the past, what worked and what didn't, what sort of precedent there might be for a decision. Scholars, biographers and students use it for research. The university's lawyers turn to it for evidence and documentation to resolve disputes. And like the stuff that accumulates in a family's attic, photo albums and desk drawers, an archive anchors the institution's present in a resonant past. Archivists like Stimpert and McCall are, all in the same day, catalogers, preservationists and researchers. When new items come into the MSEL collection, Stimpert says, the first task is to examine them. Whenever possible, archivists maintain the original order of papers, which can have scholarly and legal significance. They sift through the material to eliminate duplications (storage space is at a premium) and items considered superfluous and thus disposable. What remains is cataloged by folder (to index each individual item would take too long), then transferred to acid-free folders and boxes. Say acid to an archivist and he or she will wince. The acids in wood-pulp paper are an archivist's nightmare, devouring collections from the inside out. No one can halt or reverse the deterioration of acid-laden papers, but special folders and boxes slow the process. "Acid-free containers tend to mitigate the effects of acid in the paper," Stimpert says. "And we can use them to set off [acidic papers] so the acids won't migrate." The university tries to exercise some climate control over its collections, but that's hard to do. The best way to preserve papers, Stimpert says, is to freeze them. But that imposes a 12-24 hour gradual warm-up for anything to be examined (faster would damage the documents), requires strict control over condensation and takes one hell of a freezer. Instead, the university tries to keep the temperature in its archive rooms at around 70 degrees, and the humidity at 40 to 50 percent. The part of Stimpert's job that he most likes is the handling of requests for information. Biographers inquire about the papers of eminent Hopkins scholars; Schaaf recalls once assisting a biographer of the late conductor Leonard Bernstein. A student researching campus unrest during the 1960s wants to see old copies of the student newspaper, the News-Letter. Lawyers need to examine correspondence that documents a donor's longtime intent to make a bequest to the university. Want to see a copy of the university's articles of incorporation from August 1867? Stimpert can help you. Care to examine a photograph from the construction of the Brady Urological Institute in 1913? McCall's got one. Technology has created exciting prospects for the computerized indexing of archival collections and the sharing of data over the Internet. But it has also created headaches. A few weeks ago Stimpert received a set of "old" (ca. 1980, perhaps) 8 1/2-inch computer floppy disks; he has no computer disk drive that can accommodate them. Documents created by early versions of word-processing programs can't be read by current versions of the same program. McCall speaks of older computers as "legacy systems," the computer equivalent of eight-track tapes and Betamax video cassettes. And she notes that word processors now make it easy to insert copies of correspondence in file after file after file, leaving archivists with growing stacks of redundant paper. At Peabody, Schaaf must contend with audio media in every conceivable format, from old cylinder recordings to the latest digital tapes. Paper constitutes 95 percent of the university's archival holdings, by Stimpert's estimate. A lot of it is mundane: maps, employee and student records, routine correspondence, the minutes of trustee meetings (which, until 1916, were inscribed by hand in large ledgers). But there's a lot of fascinating--and sometimes peculiar--material. Stimpert receives from Garland Hall the occasional oddity, such as correspondence from people who claim to own the land upon which the campus is built and who will, for a modest fee, permit the university to leave its buildings where they now stand. The Chesney archives include the W. Horsley Gantt Papers. Gantt was the only American to study with Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, and his collected papers include correspondence from Pavlov, author John Dos Passos and psychologist B.F. Skinner; rare public health posters from pre-Revolution Petrograd; and a photo of Pavlov skinny-dipping. The papers of Hopkins urologist Hugh Hampton Young include a menu from a dinner that Young gave for financier Diamond Jim Brady in 1915, and drawings of old urological instruments that are guaranteed to make any man's skin crawl. That which isn't paper is also fascinating. McCall notes that the Chesney archives include a significant collection of painted portraits of eminent Hopkins physicians, as well as medical instruments. "A number of Hopkins surgeons were very skilled instrument designers," McCall says. Among the artifacts is one of the first defibrillators from the 1940s. At Peabody, one finds colonial documents, 19th century photos, stereopticon slides, theatrical costumes, the records of the Peabody art collection and the archives of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The collected papers of John Charles Thomas include more than papers. Thomas, the popular baritone of the 1930s and 40s and a star of radio, was also an avid yachtsman; his "papers" include his yachting trophies. The MSEL archive includes kinescopes from the university's pioneer television show of the 1950s, The Johns Hopkins Science Review, some old lacrosse balls, a letter sweater from the 1920s, even a few pieces of furniture. In the main storage facility in Krieger Hall, Stimpert gazes at an old steamer trunk with a rotten handle, sighs, and says, "Much as we try to avoid it, an archive does become something of an attic." To access the university archives, contact the respective school archivists. For Homewood and SAIS, contact Jim Stimpert at (410) 516-8323; Nancy McCall, at the medical archives, can be reached at (410) 955-3043; at Peabody, contact Elizabeth Schaff at (410) 659-8257; and Phil Albert, at APL, can be reached at (410) 792-5394.
Go to Gazette Homepage