Tag Archives: research

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

For students – the day of reckoning is at hand

This first week of the new year, a critical time when  millions of students wake to a harsh reality – the end of vacation is at hand and the assignments remain in a state of potency.  Whether the facts face a high school working on a History Day project, a PhD candidate with a dissertation that needs some touch up, a parent or spouse of a student who would rather play than probe, there is one happy thought – The first step is the hardest.

Matt Lee who publishes a rich newsletter for Minitex speaks to that very point, reminding us that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, according to Confucious. (Or maybe Lao Tzu. A Google search cites both.  Anyone knows a college student who can verify this information?)   As verification of that adage Matt points the way to the report, “Truth be told: How college students use and evaluate information in the digital age” .  The survey of over 8300+ students at 25 institutions, conducted by Alison Head and Michael Eisenberg of the University of Washington Information School,  offers  a surprisingly good read.  Though focused on students navigating in a digital environment the findings are totally applicable to any time and most tasks.  Most fun of all is the great YouTube presentation of the results – you don’t even have to crack a book to get the gist of the 72-page report.

Gustavus Adolphus faculty member Barbara Fister, writing in the Library Journal, reports that 84% of the students surveyed reported that getting started – defining a topic, narrowing it down, and filtering through relevant results — proved to be the three major stumbling blocks to confident student research.  This in the day when everything is right there on the computer – or not.   Fister reflects on the good news that today’s students are “very conscious of the need to evaluate the sources they encounter.  They don’t take them at face value, but are choosy about finding sources that are current and authoritative.”

Fister’s mention of “unhealthy info-gluttony” suggests a concern of mine.  A quote from the report resonates, though I’m quick to note that there’s a generation gap: “A 32-year-old librarian relates what now seems like a quaint memory from a simpler time. Not that many years ago, while conducting a literature review for her own humanities dissertation, she was able to search and exhaust every information source her campus library had to offer. .But for many of todayʼs undergraduates, the idea of being able to conduct an exhaustive search is inconceivable. Information seems to be as limitless as the universe. And research is one of the most difficult challenges facing students in the digital age.”  Still we information enthusiasts need reminders that, in some cases,  more is more, not better.

Happy New Year’s Resolution (beats dieting)  is to  research, think and write more about the world of digital resources in blogs-to-be.  The inescapable fact that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” is inescapable.   Defining a topic, narrowing it down, and filtering through relevant and reliable results require time and active engagement with the topic.  The iPad and laptop are quick to fetch, not so good at figuring it all out.  Time, teachers and librarians are essential to the process.

Happy surfing and sifting to learners who can pretty well discard the old alibi that “the library didn’t have anything about…”