Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 30, 1995

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speeches, unpublished manuscripts, diaries and research journals.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

     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

     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.

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