May 14, 2014
You never know what you’re going to find in the Hamilton College Archives. With a collection as extensive and varied as Hamilton’s, it can sometimes be months or even years before documents in the collection are fully processed and understood.
For example, Special Collections Coordinator Mark Tillson recently unearthed a file of letters from noted suffragist Charlotte Wilbour, wife of Egyptologist Charles Edwin Wilbour, whose papers the College also possesses.
Charlotte Wilbour’s correspondence list reads like a veritable who’s who of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States: she exchanged letters with Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Isabella Beecher Hooker, among others.
“When I found the letters,” Tillson said, “my initial reaction was that I hadn’t looked at the right finding aid. I mean, how could these letters, from such historically important women, have gone undocumented?”
Wilbour was a major, if perhaps unsung, player in the suffragist movement. Though her husband departed for Egypt and Europe in the 1870s, Wilbour remained at home in New York City, where she was a founding member of Sorosis, the first women’s club in the United States. Susan B. Anthony regarded Wilbour as a vital part of the suffragist movement in New York, writing in 1871 that Wilbour “must decide what New York can and will do—I will stand at the guns every time.”
Her letters help augment a growing collection of material in Hamilton’s archives related to the suffragist movement in the United States. In Tillson’s opinion, the letters have real power. “Even in the few lines they wrote in these letters, their strength and steadfastness in their cause comes through really clearly,” he said. “We’re very lucky to have them in the collection.”
So how does a folder of documents get re-discovered after a few years? It’s not uncommon, Director and Curator of Archives and Special Collections Christian Goodwillie said. “Every archive and every library has a backlog of material going back years or even decades,” he said. In a collection of tens of thousands of printed materials, correspondence and volumes, things can sometimes get misplaced in the shuffle.
Working through the backlog can be time consuming. At Hamilton, it used to be the task of the Head Librarian to sift through the accumulated documents in the backlog, but managing the library’s other affairs was generally enough to keep the Head Librarian occupied, and the backlog took a backseat. Goodwillie’s position was created so that a professional could devote their full time and attention to cataloging the trove of historical information.
An early project involved sorting through the collection of F.W. Putnam, a collector who kept thousands of almanacs from all over the United States. In order to get enough space to organize the almanacs, Goodwillie had to spread them out all over the second floor of Burke.
Challenges like that have not stopped progress from being made. “We’re more than halfway through the backlog at this point,” Goodwillie estimated. Tillson has done much of the work of categorizing the variety of material in the backlog, transcribing hundreds of documents before preparing the originals for conservation.
Goodwillie said that it’s particularly important for students and researchers to be able to access the material easily.
“In the pre-Internet age, libraries generally made very little effort to let the public know they had manuscript collections available,” he said. Now, however, the emphasis is on access, and the discoveries made in the backlog are cataloged, categorized, and summarized by a team of workers. This information is then placed online on the Special Collections area of the library’s website for all to use.