My Grandmother's Writings Part Two: File Cabinets and Beer Boxes

I mentioned that my dad had given me some boxes filled with my grandmother’s writings. They were old beer boxes. It’s always been his way of storing and hauling things, in beer boxes, a trick I supposed he learned in college. Beer boxes are free, after all. Go to any liquor store and they’re bound to have at least a few cardboard boxes they’re willing to give you. Beer boxes are sturdy enough, built for holding bottles or cans, and they have handles. Go to the liquor store on the right day, and you’ll hit a jackpot of dozens of boxes, perfect for moving day. It was one of those moving days, when my grandmother moved from the house where she spent most of her life, where she raised her children, in Hampton Virginia. She moved to Hagerstown, Maryland, to be closer to the rest of our family. She was in her mid to late sixties then, I think. Dad did most of the moving himself. Over the course of several trips, he packed, loaded and hauled most of my grandmother’s belongings. Her new, but smaller apartment wouldn’t hold everything, so the writings were carefully removed from their original file cabinet and transferred into a set of brown cardboard boxes emblazoned with the irrelevant phrases “Bud Ice” and “Corona” where they remained, stored in the basement, for about 20 years.

Now, here’s a difficult riddle! Say you loaded up some very similar boxes, 20 years ago, while loading dozens of other similar boxes, and someone asks you, 20 years later to recall the specifics: what order were these papers in before you loaded them into these boxes? I didn’t bother asking dad that one.

It’s an important question, though. The wiki at the library at UNC gives a great overview of some first principles to consider, during an archival project:

When you survey your collection, pay special attention to the order of the materials. A basic archival principle is "respect pour l'ordre primitif," which is French for "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Maintaining the original order established by the creator of a collection preserves contextual information that may be important to researchers. The original order itself may also make an important statement about its creator. Using the original arrangement scheme, moreover, may save the processing staff valuable time and energy. Retaining the basic arrangement as received, when possible, is part of the archivist's responsibility to preserve historical documents in as close to original form as possible. Keep in mind that _respect pour l'ordre primitif_ does not preclude tidying up the materials or adding a supporting superstructure to aid in description and cataloging.

I can only assume that unloading a file cabinet would proceed from the front to the back, which wold put things that were at the front of one drawer at the bottom of one box. Luckily, at the bottom of one box was an envelope, which contained the manuscript labeled “First Best Poems”. I decided to start with that, assuming that it would have been the thing most readily at-hand within the original arrangement. The other things were generally grouped according to type: poems were together, novel and novel drafts were together, plays and play drafts were together, short stories, essays and miscellaneous notes were grouped and then there was the correspondence, which is somewhat tricky because it also contains drafts from all of the aforementioned groups, but nearly all of it is inside of its original, post-marked envelope. It is all, all of it, remarkably well organized.

It turns out that my grandmother’s mother, Bessie Lynn Hufford (1882-1975) had worked as a librarian and was also a published writer. (I found at least one newspaper article written by my great-grandmother, published in the Indianapolis Star on June 27 1929 June 27). My dad tells me that, as a young girl, my grandmother had devised her very own card catalogue system for her books, as a way of emulating and learning from her mother.

I can’t keep the beer boxes, though. I’m worried that the cheap cardboard may have chemicals in it which might contribute to the yellowing and decay of the papers inside. Already, many of the paperclips around those papers have rusted, causing stains around the margins of some of the pages.

So, in summary, this is what I’m doing to protect and organize the collection:

  1. remove the files from the old beer boxes and use library-quality document storage boxes instead
  2. remove all metal clips, rubber bands, fastners, etc.
  3. replace envelopes (many are very yellow already and contain metal clips) with good folders. (I prefer folders with the tabs that go all the way across).
  4. be certain to document/store envelopes that are labeled, post-marked, etc. so that the new folders retain all the information provided by the original folders.

Some of this good equipment is expensive, compared to ordinary office supplies, so it will take me some time to get all the ideal materials, but this is the eventual plan. In the interim, I’m using ordinary folders and a banker’s box.