Brief Reflections on “Archiving”

28 February 2014


Day 5 – Last Day at the Rockefeller Archive Center

It’s been a great week. Five full days spent digging through the collections at the Rockefeller Archive Center in search of the short-lived New York Police Department Psychopathic Laboratory. It had its ups and downs, but then again, I suppose all archive trips have a few of those. And it was both exhausting and energizing.

For the non-initiated: archiving is hard work. I realize it doesn’t look like much, but I promise you’ll change your mind after a week spent in the reading room. Sifting through page after page of documents and diligently taking notes for eight or so hours is not as easy as it seems. It’s draining both physically and mentally. Moreover, the day does not merely run from opening to closing. The week also consists of late nights spent checking notes, re-reading sources, and trying to follow up with leads, questions, and general breadcrumbs. Dinner conversation inevitably turns to a focus on the day’s discoveries (or frustrations). The brain is constantly turned “on” – so the week is a long one.

Despite the work that goes into it, I find archiving ridiculously energizing for my “historian spirit.” The detective-like process of seeking out the little clues and slowly figuring out how the puzzle fits together is amazingly fun. I may feel like I’m in desperate need of a nap, but I’ve also already written most of a paper in my head (and parts on paper). Now to just keep that motor running…

Archival Frustration: How could there be no mention? (and who is Eleanor I. Keller?)

27 February 2014

Day 4: at the Rockefeller Center Archives

I should have known that yesterday‘s excitement was too good to be true. Today I felt like all I did was face one question after another. The New York Psychopathic Laboratory was only open from 1916-1917 (with a trial run in 1915 and a “revival” of sorts in 1926-1927) so, in theory, it should be easy to locate within the Minutes and financial records of the Bureau of Social Hygiene. Right? Wrong. I flipped through page after page, folder after folder, madly clicking away with my camera in the hopes that maybe I was just missing something that should be staring me in the face. There was nothing (except a bunch of information about a project I’d like to pursue in the future about the Bedford Reformatory). I’m in a state of disbelief.

The work has also raised some other interesting questions such as: who is Eleanor I. Keller? She’s listed as the psychologist who worked at the Laboratory, but she exists as nothing more than a cursory mention on the staff list in the archival record. Given that the purpose of the Laboratory was to perform both psychiatric and psychological testing on those arrested at New York’s Police Headquarters, I would say she must have played a fairly critical role. And yet my cursory searches for her have yet to provide much detail. One of the issues is that when you Google “Eleanor I. Keller” you get a lot of hits about the meetings/correspondence between Eleanor Roosevelt and Helen Keller. And after a day of archiving, my energy levels permit little more than a quick Google search. I know she wrote about her work at the Laboratory – and I know her start and end dates for this work. But I don’t know much else yet – where did she get her PhD? Who did she work with? Typically I would approach the challenge as an exciting bit of detective work but after today’s frustrations in the archival records I’m feeling somewhat more negative about the venture.


Seek and Ye Shall Find: A Great Day in the Archives

26 February 2014

Day 3: at the Rockefeller Archive Center

Last night over dinner with Jeremy Burman, I was complaining about a number of questions that my work this week in the Bureau of Social Hygiene collection at the Rockefeller Archive Center was raising. I explained that I felt like I was on the edge of understanding several elements connected to the Psychopathic Laboratory but when I held them up to the light, could see nothing but holes. I think “the archives” may have been listening in on my conversation: Folder after folder today answered each of my questions in turn (and even confirmed two “gut” hunches). The answers were so direct to my questions that I actually felt a momentary chill on my spine.

Silliness aside, it was a wonderful day.

The day also made it clear how nice it is to travel with someone. On the one hand it has been helpful to discuss with a colleague what I’ve been reading and how the pieces of the puzzle are slowly starting to fit together. But on the other hand, it’s really refreshing to have someone to share the joys of discovery as they arise during the day. It can be a bit deflating to come across a particularly juicy detail or exciting clue only to look around the room and realize that everyone else is busy with their own projects and not interested in your news. Having a colleague the next desk over (who is also patient and willing to come see what you’re madly gesturing at) has been a real treat this week.

How to make your researchers feel spoiled

25 February 2014

P1050247Day 2: at the Rockefeller Archive Center

I have the distinct feeling of being spoiled this week. First it was the cookies in the researcher lounge, now it’s a lunch hosted by the staff of the Rockefeller Archive Center. At 12:30 an invitation was put out in the reading room, calling researchers to join the RAC staff for a meal and introductions. What impressed me even more was not the interested conversation around the table but the efforts undertaken by the individual staff members to make suggestions relevant to each of our widely varying research projects. At this rate I’m going to be hard pressed to leave when the week is over.

But Day 2 was not all food and conversation – in the morning I read through some of the annual reports of the Bureau of Social Hygiene to get a sense of the various projects it was funding in the early decades of the twentieth century. Post-lunch it was back to the New York Police Psychopathic Laboratory records. In addition to the stacks of case histories detailing the personal histories of those who were  tested by the laboratory, I came across a number of interesting newspaper and magazine articles that seem to capture the aim of the laboratory as not simply to identify individuals among those being arrested who were to be labelled “mentally defective” (to use the terminology of the period) but also to prevent future crimes (see online samples here and here). I became so lost in my reading that I lost all track of time and had to be told that the reading room was closing for the day. Back to it tomorrow!


A new(ish) project: NY Psychopathic Laboratory

24 February 2014

Rockefeller Archive Center GatesDay 1: at the Rockefeller Archive Center

I’ve rang bells and buzzers, talked into intercoms, and even called down a private elevator via an old red phone that gave me the feeling of being on a secret mission – but today was the first time I’ve entered through the gates of what seemed otherwise to be the private entrance to a grand home in order to conduct archival research.

In actuality, the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY is a grand home entered via a private gate — the archives operates within Hillcrest, the home built for Martha Baird Rockefeller, second wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Completed in 1963 the house has the feel of a much older era with nineteenth century portraits on the walls and Victorian furnishings. The lockers for researchers are neatly hidden inside M.B.R.’s closet and the reading room on the second floor was originally designed to be a sitting room. The dining room has even been converted for use by researchers in need of a break, complete with a coffee machine and a tin of cookies (!!) on the table. Hardly a shabby environment in which to spend some time searching through boxes of archival documents.

Cookie and décor distractions aside: I’m on the trail of a new(ish) project. I’ve recently begun focusing my attention on the history of “criminal insanity” – how it was defined and the institutions that were specially designated for those assigned with the title. As part of this larger project, I jumped when an opportunity presented itself to spend the week at the Rockfeller Archive Center and consult the papers related to the New York Police Psychopathic Laboratory (H/T to Jeremy Burman for the invitation to tag along on his dissertation research trip). Read the rest of this entry »

Brraiins! and an impromptu meeting

21 April 2011

Day 3 PM: Cushing Center and Medical History Library

As soon as I knew we were headed towards Yale, I made a request to tour the Cushing Center. I knew about Harvey Cushing and his brain collection but after watching a YouTube video about the new Center, I really wanted to visit.

It was well worth the trip – our tour guide was Yale’s photographer, Terry Dagradi, who has taken some incredible shots of the various elements of the collection. With 400 brains in their original jars with Cushing’s labels, the collection is just plain fascinating. The space was also interesting in terms of its set-up and interactive aspects – under each case were drawers full of materials from the collection that you could pull out to explore. There was also a photo of Cushing with Ivan Pavlov beside the famous piece of steak that Pavlov “signed” with an electrosurgical knife in 1929! Read the rest of this entry »

Yale’s Archives & Manuscripts

20 April 2011

Day 2: Feeling rather scholarly

Walking through the giant wooden doors of Sterling Memorial Library this morning was an awe-inspiring experience. There was just something surreal about pulling the big iron door handles and stepping under the intricately carved stone entrance-way beneath William Osler‘s words “The Library is the Heart of the University” – it’s just not experience I have on a regular basis.

I wasn’t prepared for the grandeur of the interior of Yale University‘s social science and humanities library – based on the arched ceilings, stained glass, and extraordinary Gothic details I was certain the building was a re-purposed cathedral. It turns out that it was built in 1930 on the design of James Gamble Rogers, a Yale alumni. The second largest university library in North America, it holds over 12.5 million volumes – and is home to the Manuscripts and Archives collection. Read the rest of this entry »

Quick Trip to Dix Papers

11 March 2011

Day Trip: If we ever decide to clone Dorothea Dix, I know where we can find her hair

I’m in Boston for the Eastern Psychological Association conference for the next few days so I took the opportunity to spend a few hours back at Houghton Library (pictured right) to go through parts of the Dorothea Lynde Dix papers (the last time I was here was in February of 2010 for the William James papers but that was before I began Field Notes).

Things have changed since I was last here: they’ve gone digital. I had to register online before arriving today plus get my photo taken for a fancy ID card that expires tomorrow (pictured left). I also had to request all my boxes online via their website – even when I was sitting in the reading room. It all seemed very fancy.

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Curtain Call on the Dissertation Research

8 December 2010

Last Day: Now I really have to start writing.

I had a great start to my last day at the NY State Archives. Began the morning with three large boxes filled with framed photographs of the School of Nursing records from Utica State Hospital which ranged between 1888 to 1914. The photos included both graduating classes and staff photographs. It was really cool to see how the nursing and attendant uniforms changed even in a seemingly short period of time! I was also completely entertained by a photo with the caption: “Graduating Class 1901 Acting Up”. The students were feeding each other with spoons and combing one another’s hair and taking their pulses – it was absolutely hilarious (and reminded me very much of my favourite Münsterberg photo).

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Hunting for a Needle in a Haystack

7 December 2010

Day 2: Worth the Search at NY State Archives

You would think that since this is my second trip to the New York State Archives that I would have little left to look at – perhaps just a few “loose ends” to finish up. Well, I’ve barely scratched the surface of their asylum and state hospital collection (and I’m only talking about their nineteenth century materials – they have much, much more from the twentieth century). I think there are possibilities here for many more trips in the future for other projects (yay!).

I spent the day today with materials from Utica State Hospital and Willard State Hospital. I was rolling along at high speed initially, I even finished going through a whole cart of boxes this morning and was pretty impressed with myself. And then came this giant collection of mishmash. Seven boxes on a cart – four of which are banker sized boxes – filled with material ranging from the 1850s to the 1970s. The archivist printed off a finding aid to help me sort through the material but it doesn’t correspond to the material actually in the boxes. And the folders are mostly unlabelled – even the material within a given folder is a mix of centuries!

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