Mystery photos

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I came across a fascinating article this week about the research that historian Joe Manning has been doing with archival photographs.  He has been working to identify the subjects of photographs taken by Lewis Hine from 1908 to 1924 and those taken by the Farm Security Administration and other government agencies in the 1930s and 1940s.  His interest in these historical photos began in 2000 when he met the author Elizabeth Winthrop, who had written a fictional account of the life of one of the mill girls pictured by Hine but stalled when trying to find information about the actual course of the young girl’s life.  She hired Manning to further research the young spinner girl that Hine had made famous; you can read on his web site his six chapter recounting of his process of identifying Addie Card.

Manning did not stop with that success and has continued trying to put names to faces made familiar by documentary photographers.  His web site has an Old Photos Gallery where he posts the pictures about which he wants to find more information — anything from simply a name to family relations to details about a life lived.  He has sometimes tried running ads in the local newspaper from the area where the picture was taken, but I imagine the relatively transient nature of many Americans in the last few decades has made it increasingly unlikely that he can find local residents who have knowledge of people who lived in the area around a century earlier.  So Manning also avails himself of resources like the U.S. census and databases like  He seems to have the fortuitous combination of a passion for his work and a knack for tracking down leads.

From my work and research in archives, I know there are countless pictures with little to no identifying information.  But obviously Joe Manning can’t research all of them.  So how do archives interest users in these sorts of crowdsourcing activities?  The Davidson College Archives has a photograph identification page, but it’s not clear what happens to the information that is submitted by users.  Rose Holley has suggested that transparency — both of goals and of outcomes — is a key to successful crowdsourcing projects.  Holley also suggests that the projects need to be fun for the users; NARA seems to have embraced this idea with the “tagging missions” advertised on its Citizen Archivist Dashboard.

Ultimately, I think the key is simple — something has to spark an individual user’s curiosity.  That curiosity is what creates the persistence that leads to important discoveries.  So perhaps the first step for archives is one of outreach — of letting people know what sorts of items are held within the repository and are in need of contextual information, so their curiosity can be piqued.  And while I’ve witnessed more than one archivist sigh about the narrowly focused research efforts of genealogists, it seems to me that this sort of dogged determination is just the type of effort that archives would be wise to harness.  While not every person will look at an unknown photograph and recognize an ancestor, it does seem that those who make an attempt to fill in knowledge about their own family are predisposed to want to help others find similar sorts of information — and are probably aware of some of the resources that facilitate such searches.  So in a time of vanishing financial resources and limited staffs for archives, it behooves us all to get rid of any preconceived notions about our users and embrace all the possibilities of how our collections can be used and improved.


The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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The annual commemoration of Martin Luther King’s birthday (which is actually on January 15th) gives me cause to consider King’s legacy from an archival perspective.

First of all, with my training as an historian as well as an archivist, I am fascinated by what items and ideas get written onto the fabric of our national consciousness and which are overlooked.  On an annual basis, the media provide a shower of clips of King as orator and usually focus on his “I Have a Dream” speech from the 1963 March on Washington.  But rare is the context given of the developing rift within the civil rights movement leading up to this event.  For a glimpse, you can read the speech that John Lewis intended to give in Washington — one that he tempered only out of deference to A. Philip Randolph.

In my opinion, King’s 1967 speech at Riverside Church in which he condemned U.S. actions in Vietnam is his best reasoned piece of oratory.  It also demonstrates much about the character of King, for this speech was not without controversy.  While he was generally arguing that the war in Vietnam was diverting attention and resources from the war against poverty and discrimination within the U.S., some of his fellow civil rights leaders worried that King’s taking a strong stand against the war would only serve to weaken the movement, and in fact, it did greatly sour King’s relationship with President Lyndon Johnson, who had been very instrumental in getting civil rights legislation passed up to that point.  Using nonviolence as a prism for viewing the conflict in Vietnam, King said, “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.  For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”  Unfortunately, this does not seem to be an attitude that was embraced at the time or since.

The last speech that King delivered, in Memphis on the night before his assassination, is another that deserves more attention.  The end is eerie for its foreshadowing of his pending death: “And then I got into Memphis.  And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out.  What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?  Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!  And so I’m happy, tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man!  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”  But the gist of the message is about his being in Memphis to support the strike of sanitation workers — an economic cause that elements within the civil rights movement, such as John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had earlier criticized King for ignoring in the name of the panacea of integration.  This speech helps to layer the complexities of King and demonstrate that he was not the same man in 1968 that he had been five years earlier.

One other aspect of King’s life is interesting from an archival perspective especially.  In 1964, King named Boston University as “the Repository of my correspondence, manuscripts and other papers, along with a few of my awards and other materials which may come to be of interest in historical or other research.”  The last sentence of his letter of donation said,  “In the event of my death, all such materials deposited with the University shall become from that date the absolute property of Boston University.”  But King only made two transfers of materials to BU, and he never executed a formal deed of gift.  After the King family established the Center for the Study of Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta in the 1980s, they wished to unite all of his papers — the ones from BU that were predominantly from before 1961 and those in Atlanta from the last years of his life and work.  Coretta Scott King ultimately brought a suit against Boston University on behalf of her husband’s estate, arguing in part that they were in breach of contract for not properly attending to her husband’s papers; for instance, the papers became jumbled during their shipment from Georgia to Massachusetts in 1964, but no attempt was made to restore the original order.  James M. O’Toole was brought in as a witness on the case by the firm representing Coretta Scott King, and he concluded that “some of the most basic work of physical and intellectual arrangement had not been done during the period in which BU had held the King Papers” (“Archives on Trial: The Strange Case of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers,” in Archives and the Public Good: Accountability and Records in Modern Society, eds. Richard J. Cox and David A. Wallace [Westport, Connecticut: Quorum, 2002], 27).  But ultimately the jury decided that the letter was an enforceable charitable pledge and, therefore, BU was the rightful owner of King’s papers.  Coretta Scott King’s appeal was denied in 1995.


screen shot from BU Archives

(Note: at the time of the writing of this post, I cannot access the finding aid for King’s papers at BU.  Although the collections list includes King’s name, the hyperlink is not currently functional, so I cannot assess the quality of the finding aid.)

Copyright in the public domain

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The digital realm has brought us, among other things, an awareness of Digital Rights Management (DRM) files and a case against the music-sharing platform Napster.  These and similar issues have served to implant the matter of copyright into the public psyche in a way that it had not been seen before.  But the last ten days have seen an even more heightened sense of awareness of copyright in the public eye.  On January 2nd, Kevin Smith, the Scholarly Communications Officer at Duke University, posted a blog about the repercussions of the 1976 Copyright Act.  He explains in very clear language why the works of American authors entered the public domain in other countries on January 1st while they will remain protected by U.S. copyright until 2019.  However, unpublished works are protected only for 70 years after the death of the author, so the unpublished works of authors who died in 1943 are now in the public domain — which means archives can freely digitize and publish online any letters or other unpublished works of donors who died in 1943 or before.  (This list of people includes Stephen Vincent Benét, George Washington Carver, Beatrix Potter, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Simone Weil.)

Television has also gotten onto the copyright bandwagon.  The Good Wife aired an episode on January 5th entitled “Goliath and David” that gave a very thorough explanation of derivative and transformative works of music in light of copyright protections.  And on the same evening, The Simpsons aired “Steal This Episode,” in which Homer was tried for publicly showing pirated versions of movies.  Perhaps archives and libraries should take advantage of this heightened awareness of copyright issues and make this a time to update donor agreements to reflect what sorts of materials will be unavailable to users due to copyright restrictions, to educate patrons about the impacts of copyright on the availability of archival materials, and to clarify what sorts of materials can and cannot be published online because of copyright provisions.


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CBS did nothing to get me in the holiday spirit this year.  In fact, I’ve been mad at them since October, when I read a notice that they planned to air two colorized episodes of I Love Lucy the week before Christmas.  Although I was not alive to watch this comedy when it first aired in the 1950s, I grew up watching the syndicated episodes with my family, and I came to cherish the wacky predicaments into which Lucy entangled herself (and usually also Ethel) each week and to admire the versatility displayed by Lucille Ball in bringing this character to life.  The show was groundbreaking in many ways for its time, including depicting an interracial marriage, acknowledging the pregnancy of Lucille Ball in real-time in 1952, and providing such a powerful platform to a woman.  All of these things are accomplished in the native black-and-white, so I see no reason to monkey around with the past by colorizing these episodes.  Needless to say, I boycotted the airing of these episodes.

Apparently, many do not share my disdain for inauthentic television.  Variety reported that the December 20th episodes were watched by nearly 9 million people, easily winning its timeslot.  I don’t pretend to hold a superior position just because I can differentiate the original I Love Lucy episodes from the newly aired versions, but this has given me pause to consider when it is and when it is not appropriate to repurpose artifacts from the past in order to make them more appealing to a modern audience.  I can still remember being appalled in 1991 when Natalie Cole released her “Unforgettable” single, in which she sings a “duet” with her father, Nat King Cole (who died in 1965).  Many saw this as a remarkable way that technology could allow Natalie to pay homage to the father who died while she was a teenager.  I, on the other hand, saw it as a cheap way to attract attention and album sales.

Archives certainly cannot afford to ignore either technology or the need to attract users.  But I do hope that this can be accomplished while still maintaining the authenticity of the records.  The two examples above are not unique, but I guess they have both stood out to me because the original versions are still entertaining and all the more remarkable taken in context — Lucille Ball in the atmosphere of the Red Scare and Nat King Cole in the civil rights struggle.  Removing them from their contexts only serves to minimize the importance of their impacts in their eras.  So in the end, I wonder whether archives can find ways to provide users with the latitude to repurpose and reimagine the record while still trying to maintain an anchor to the context in which the record was created.