It Came From The Bowels

I work where?

I wish I had a dollar for every time a writer used the word “bowels” to describe a library or archive. At best it conjures an image out of The Raiders of the Lost Ark. Boxes haphazardly put down anywhere on the floor just waiting for some researcher to miraculously stumble upon the one box they need to complete their research. At worst, well, I won’t finish that thought.

Yeah, it’s exactly (not) like this.

How did we get here?

Margaret Sartor and Alex Harris recently published “Where We Find Ourselves–the Photographs of Hugh Mangum 1897-1922.” They are also the curators of an exhibit of Hugh Mangum’s photographs on display now at the Duke University Nasher Museum of Art (through May 19, 2019).

The New Yorker recently published a review by Sarah Blackwood (February 14, 2019) that once again trots out the familiar trope of materials disgorged from the “bowels” of the library, saved from certain obscurity or worse. The kerfuffle started with this description of the provenance of the collection:

They were rescued once, in the nineteen-seventies, only to be relegated to the back-yard greenhouse of Mangum’s nephew; they were rescued again, in the nineteen-eighties, when they were donated to Duke University. As recently as 2013, more boxes of negatives turned up, this time from the bowels of special collections and marked “discard.” The negatives have passed through the hands of family members, neighborhood activists, local photographers, librarians, archivists, and scholars.

Where to even begin unpacking this quote?

Deteriorated glass plates with dirt and paper stuck to them.

First, while we do not recommend storing family records in a chicken coop one could argue that “benign neglect” kept these important documents and images from the landfill. My guess is these plates were handed down through the family, perhaps put aside and forgotten. But for whatever reason the family did not throw them in the trash bin. As vaguely alluded to in the article eventually other people realized the importance of these plates and actively decided to find a permanent repository for them.

The original Hugh Mangum Collection came to Rubenstein Library in 1986 (now part of the Archive for Documentary Arts). Additional materials were discovered and added to the Mangum collection in two rounds. The latest came around 2013. I believe these were the ones found in the chicken coop/barn mentioned in the New Yorker article.

Paper stuck to glass plates.

These “chicken [expletive]” plates as Blackwood describes them came to Conservation sometime around 2016. The plates were very dirty, gritty, and many had paper stuck to them. We cleaned about 250 of these glass plates in house and sent several to the Northeast Document Conservation Center for more in-depth treatment. Henry Hebert, Special Collections Conservator, even consulted with and helped install a few of the Mangum plates at the Nasher. The Digital Production Center digitized this collection a few years ago including the 2013 addition. The people in Digital Collections and Curation Services worked on the metadata and building the website. The collection is available online and is worth looking at. The images are amazing.

People from collection development, technical services, research services, conservation, and the digital production center all played their part in making sure this collection was described, housed, and preserved so that Sartor and Harris could write about them and curate their exhibit. I won’t even start on how many Nasher staff worked on the exhibit.

Why words matter

Look, I get it. Authors need to write compelling narratives and simply finding materials already described and housed in a library isn’t very interesting to most people. Story trumps details, which can get lost or worse willfully ignored. But herein lies the problem with using “from the bowels of special collections.” There is a lot of hidden labor in libraries and archives. People more eloquent than I have written about this issue. We talk a lot in Technical Services about how we can best tell our stories because what we do is often invisible to the public. Our day-to-day work isn’t sexy or glamorous. Most days are made up of very routine and frankly boring work (hello mold removal!). The work also takes its toll physically and often emotionally. Don’t even get me started on salaries in a female-dominated education-related profession. That is why it is hurtful when our work is ignored to make the story sound more miraculous than it is.

At least Sartor acknowledges (pp 157-158) many of the people that had a hand in making this collection, book, and exhibit a reality. She appropriately thanks Erin Hammeke, Senior Conservator, who spearheaded the conservation project. Except Sartor uses another sad trope, “magic,” to describe the conservation of these materials. As if the conservation of these plates weren’t done by a collective of highly skilled people but rather by the wave of a magic wand. Poof! Conservation Managed! Erin, Henry, Rachel Penniman, and Emma Kimmel, then our intern, spent many hours painstakingly cleaning and housing all those plates.

Mangum housed in the (not bowel-like) stacks.

The hero of this story is not the creators of this book and exhibit (although these are wonderful). The heroes should  be the people behind the scenes working really hard every day to collect, describe, house, digitize, preserve, shelve, and retrieve collections so that when their user appears these collections can be pulled from the shelf and handed to them (hello Ranganathan!). The fact that you can walk into a library or archive, request something, and a few minutes later it shows up on your table feels like magic. I assure you it is not.

As I write these thoughts we are preparing for the grand opening of “Women’s Work,” our first exhibit of materials from the newly acquired Lisa Unger Baskin Collection. This collection focuses on women in publishing, art, medicine, literature, society, and so much more. It helps uncover work that is often unseen, unacknowledged, or simply ignored. I wish Blackwood would have taken some time to acknowledge the hard work so many have done to make sure that the Mangum collection didn’t fade into obscurity. At least Blackwood seems to be listening to the archivists on Twitter. Maybe she realizes now that repeating the phrase “it came from the bowels” is demoralizing to those of us who work behind the scenes to make our amazing collections usable now and in the future.

Thanks to Kate Collins, Rubenstein Library Research Services Librarian, for speaking up about the Mangum Collection in response to Blackwood’s review, and for sending me a link to Blackwood’s response on Twitter.

Beth Doyle is the head of the Conservation Services Department and the Leona B. Carpenter Senior Conservator at Duke University Libraries. She can be reached via email at <b.doyle@duke.edu>.

5 thoughts on “It Came From The Bowels”

  1. Thank you for these much-needed and spirited comments on the work we do that is often invisible to others. At the opening of the Nasher exhibit of Hugh Mangum’s compelling portraits, I found myself at one point gathered with a core group of Duke Libraries colleagues who contributed to the Mangum project. In an instant, I was flooded with a joyous feeling of common purpose that has moved this project along for more than 30 years. It was thrilling to reflect on how all of our efforts have led to this moment, and to be part of an audience astonished by the beauty in the people Hugh Mangum photographed. As I mentioned to those colleagues on opening night, this is what we hope for and work towards every day, even if the efforts bear fruit years after we’re gone.

  2. Blackwood also tweeted, “I drew the anecdote about the box of negatives marked “discard” from the exhibition catalog.” So …

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