A Closer Look at Archival Appraisal

As graduate assistants working in Special Collections, Mikaela and I have gotten hands-on experience in just about every step of what it means to sustain a collection and/or donation. We’ve inventoried materials from the acquisitions room, we’ve processed and re-processed documents, and we’ve learned about the actions taken to seek out a collection. But how do we get there? How do the items in the acquisitions room come to be in our possession? Suffice it to say they do not magically appear though that would certainly make things easier, wouldn’t it? Of course, that wouldn’t make for as interesting a story…

Recently we took our first “field trip” (as I like to call it) out to Lake Sinclair in Milledgeville to appraise personal items at the home of William Julian Usery, Jr., a labor union activist who served in the Ford and Nixon Administrations and was eventually named United States Secretary of Labor under Ford. Born in Hardwick, Georgia, W.J. Usery attended Georgia Military College and later enlisted in the Navy as an underwater welder on a repair ship in the Pacific Feet. He’s also widely known for being a special mediator in resolving labor conflicts. When we arrived at his home, we met with Doug Heene, executor of W.J. Usery Jr.’s estate. Doug was Mr. Usery’s assistant in his consulting business. We came into his acquaintance through Melvin Usery, W.J. Usery’s son, who hoped to have several of his father’s possessions detailing his accomplishments placed in an archive. We’re grateful he’s chosen Georgia College and the town in which W.J. Usery grew up to do so.

Appraisal is defined by the National Archives as “the process of determining the value and thus the final disposition of Federal Records, making them either temporary and permanent.” The National Archives and Records Administration “works with interested parties to ensure that essential evidence is created, identified, appropriately scheduled and managed for as long as needed.” I asked Digital Archivist, Holly Croft, what appraisal has come to mean for her. She describes it as a more three-dimensional act, looking at the entire picture.

“There’s this belief that archives are ‘neutral’ and there’s a concern in the community today about the difficulty of keeping everything. There’s just no way to keep every single scrap of paper. You want to be sure you’re getting the items that are most representative of the contribution the person made.” In Usery’s case, we were concerned with showcasing his contributions in labor relations on the national level, but also Usery as a person. Some of the objects featured in this blog post, such as what we’ve dubbed, “The Dung Pony”, exemplify this. (Scroll down for a detailed picture).  Holly says, “It’s really about creating the story of who the person is. It’s not a neutral act; it is making a judgment call. You have to be aware of biases, think about who is going to be using this information in the future, and do your research on whose stuff is being appraised.”

For the acquisition, Special Collections’ Associate Director Nancy Davis Bray, did an initial appraisal to ensure what we are getting has enduring value. Nancy believes she has an “unorthodox opinion” of appraisal. “I recognize the pedagogy surrounding appraisal and try my best to abide by it, but there are times when you need to go past it, in that, not only are you accepting and soliciting materials, but you also need items that illustrate the person for exhibition.” She believes in an approach of “take more and then use a discerning eye later.” In other words, you do an initial appraisal and later take a closer look at what you’ve acquired.

Georgia State University owns W.J. Usery’s paper materials, oral histories, and speeches, while we have come into possession of his personal belongings: airplane model collections, hard hats in memory of his work in labor unions, framed certificates of his accomplishments, etc. during this appraisal.

On the day of the appraisal, Nancy, Holly, Mikaela, and I walked into a two story condominium filled with Usery memorabilia – empty boxes, packaging tape, and bubble wrap in hand. Doug showed us around and instructed us what was now Georgia College’s to take and, with that, we got to work. What seemed on the outside like another overwhelming game of tetris ended up being an entertaining and enlightening insight into who W.J. Usery, Jr. was. There’s a really nice pay-off to a task like this. Beforehand, we learned about Usery in the professional sense – what he did as Secretary of Labor, and what he will be remembered for doing. Boxing his personal items for the archive feels like part responsibility, part voyeurism. But I say this in a good way. I got to learn who Usery was as a person as well as outside of his career. The more I work in Special Collections, the more I realize the significance in knowing what the archive holds. It’s one thing to be familiar with the contents of the collections, but it’s another to know something of the people they’re about or the people who donated them. People come to this space to learn, to research, and it’s a good feeling knowing you helped them in their pursuit.

Below is a closer look at some of the items Nancy, Holly, Mikaela, and I came across in our appraisal that helped to create a full, three dimensional shape of who W.J. Usery was and will remain in his legacy.

 

Two different hard hats in relation to the unions W. J. Usery Jr. was affiliated with. The left picture is from the Boilermakers Union and the right features Mikaela wearing the Space Team hat, in association with Usery’s involvement in the Kennedy Space Center.

Below are two framed political cartoons we found among other framed photographs.

usery-political-cartoon
This cartoon plays on a 1973 teachers strike in Philadelphia that Usery helped mediate. The left side depicts the Board and the right depicts the Union. (1973)
usery-political-cartoon-2
In response to the 1994-1995 Major League Baseball strike to which W.J. Usery Jr. was appointed special mediator. Cartoonist Paul Szep from The Boston Globe writes a personal note on the side that reads: “Much applause and regards for pitching a good game.” (1995)

 

 

dung
To the super mediator who can always find the pony no matter how deep the dung! In solidarity and gratitude. -The United Mine Workers of America
usery-bust
A wax bust of W.J. Usery Jr. made by his wife, Fran Pardee Usery

 

What made the work extra special at the end of it all was getting to end the day with this lake view from W. J. “Bill” Usery Jr.’s backyard.

lake-view

 

 

 

Works Cited:

Bernstein, Adam. “W.J. ‘Bill’ Usery, renowned labor-management troubleshooter, dies at 92.” The Washington Post, 15 Dec 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/wj-bill-usery-renowned-labor-management-troubleshooter-dies-at-92/2016/12/15/913c1aec-c172-11e6-9a51-cd56ea1c2bb7_story.html?utm_term=.34c6e08ccfea

“Southern Labor Archives: W. J. Usery, Jr.: Biography and Timeline.” Georgia State University Library Research Guides, 07 Dec 2015, http://research.library.gsu.edu/c.php?g=115649&p=752736.

“Strategic Directions: Appraisal Policy.” National Archives, Sep 2007, https://www.archives.gov/records-mgmt/initiatives/appraisal.html

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