Tag Archives: Archivists

Tracking the William Crooks: An Archival Adventure

Last Friday evening the news program Almanac, TPT’s signature show, offered its weekly Index File challenge – the traditional sign-off Minnesota history question.   As it happened, this particular Friday I was writing about archives, a lay person’s tribute to the lasting contribution of archivists who preserve and facilitate access to the record of humankind.  October is, after all, American Archives Month.

Though the work of archivists is generally structured to meet the scholarly needs of serious researchers, it is a great boon to Almanac viewers who begin their quest for the answer to the Index Question with to realize the usefulness of a structured search strategy.

The question last week had to do with the final resting place of the William Crooks, the historic steam locomotive that played a role in the state’s and nation’s history.  Without leaving the comfort of my cluttered home office it took about thirty seconds to locate the mighty iron horse at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth.  The William Crooks has rested in state there since 1975.

Having located the William Crooks – and because I was thinking archives – I started to think about what else the archives might tell me about the locomotive.

My first discovery told me about William Crooks, the man for whom thelegendary locomotive was named.  Crooks, the man, was the Colonel of the Minnesota Volunteers’ Sixth Regiment during the Civil War.  Returning to civilian life Crooks was later Chief Mechanical Engineer for the St. Paul and Pacific Railroads.

Wikipedia provided more information about William Crooks, the locomotive, information gleaned from archives and from literature based on the archival record of the engineering marvel of its time.    The steam locomotive, the first to operate in Minnesota, was built in 1861 for the Minnesota and Pacific Railroad, a system that eventually evolved into the Great Northern Railway in 1890.  The steam engine weighed in at 55,400 pounds with boiler pressure of 110 psi.  Though the William Crooks was retired in 1897 when the engineering was deemed obsolete. James J. Hill intervened and had the engine rehabbed to pull his private train.

Beginning in 1924 the locomotive went on an exhibition tour. Among other sites the William Crooks participated in the Fair of the Iron Horse in 1927.  At the 1939 New York World’s Fair the venerable locomotive made an appearance in the Railroads on Parade Program.  The program from that event speaks to the preeminence of the railroad in the era:

Into every corner of our social and economic existence, the railroad is tightly interwove.  It is the backbone of the country, no, even more, it is the veritable lifeblood in its 250,000 miles of steel veins, it flows to every far corner of a far-flung land, it binds in its living, throbbing embrace city and town and village, the open country, the first, the mine, the forge, the factory, and the sea.  It is indeed the nation’s lifeblood, the great arm not only of its industry, but of its military defense.  If it were to die, then the nation would die.  (http://www.1939nyworldsfair.com/worlds_fair/wf_tour/zone-6/Railroads_on_Parade.htm)

A search for the visual record of the William Crooks led me immediately to Minnesota Reflections Collection of images.  There I found photos of the train, contributed to the collection by the New Brighton Area Historical Society.

Along the way I found a great poster featuring the Will Crooks.   And there are lots of William Crooks postcards on e-Bay.  http://www.ebay.com/bhp/william-crooks

I also found a delightful replica of the William Crooks on a YouTube posted on Choo Choo Bob’s Train of the Day.  The down-sized train chugs along a 12-inch wide track in Ham Lake. https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=choo+choo+bob+train+of+the+day+william+crooks&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8

Then I found what may be my pick of the search, an article about the William Crooks, published in the Minneapolis Tribune on March 17, 1937.  It was written by Ruth Thompson, local historian and librarian, who, upon her retirement from the Minneapolis Public Library, published a treasure trove of articles published in the Tribune from January 1, 1945-October 9, 1950.  Her snippets of Minnesota lore are all carefully preserved by the archivists at the James K. Hosmer Special Collections Library at the Minneapolis Central Library. (http://www.hclib.org/pub/search/specialcollections/personalarchives.cfm?EAD=Thompson.%20Ruth)

Getting back to the question as posed:  Eventually the William Crooks settled down in St. Paul where it was completely rebuilt at Great Northern’s Dale Street Shops.  The Great Northern transferred ownership to the Minnesota Historical Society which hosted a display of the mighty engine at the Saint Paul Union Depot until the Depot closed – actually went on sabbatical —  in 1971.  In 1975 the William Crooks was moved to the grand new Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth where it reigns supreme to this day.

In sum, my brief Friday evening exercise was not a scholarly effort to plumb the literature pertaining to the venerable William Crooks, the man, or the locomotive that bears his name.  Instead, my intent was to celebrate American Archives Month by sharing a simple archival experience.  It is both fun and enlightening to look beyond the document or the photo to see the hand of the archivists in the preservation of the record.  Some human being, probably an archivist by profession, had to identify collect, organize and preserve those fragments of the re cord, the photos, the programs, the timetable, the stories.

Each of the digital records I could easily access from my armchair has two stories to tell – one is the story of William Crooks, the man and the locomotive; the other is the story of how that record survived and made its way to my desktop.   Though technology vastly expands the availability of the record, it has taken the work of many to get the words, the image and the story to the researcher – or to anyone in quest of a ready answer to the Index File question.

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American Archivists: Essential Links in the Information Chain

Archivists bring the past to the present.  They’re records collectors and protectors, keepers of memory.  They organize unique. historical materials, making them available for current and future researcher.

Archivist Lisa Lewis won an under-28-word Elevator Pitch contest for this pithy description of the meaning of archives.  And Lisa nailed it.

The role of archives and archivists is seldom explicit in today’s cacophonous brouhaha about secrets and secrecy, whistleblowers, privacy and access.  Though October is American Archives Month the media persist in keeping their focus on hot news rather than the complexities of a changing political, social, and technological information environment.   This is ironic since the media, like the legal profession, depend heavily on the work of archivists. – more than those who are neither journalists nor attorneys might realize.

Though the media and legions of attorneys depend heavily on robust archives, as most of us, tend to under-value the work of those professionals who meticulously preserve and make available the historic record of humankind.  Though some love to focus on state secrets and security, archival resources are ubiquitous, accessible, and, once one dips into the records, irresistible.

Just because it’s American Archives Month, consider for a moment, your archival options.  Though these are armchair accessible, take time to think about the process and the people who saw to it that the records were identified, organized, preserved and made accessible when and where you’re looking for it:

 

  • Are you or do you have a young person in your family who’s working on a History Day Project?  Check the primary resources that the archivists at the Minnesota Historical Society have spotted on the 2014 topic, “Rights and Responsibilities in History. http://www.mnhs.org/preserve/records/electronicrecords.htm
  • Yearn to re-listen to an interview you heard during the 2012 election?  Minnesota Public Radio doesn’t delete those tapes; then them at http://minnesota.publicradio.org/features/
  • Are you a “birder” tracking that elusive rare species?  Archivists at the U of M Natural History archives identify, digitize and describe over 150,000 materials that document the early natural history of the State of Minnesota http://blog.lib.umn.edu/uar/naturalhistorymn/
  • Maybe you’re an amateur historian looking for a photo of your hometown’s main street, a public building or a typical farmstead in Stearns County. Check out Minnesota Reflectionshttp://www.mndigital.org/reflections.  The collection brings you 135,000+ images, maps and documents from more than 150 of the state’s cultural heritage organizations. The Reflections tutorials offer tips on a range of archives-related topics, including saving a personal collection.
  • Do you want to know more about Ramsey County buildings, churches, businesses, neighborhoods, community leaders?  Visit the Ramsey County Historical Society at the Landmark Center or check their website: http://www.rchs.com/library_archives.htm

Obviously, this is an appetizer.  These are but a few of the archival collections of particular interest to Minnesotans.  Though the National Archives (http://www.archives.gov) can be overwhelming as starting point, they will soon entice you to explore paths, places and people you had never imagined.  Drink deep or taste not of the archival stream.

And, if what you want is to sense the spirit of archives and the work of archivists, you might want to spend a few winter evenings immersed in Une affaire d’amour and dust”, the memoir of Arlette Farge, recently translated as The Allure of the Archives.   Farge’s words speak for many archivists:

The first illusion that must be cast aside is that of the definitive truthful narrative.  A historical narrative is a construction, not a truthful discourse that can be verified on all of its points.  The narrative must combine scholarship with arguments that can introduce the criteria of truthfulness and plausibility.  The poet creates, the historian argues.

Bottom line, there are hundreds of archival treasures in counties and cities, historical societies, corporations, hospitals, nonprofit organizations, museums, the media, churches and more.  The work of the archivist may be invisible – until you want to dredge up a record or a fact.  Whether your information need is to write a book, trace your family history, learn about the history of your house or settle a bar bet, chances an archivist has had a hand in preserving the record.  If there was no archivist involved, you probably won’t find the information you so desperately need.

 

 

 

 

 

Hail American Archivists – October is American Archives Month

Over the last few millennia we’ve invented a series of technologies – from the alphabet to the scroll to the codex, the printing press, photography, the computer, the smartphone – that have made it progressively easier and easier for us to externalize our memories, for us to essentially outsource this fundamental human capacity.                                                    Joshua Foer

 October 2013 is American Archives Month – a time to take note that Minnesota is “The Land of (nearly) 10,000 Archives.”   In case you haven’t visited your county historical society, public, government agency, corporate headquarters or university library, gallery or other citadel of learning lately, you might be surprised what’s happening behind the scenes in archives.   In countless institutions and communities archives are facing the challenges of the digital age.

In this information age, everyone expects to find information at the click of key.  Whether genealogical research, stories of the town or neighborhood’s history, the accomplishments of state leaders, business mergers or house history, we want to know what’s gone before.   The urge to dip into history, to build on what’s gone before, to understand our roots, is great.  The more we catch a glimpse the more we find ourselves lost in the pursuit of more information, stories, pictures, data, graphics, audio and visual recordings – our thirst for information is never quenched.

What’s often lost is recognition of what goes into the process of making that wealth of information accessible.  Because we see the technology on the output end of the information chain we credit the app, as if an inert tool can magically locate the needed crumb of information, then present it in living color on a hand-held device.

In fact, it is the unstinting work of archivists who, from the beginning of time, have identified, preserved, and organized the record of human kind, regardless of format, assuming that their meticulous efforts will bear fruit some day in the future.

What’s happening today is that, even as they continue their traditional role, archivists are meeting unprecedented challenges, including these:

Expectations – The challenge to archivists is to establish standards then design and introduce appropriate technologies to digitize and organize materials so that the record itself reaches the user at the moment of need.

Format – Information comes in an ever-expanding range of formats that require new standards and procedures for storage and portability, organizing principles and massive examination of archival basics.

Security/privacy – As everyone must know by now, when information is ubiquitous and the flow of data is fluid, it’s a new world for archivists.  Ask NSA.

Ownership – Information has become a commodity with economic value.  Archivists face unparalleled issues that have major implications for who owns what, who pays for and who gains from value added to raw information.  Access issues are particularly problematic for archivists whose purview is information that is classified as “public.”

Outreach – The work of archivists of no value unless and until the information they identify, organize and preserve is put to use.  Increasingly, the public wants to know how to get the records they know, or suspect, are out there somewhere.  [ One example that piques the imagination is the recent release of thousands of FBI files, files that divulge buckets of delicious tidbits collected by the zealous FBI on issues and individuals ranging from Hollywood stars to war protesters to college professors.  Somewhere someone had to decide how or if to inform the voyeuristic public of the release and the points of access.]

The Midwest Archives Conference met this past week in Green Bay.  A quick scan of the agenda for that meeting offers some ideas on what’s on the minds of archivists in September 2013.   These are the conference sessions:  User-centered design; Website analysis on a budget; Designing for hand-held devices; Crowd-source transcription; Leveraging Wikipedia; Using Omeka for web-based exhibit; Scan-on-demand reference and research services.

For another glimpse of today’s archives, check the October 25 meeting of the Twin Cities Archives Round Table (http://tcartmn.org/2013/09/23/twin-cities-archives-round-table-fall-meeting-2/) Archivists from a wide range of institutional settings will be meeting at the Red Wing Shoe Company (yes, corporations are important pillars of the archives community).   Archives of every stripe will share their combined skills and experience to assure that the record of each institution is preserved and made accessible to users, whether corporate, academic or the public at large.

Celebrate American Archives Month by taking a few minutes to view some starting points – this is a quick list of a very few of the state’s archives – don’t stop here!