Update (April 1, 2020): As of Friday, April 3, 2020, staff in Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) will no longer be able to work in our building space. Newman Library is closed to the campus community, effective Tuesday, March 31, 2020. SCUA staff will still be checking email and voicemail and we will be in touch about your requests. However, we will be limited in our ability to answer reference questions and will only be able to provide scans of materials that have already been reproduced. We appreciate your patience in these uncertain times. We plan to be back in our offices around June 10, 2020, unless our state executive order is rescinded sooner. We will update our social media and website (https://spec.lib.vt.edu/) when we have new information. More information about the limited hours and access of the University Libraries at Virginia Tech is available online at https://lib.vt.edu/.
For the safety of our staff and researchers with concerns about COVID-19, the Special Collections and University Archives reading room is closed to the public effective March 18, 2020. We are available for virtual reference at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be checking voicemail for our reference desk (540-231-6308). We will update our social media and website (https://spec.lib.vt.edu/) when we have new information. More information about the limited hours and access of the University Libraries at Virginia Tech is available online at https://lib.vt.edu/.
Earlier posts exploring Beverly Willis’s work can be found here and here. As those posts dealt with a residential renovation and the adaptation of technology to large-scale housing developments, this post is concerned with urban design of public spaces.
In 1978 Beverly Willis, noted architect, artist, and photographer, was commissioned to rehabilitate a public space and pre-existing playground that serves the Laguna and Golden Gate neighborhoods of San Francisco. Her charge was to design and construct a small recreation building on this site, a two-block plot that already housed tennis courts, play structures, and a small storehouse. As discussed in the posts mentioned above, Willis’s design philosophy is heavily influenced by symbolic imagery. Indeed, in her book Invisible Images, she discusses her fascination with the power of images at length: their capacity to generate ideas, to captivate us, to contextualize architecture and ultimately to connect humans to nature. But here she also took her primary audience into account, namely children, and thus considered how young people on the threshold of young adulthood might interpret spaces and images differently than their grown-up counterparts.
When conceptualizing a small building for the park, she wanted to evoke and foster the idea of play, and to frame the building as an invitation to play. She designed what she characterized as a “toy” building, which served the dual purpose of sparking children’s imaginations and enabling other functions, i.e., serving as an administrator office, restroom, and a service kitchen for park events. It serves a host of functional needs while it also works with the idiosyncrasies of the site.
As Willis wanted the building to feel fully integrated with the rest of the block, the building’s segmented design allowed the small structure to sprawl and fan out, creating a pavilion that descended via concrete steps to the play pit. The way it’s structured gives it the slight feeling of a dais. She designed an asymmetrical wall at an angle from the building with a child-sized arch such that there would be some fluidity between the practical and playful elements of the park. No doubt, the building exploits an unusual, exploded structure (akin to something you’d see in an axonometric drawing) to maximize its magical, whimsical appeal.
I’ll leave you with Bev’s own words:
“I designed the building to be lower in height than the tallest play equipment—like a toy building. The structure fans out of its tight corner site, and diagonal walls shift through the structure, like the joints of the armadillo shell. The façade stops at a wide walkway, bordered by three tiered steps. Together, these elements create an illusion of a stage platform. On the right wing ‘stage’ wall, which extends past the building, I placed an arched opening that leads nowhere but beckons the young to pass through and explore. The painted arch opening and circular moon above are as magical as Alice’s looking glass, leading from everywhere to everywhere” (Willis 87).
Willis, Beverly. Invisible Images: The Silent Language of Architecture. National Building Museum, 1997.
Remembering Charles Owen, a Beloved Early Campus Figure
Last year, while helping to assemble images for a photographic history of the Roanoke and New River valleys, I ran across a wonderful photo of Charles Owen, known to the students of Virginia Agricultural & Mechanical College (today Virginia Tech) as “Uncle Sporty.” Sometimes a photo really captures your interest and makes you want to learn more about the person shown.
Charles Owen’s longstanding presence at the university began in 1890, when he was hired as a janitor for Barracks Number One (today Lane Hall). (Note that while some sources, including his own daughter’s death record, provide his surname as “Owens,” campus sources invariably identify it as “Owen,” so that is what I’ll use here.) Soon afterward, Owen assumed an additional duty that he’d perform for many years to come: according to Col. Harry Temple’s The Bugle’s Echo, an exhaustive history of the university’s early decades, Owen “took charge of a large snare drum which he attached to a leather belt about his waist. Ten minutes before Reveille each morning he would parade the area in front of the barracks, beating his drum. Sporty could actually beat out tunes on that drum; where he learned the art no one knew.” For nearly 20 years, Owen’s was one of the most familiar faces on campus and likely one of the first to be recognized by new cadets. Reminiscing on his years as a VAMC cadet, Henry Harris Hill (BS, 1907) recalled his first morning at college:
Very early in the morning I was awakened by a far off rumbling sound. For the life of me I couldn’t imagine what the noise was. It gradually came closer, so I got up and went to the window to look. Out on the parade ground was an old colored man beating a drum that looked like it was about five feet deep. The colored man was Uncle Sporty who was waking the boys preliminary to Reveille.
Unfortunately, despite some rather in-depth searching, I could learn little about Owen. The 1900 census recorded a Charles Owens living in Blacksburg with wife Ellen. The Owens’s sizable household included three daughters, Bell, Lucy, and Nellie; the daughters’ husbands, Lev, Hiram, and Reuben (all with the surname Collins); four Collins grandchildren; Charles and Ellen’s adopted son John Hickman; and niece Ella Collins. The census describes Charles Owen as a janitor but fails to record his and Ellen’s ages.
(To throw some confusion on the matter, the census lists a second Charles Owens living in Blacksburg and also working as a janitor in 1900. Later census records indicate that this Charles Owens also worked on campus, but following this man’s documentary trail we learn that he is not the man who came to be known as Uncle Sporty.)
Owen’s photo first appears in The Bugle (the college annual) in 1899. He is shown in a composite photo of other maintenance staff and is identified only as “Sporty Sam.” Given the time period and the fact that another African-American campus employee is referred to as “Smoky Sam,” we can infer that the name “Sam” was almost certainly being used here as a diminutive of “sambo,” a derogatory term that, even if used in jest, showed a flagrant disrespect.
Owen’s photo would again appear in the 1908 Bugle. By that time, he’d picked up the nickname “Uncle Sporty,” and while the term “uncle” when applied to African-American men of that era was also unquestionably derogatory, its use by the cadets in referring to Owen would seem to indicate an improvement of sorts in his status and the affection that they held for him. (We might also bear in mind that the cadets invariably referred to William Gitt, a white man who succeeded Owen as a worker in Lane Hall (and about whom I posted three years ago), as “Uncle Bill.”)
Illustrating the standing that Owen held in the cadets’ minds, his photo appears near the front of the annual, preceded only by the volume’s dedication page.
Below Owen’s photo is a poem, attributed to “J.D.P., ’08” (John Dalrymple Powell of Portsmouth, Virginia), written in the “Negro dialect” commonly used by white writers of the day. While the delivery is demeaning, the sentiments seem heartfelt:
Bein’ as I’se de fust to see yo’ when yo’ come,
And as I says Good-bye
to every one,
And since I takes
most painful care
Of all my boys
throughout the year,
It seems to me most
Dat I should be right
De folks of all dese
friends of mine
And gib’ a greetin’
which dey’ll find,
Dat dough dey lib’ to
be past forty,
Will make dem tink of “Uncle Sporty.”
According to The Bugle’s Echo, Owen continued to perform his campus duties until mid-1909, when, due probably to age and failing health, he retired and left Blacksburg. “He took with him,” writes Temple, “the great well-wishes and gratitude of the cadets.” The Virginia Tech (the forerunner of today’s Collegiate Times) of March 2, 1910 reported that Owen had suffered a stroke, leaving his entire left side paralyzed. Just three weeks later, the newspaper announced Owen’s death. In eulogizing him, the editor offered what he considered high praise, but even here the newspaper could not resist inserting a backhanded “compliment”:
Charles Owen, the old negro janitor who for years has been known by the familiar name of “Uncle Sporty,” and who was loved and respected by hundreds of students and alumni of V. P. I., died at his home last week after a lingering illness. Owen had for many years been janitor of Number One barracks and his sterling honesty and respectability as well as his never-to-be-forgotten duty of awakening the sleepers each morning with the rumbling of his ancient drum, had made him a familiar and unique figure here. He was of the old order, now seen no more among the negroes, and his death is sincerely mourned by everyone who knew him. He is survived by several children, two of whom occupy positions with the college.
The Bugle’s Echo notes that Owen’s standing at the university was such that students proposed providing the pallbearers and a firing party for his burial service, only to find that the funeral had been held before these arrangements could be made. Still, the cadets collected a “substantial sum of money,” according to Temple, “and a huge spray of flowers was ordered to be placed upon his grave.” Shortly thereafter, The Virginia Tech published a poem by M. W. Davidson (BS, 1901) entitled “Uncle Sporty’s Drum,” the third stanza of which reads:
No matter where roams
Hokie’s man, his memory never failing;
He ponders on the
long ago, though often rough the sailing.
The strife is long,
the fight grows hot, and is ever lost by some,
But not by them who learned the way, where Sporty beat that drum.
A memorial also appeared in The Bugle for that year, featuring Owen’s photo and another poem.
Though the newspaper mentioned that two of Owen’s children continued to work at the university in 1910, nothing about them could be found. The 1910 census shows Ellen “Owns,” Charles’ 35-year-old widow, still living in Blacksburg, together with son-in-law “Rubin” Collins and two grandchildren. The census-taker noted that Rubin was working as a janitor in the “VPI Halls.” That same census shows another son-in-law, Hiram Collins, working as a janitor in the “YMCA Hall” (today the College of Arts and Human Sciences Building).
It isn’t easy, given the length of time that’s elapsed since his death and the little information at hand, for us to draw conclusions about Owen’s daily life, to put it in the context of the times, to know how he felt about his work at VPI and the students with whom he regularly interacted. (We haven’t even managed to conclusively identify his surname.) The little that we’ve learned of Charles Owen and his term of service here illustrates the larger, complicated topic of race relations of the era. It may be naïve and overreaching for us to say that Owen’s legacy was one of a slowly evolving, growing acceptance of and respect for African Americans in the campus community, but there can be no doubt that his work contributed to the university’s growth in its early decades, that his longstanding presence helped to instill in the students an affection for their school, and that he continued to be fondly remembered by university alumni for many decades following his death.
If you’re anything like me, working from home *may* have become a baking & cooking extravaganza of sorts. Success or failure, I find being in the kitchen extremely comforting. (I am your prime example of a stress-baker: just ask the chocolate chip cookies from last week, the oatmeal raisin walnut cookies bars from last night, the supplies for apple cheddar scones on my counter, and my plan to finally attempt to make bread–maybe…I think…when I work up the courage.) Anyway, one of the downsides to working from home/Special Collections and University Archives being closed is that I can’t scan anything new for a blog post. And while there is some material on our servers, I have a far more devious plan for this week’s post. If you, too, are social distancing, quarantining, or isolating, now is a great time to try those recipes you have always wanted to try. If you’d like to experiment AND keep those you are sharing a space with at a safe, 6-foot distance, here are some historic recipes that can help you succeed, re-purposed from some of my previous posts on our food history blog. Or, at the very least, you might stay 6 feet from the plate?
First off, I know there are many people that enjoy Spam. I don’t hold anyone’s food choices against them–I have my own favorites that plenty of people would question. But this is a whole other level:
This sandwich contains Spam, chicken, lettuce, tomato, olives, butter, and more mayonnaise than seems possible. Yes, that is frosted with a mixture of mayo, whipped cream, and hard-cooked eggs. You might understand how, upon seeing it for the first time, I may have mistaken it for a cake? More on this item and some other frosted sandwiches here: https://whatscookinvt.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/frosted-sandwiche/. (Also, the bottom of that post has links to additional posts about frosted sandwiches.)
Before leave sandwiches in this post, historically speaking, there are thousands and thousands of sandwich fillings. Here are a few from 1924:
For those of you fond of savory pies, you might consider branching out into lesser used proteins in these modern times:
“Umble pie” is what first caught my attention in Sarah Harrison’s The house-keeper’s pocket-book, and compleat family cook : containing above twelve hundred curious and uncommon receipts in cookery, pastry, preserving, pickling, candying, collaring, &c., with plain and easy instructions for preparing and dressing every thing suitable for an elegant entertainment, from two dishes to five or ten, &c., and directions for ranging them in their proper order, but once you get past the calves feet, there is also veal & suet, rabbit, skirret (a root vegetable) and bone marrow, and carp. These recipes are from the mid-1700s and you can read more about this book here: https://whatscookinvt.wordpress.com/2016/12/02/housekeepers-pocketbook-compleat-family-1760/.
Lastly, anyone who follows the culinary blog (inactive as I have been lately–apologies for that!) knows that I have something of a love-hate relationship with gelatin. So, I can’t write this post without sharing some wiggly, jiggly recipes.
These images are from The Greater Jell-O Recipe Book, a 1931 pamphlet. The first page includes some more savory, protein packed gelatin. Rice and fish? Chicken mousse? Ham and celery? …sure? Yes, I poke fun, but to put these recipes in context, 1931 was two years into the Great Depression. Economy was key in the kitchen would remain so for nearly another decade. Recipes like this used up every bit of leftovers. The second page contains mainly sweeter, fruit-based jiggling recipes, but I would point on the one made entirely of olives and cherries. I’ll say that again. Olives (with pimentos). And. Cherries. Yeah, I don’t have anything either. If you’re feeling brave, more Jell-O pamphlets from 1931 in this post: https://whatscookinvt.wordpress.com/2015/02/20/jello-pamphlets-1931/. And if you search the blog for “jello” or “gelatin,” you’ll find more.
Whatever you’re making, try to take a moment and enjoy your food. It can comfort us and connect us to memories in surprising ways and these days, we might just need that kind of emotional hug. Cheers and good snacking!
Every year Special Collections and University Archives, in partnership with the University Libraries and Virginia Tech Student Engagement and Campus Life, hosts annual remembrance exhibits to highlight the outpouring of love and support the university received in the aftermath of the tragedy of April 16, 2007. Although we are unable to host physical exhibits this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we have continued the remembrance exhibit online.
The exhibit Unknown Origins: Anonymous gifts in the April 16, 2007 Condolence Archives highlights the messages Virginia Tech received from unknown individuals, organizations, or places following the events of April 16, 2007. It features anonymous donations and gifts of unknown origin, paying homage to those who want to be part of the mourning and recovery process but do not necessarily want to be known.
As part of an ongoing effort to digitize records representing Beverly Willis’s significant works and projects, I’ve been highlighting some of her work in posts here. In November 2019 I wrote a post about her firm’s work in developing a program called “CARLA” or Computerized Approach to Residential Land Analysis and its use in a land development project (Pacific Point Condominiums). This week I’ll be looking at a smaller scale, but no less stunning, project: the River Run Residence. The house itself is beautiful, but I wanted to examine how it embodies Willis’s approach to design. When looking at a final product (a building facade, polished interiors) it can be easy to forget just how many choices went into creating something cohesive. Yet looking at design records can tease out some of the labor and give perspective on the process of designing and building that’s often obscured or mystified in the way we talk about and look at architecture. While this post won’t go deeply into the design process, it will touch on a few of the generative ideas and organizing principles behind the final building.
The axis of Beverly Willis’s design philosophy hews to that line between formal and informal: the formal geometries of classicism and the informal rusticity of regionalism. Willis believes that at its core, design is about the investigation of the symbolic content of forms/shapes, and the manipulation of images (for more on this, see Invisible Images). When thinking about design, it can be a long and iterative process of drafting, layering, modeling – leaving aside sourcing materials and overseeing construction – this amounts to creating and blending images to form novel yet coherent aesthetics.
The Willis-designed Palladian villa cum rustic ranch in Napa Valley, called River Run, is emblematic of this mode of design thinking. The balance of the colonnaded portico, dramatic windows, grand approach mixed with the redwood shingle siding – classicism inflected by the vernacular – are all the more impressive given River Run’s relaxed atmosphere as a retreat. This is an interesting example of how works are often colored by different influences that are channeled through a designer. “While she abided by general principles of symmetry and proportion, the local shingle style — with its spreading roof, plentiful windows, and use of natural colors and regional materials — was also a powerful influence” (58-59). Willis seems to view it as a process of simplification – synthesis and streamlining. “Although the house is quite large, it displays a consistent economy of lines and means. It draws from the vocabulary of classicism, but there’s nothing complicated about it” (Willis qtd in Nelson 60). The nature and geometry mentioned in the title – and, indeed, Willis’s philosophy in general – refer to some of the central tenets of classicism and classical philosophy – that there are natural ideals that humans gravitate toward, that shapes and forms reveal a hidden geometry.
Virginia Tech’s history is a complicated one that is much more presumed than known due to an early 20th century blaze. In its early years, the institution served as an allegory of the rough, rag-tag, Appalachian spirit we see still embodied through a beaten-up lunch pail at football games and the largely blue-collar valley that envelops us. Tech, unlike its sister institutions William and Mary and the University of Virginia, has never owned any enslaved people by circumstance of its post-antebellum founding in 1872. Even its predecessor institution, the Olin & Preston Institute, has no record of owning any. That is not to say, however, that the grand 2,600-acre Blacksburg campus has never met or benefited from the harsh legacy of slavery.
Prior to last year, you most likely would not see him listed on the Virginia Tech Black History Timeline. He predates Charles “Uncle Sporty” Owens, Floyd Meade, and even Odd Fellows Hall, all well-known black figures in early Virginia Tech history. If you had the privilege of crawling around the campus of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College about 148 years ago with Addison Caldwell and other “rats,” you’d most likely refer to him as “Uncle Andrew.” He is Andrew Oliver, and he is the first known African-American worker at what is now Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Recently, CONSOL Energy announced it would be open a new mining operation on the Itmann Mine in West Virginia, and I’ve subsequently been fielding reference requests for information about Itmann and other mines in West Virginia. I haven’t spoken much previously about our mine maps in the Pocahontas Mines Collection, Ms2004-002, and this seems like the perfect time. The collection documents the development of the Pocahontas Coal Seam in southwest Virginia an West Virginia by CONSOL Energy, Inc., and its predecessors in the area. I have been working with the collection since late 2014 and several SCUA staff had been involved with it since the collection first arrived in 2004. The collection is a behemoth with 7,000 maps, about 3,000 survey books and ledgers, numerous photographs, and much more. It totals over 600 cubic feet in almost 800 boxes (but it’s not the largest collection I’ve worked on here!) We also have over 3,600 digital files of mine maps and other documents that I’m still creating metadata for!
When I was processing the collection a few years ago, I was very fortunate to have a student majoring in mining and minerals engineering here at Tech working on the project. Ryan Mair graduated in 2016, but before he left, he drafted a couple of blog posts about the collection, since he had extensive knowledge about it and the mining industry.
One of the blog posts by Ryan Mair, about the Itmann Mines, follows:
This map in Figure 1 is a production scheduling map of the Itmann No. 1, 2, & 3 Mines as operated by the Consolidation Coal Company. Maps of this type are used to depict the planned progression of mining operations with respect to a standard unit of time. This particular map progresses each future section of mining by year. The production schedule presented by this map was to start in 1983 and continue until the year 1992. The colored sections of the map represent what year coal production will occur in that area of the mine. the darker blue lines of the map depict the outline of the mine workings underground. Black lines are used to depict the property lease line and surface features, such as the buildings of the preparation plan.
These mines extracted coal from the No. 3 seam of the famous Pocahontas Coalfield. Coal from the Pocahontas seams was highly sought after because of its rare quality. This coal contains low amounts of sulfur and hydrocarbons known as “volatile matter” and leaves behind less ash material than most other coals. Pocahontas coal was especially prized by the U.S. Navy because it produces high temperatures while emitting little to no visible smoke when burned. Using this type of “smokeless” coal makes it harder to spot coal burning ships on the open sea. During World War II, the majority of coal from the Pocahontas seams were used to fire coal boilers for the U.S. Navy.
The mines depicted in the Itmann map (Figure 1) use two different methods to extract coal from the earth. Mines No. 1 and No. 2 use a conventional method called room and pillar mining, as seen in Figure 2. Room and pillar mining entails the extraction of coal while leaving large columns or “pillars” behind to support the rock overhead which is called the “back”, “roof”, or “top”. The open area left around the pillar is called the “room”. The shape of the pillars is typically that of a square or rectangle. Pillar dimensions vary with every mine design but are are reliant upon the mechanical properties of the coal and the geological stresses present in the mine.
The No. 1 & 2 mines have completed their normal room and pillar mining operations and are recovering coal via a process known as “retreat mining.” Retreat mining is the selective excavation of the pillars to allow a controlled collapse of the mine roof while working towards the mine entrance. Retreat mining is done at the end of the life of a mine when the coal deposit had been depleted through normal room and pillaring. Normal room and pillar coal mines typically recover 40-45% of the coal located within the property. Mining the pillars upon retreat from a room and pillar mine allows operators to increase coal recovery to around 60%. Retreat mining is not always done due to the danger associated with it the unpredictable nature of the roof collapse. By removing selected pillars the mine roof or back is allowed to collapse while additional stress is placed on the remaining pillars. In some cases too much stress can be placed on a pillar. When a pillar reaches its maximum stress and fails, it shatters, sending rock and coal fragments violently through the air followed by the caving of roof around the area where the pillar once stood. This event is known as a pillar “burst” or “bump.” Many miners have died as a result of being near a pillar bump.
The No. 3 Mine in the northwestern part of the Itmann map (Figure 1) employs some room and pillar mining but its main design employs a method know as “longwall mining”. Longwall mining involves the complete extraction of coal from the working area using a “shearer” or “sled” that mines into a large wall or “face” of coal while moving parallel to that wall. A diagram of this method can be seen in Figure 3. As the machine cuts the coal free from the working face, an armored conveyor running parallel with the face transports the coal away. As the cutting and conveyor system move forward, it leaves the unsupported rock layers above to cave in a controlled manner in an area behind the machine. This caved area of roof rock is call the “gob” or “goaf”.
To protect the longwall mining system and the miners at the working face, numerous large hydraulic shields support the roof near the working face. These shields advance with each pass of the cutting head across the face. Longwall mines have considerably faster production capacities than traditional room and pillar mining but have more delays associated with the step and transportation of the equipment.
A working section of a longwall mine is known as a “panel” and are typically 800-1,500 ft. in width and 9,000-15,000 ft. long. Before mining the panel must be developed by what are called the “bleeder” entries. The bleeders serve to open up a path to the area while providing pathways for the ventilation of fresh air to the area. The bleeders are especially needed in the case of mining coal that contains high amounts of entrapped methane gas which is highly combustible. With the bleeder it is possible to degas or render the gas inert with enough fresh airflow. The pillars in bleeder entries are often called chain pillars and are left intact throughout the life of the mine to protect the ventilation and passageways.
In the northern section of the Itmann map (Figure 1), there are two geologic features that are identified. The two areas shaded in red denote areas where the coal on the property is less than 36 inches thick. Areas of deep underground coal that are less than 36 inches of coal are essentially too thick to mine profitably. Additionally, such areas make it difficult for both miner and machine to maneuver effectively. The second feature, shaded in light blue, is an area of coal with what is called a “parting,” a layer of non-coal rock that formed within the coalbed and parts the coal seam. Partings can be less than one inch to several feet in thickness. Thick partings are areas of coal to avoid when mining since the harder rock of the parting can excessively wear or damage cutting heads and requires more intense processing of the coal material at the surface plant.
The Itmann No. 3 mine shown in this map (Figure 1) was the scene of a mine disaster in December 1972. On December 16th, 1972, eight day shift miners had finished their shift and were exiting their working area of the Cabin Creek 4-Panel via an electrically powered rail car known as a portal bus (Figure 4). Unbeknownst to the miners, highly explosive methane gas had built up in the section. While in motion the portal bus trolley wire harp, which transfers electricity from the trolley wire to the portal bus, briefly disconnected from the wire. Such disconnections are common and are part of the design of the system but often result in an electrical sparking. Within the first 1,000 ft of the miners’ journey out of the mine just such an electrical spark occurred. This electrical sparking caused the ignition of the surrounding methane gas and propagated into a explosive wave. The blast wave and flames killed five miners instantly and seriously burned the other three. The blast force was also strong enough to blow out 14 permanent stoppings of cinderblock construction in the section.
“Official Report of Major Mine Explosion Disaster, Itmann No. 3 Mine (ID 46-01576), Itmann Coal Company, Itmann, Wyoming County, West Virginia, December 16, 1972” by W. R. Park, Sylvester E. Gaspersich, and Fred E. Ferguson, of the Office of Coal Mine Health and Safety, U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Mines, from the United States Mine Rescue Association, https://usminedisasters.miningquiz.com/saxsewell/ itmann_1972.pdf
I began work on processing the Avery-Abex Metallurgical Collection at the beginning of November 2019, and boy has it been a rollercoaster so far. This collection, which spans 248 cubic feet, consists of case files, general company records and correspondence, photo negatives, glass plate negatives, photographic prints, and some 40,000 metal samples encased in resin plugs (more on these later). The collection has largely been languishing in Special Collections since it was acquired in the mid-1990s.
Over the years, several student employees have chipped away meaningfully at portions of the collection, but the majority of the boxes remained untouched. Because my time to process this collection is limited, I will need to strike a comfortable balance between getting all the work done on the remaining boxes before the end of July- a high priority- and processing the materials to the highest useful level- also a high priority. (Note that I did not say to the highest possible level. There is a point of diminishing returns to optimizing arrangement and description, and archival resources are scarce enough that frequently this equation must favor a more rough-and-ready processing style in order to reduce backlog and make more collections accessible faster.)
This balance is especially important to consider, given the large size of the collection. The boxes that much of the material arrived in are significantly bigger than the standard sized archival record carton, which necessitates a certain amount of space planning for both pre-and post-processed containers. The increased volume makes them very heavy and awkward to handle, and so much more prone to accidents when retrieving them from shelves.
I havent dropped any yet, but hauling them around really makes me appreciate the elegantly dainty standard sized boxes Im moving the records into. This is infinitely more so the case with the boxes of glass plate negatives, which are substantially heavier than their paper-holding counterparts and have the additional challenge of being very fragile. Let no one tell you that the life of an archivist is boring or sedentary.
Another quirk of this particular collection is that the boxes were more or less put where they would fit in the offsite storage facility when they were first acquired about 25 years ago, without recording their shelf locations, which makes finding the boxes a bit of a scavenger hunt. Pictured is one of three aisles of shelves at the storage facility. Attempting to process the boxes in any particular order would be a waste of time as a result, and so Ive had to change my approach to arranging this collection.
Instead of refoldering and replacing the records into their final resting places, I am processing box by box, keeping careful track of what ends up where, so that I can rearrange things as needed once I finish and have a better idea of what order best suits the materials. This way is much faster on the frontend than doing the boxes in order, and the surprise of not knowing whats going to be in the next box has proved a lovely diversion from the occasionally tedious tasks of pulling boxes, refoldering, relabelling, and filling in spreadsheets.
My favorite part of the collection so far has definitely been the metal samples. There are approximately 40,000 squat resin plugs, each with a small chunk of metal embedded in it with one surface exposed for testing, and a serial number etched on the outside. They are quite unique, in my experience, and are an instant point of interest for anyone who sees them. Their quantity, their different sizes and shapes, and the complete obscurity of their purpose to the uninitiated, makes them a valuable showpiece for the collection. However, these characteristics also make them a challenging processing project. Several have sprouted highly colorful oxidation growths over the years, which are fascinating and delicate. I have not yet decided whether they are more valuable remaining intact, or if I should attempt to clean off this reaction residue, knowing full well that it will likely grow back in time, as the fresh metal is exposed to air and humidity.
Another slight wrinkle in processing that Ive encountered was the significant presence of mold on the cabinets housing the metal samples in the basement storage room used for some Special Collections and University Archives materials. The samples themselves were not in immediate danger, because resin and metals do not tend to support mold growth, but the mold would need to be killed and the plugs cleaned before they could be moved into appropriate archival boxes and placed near other, more vulnerable materials. I had planned to process the plugs first, but this had to be put on hold until the mold issue was dealt with. Luckily, we managed to employ a company specializing in mold remediation fairly quickly, and the problem was taken care of before it could spread to other collections being stored in this space. Now, the work of cleaning and boxing up the sample plugs can commence.
Not quite a year ago, I took a call at the Special Collections and University Archives reference desk from Dr. Henry H. Bauer, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry and Science Studies and Emeritus Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences here at Virginia Tech. Dr. Bauer had been contacted not long before by a researcher exploring the life of British author Digby George Gerahty, better known by pseudonyms Stephen Lister and Robert Standish. Hoping to pass them along to his new acquaintance, Dr. Bauer wished to retrieve from the papers he donated to SCUA in the 1990s any copies of his brief correspondence with Gerahty in the summer and fall of 1980.
I was intrigued as to the exact contents of the correspondence, but thought I had a good sense of how the exchange would read. Maybe Gerahty wrote to pick Dr. Bauer’s brain about the particulars of some chemical reaction he wished to feature in a story. Maybe he wrote to run some dialogue by Dr. Bauer to ensure a scientist character sounded authentic. Surely, Gerahty was the one seeking information and surely the answer would be based in some cold, hard truth tested a thousand times in a sterile lab.
You must realize from the title of this post that I had set myself up for a bit of a shock.