The Great Society Congress: A Collaborative Approach to Digital Exhibits and Outreach

Staff members at the Wise Library pose for photographs in front of books January 4th, 2018. Photo Brian Persinger Wyatt Jay

This post was authored by guest contributors Danielle Emerling, Assistant Curator, Congressional and Political Papers Archivist, West Virginia University Libraries, and Jay Wyatt, Director of Programs and Research, Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education.

 

Introduction

VRA

Congressional records are held in repositories around the country. Here, records from three repositories document the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 1. Petition for Cloture Motion, May, 21, 1965, “Cloture Petition” folder, Unanimous Consent to Resignations, Box 3, Secretary of the Senate, 89th Congress, Records the U.S. Senate, RG 46, National Archives. 2. Photograph of the Voting Rights Act signing, The Claude Pepper Papers, Florida State University Libraries. 3. Correspondence between the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Carl Albert, with enclosure, Carl Albert Congressional Papers, Legislative Series, Box 89, Folder 87, Carl Albert Center Congressional Archives, University of Oklahoma.

The archives that document the United States Congress reside in repositories throughout the country. How to bring them together in a meaningful and thematic way is a question congressional archivists and historians often ponder. About four years ago we started planning a project that would do just that – use materials from several archives to explore the numerous pieces of legislation that make up the “Great Society” and discover the Congress that passed them.

The digital exhibit, “The Great Society Congress,” is a collaborative project of the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress (ACSC). The ACSC is an association of organizations that promotes the study of the United States Congress. Many ACSC member organizations maintain archival collections of current and former members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The online exhibit features more than 400 items from 18 member institutions. While our energy initially was focused on creating the exhibit, the exhibit has turned into a great vehicle for new partnerships and outreach.

How We Did the Project

Exhibit

One section of the exhibit focuses on the key legislation passed by the 89th Congress.

Telling the story of Congress is difficult. It’s a large, complex institution with more than 500 members who bring different interests, points of view, and ways of working to a body that needs to make policy for the entire country. Our approach was to focus on the key legislation, the leadership and procedures that shaped this particular Congress, and some of the larger events unfolding at the time, such as the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement.

With so many different components, we chose to develop the exhibit over the course of two years, releasing pieces of it to coincide with different legislative anniversaries. This made the project more manageable for our all-volunteer exhibit task force.

We were unsure at first how many ACSC member institutions would contribute to the project because participation largely depended on what members were able to find in their collections. We were pleasantly surprised by the response, though.  By the time we completed the site build, we had incorporated over 400 primary source documents from almost 20 different ACSC member organizations.

We also received a wider variety of materials focusing on a broader array of topics than we initially anticipated, and so both the size and scope of the exhibit expanded as the project proceeded.  For example, the W.R. Poage Legislative Library at Baylor University and the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas submitted materials documenting a Food for Peace delegation trip to India led by then-Congressman Dole and Congressman W.R. “Bob” Poage.  The highlight of this submission was the discovery that silent film footage of the trip held at the Poage Legislative Library matched up with audio held at the Dole Institute, and archivists Debbie Davendonis (Poage) and Sarah D’Antonio Gard (Dole) were able to reconstruct this rare source. The submission encouraged us to consider the additional work that Congress does, and as a result we developed “The Political Environment” section of the exhibit, which eventually grew to include features on civil rights and the war in Vietnam.

We brought all of these materials together in an Omeka exhibit, hosted by the University of Delaware Library. With the assistance of the Web Services and Digital Humanities Librarian, we were able to create a special template for the site that blends contemporary design and easy navigability.

NARA Lesson Plan

LessonPlan

The ACSC exhibit task force partnered with the Center for Legislative Archives at NARA to create the “Congress, the Great Society in the 1960s, and today” lesson plan.

After creating the site’s content, we received some anecdotal evidence that college faculty were using the site for instruction, but we hoped that educators teaching at various levels would use the site in the classroom. We also knew educators have a tremendous workload and would likely want something ready-made and flexible to use.

So, we partnered with the Center for Legislative Archives (CLA) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to create a lesson plan. The CLA is the part of NARA that preserves and makes available the official records of Congress, and as a longtime ACSC member, it had already contributed a great deal of expertise and documents to the exhibit. The CLA has extensive experience developing educational resources, including lesson plans, e-books, and mobile apps, for K-12 educators.   Charles Flanagan, Outreach Supervisor at the CLA, guided us through the lesson plan creation and showed us how to structure a lesson so students build on their knowledge from one day to the next.

The resulting lesson plan, “Congress, the Great Society in the 1960s, and today,” asks students in grades 9-12 to summarize President Lyndon Johnson’s vision for a “Great Society,” place the vision in historical context, and detail the ways in which Congress responded.

Our partnership with the CLA has been invaluable.  Charlie and the CLA’s educational specialists use the “Great Society” lesson plan in many of the outreach activities they conduct with teachers across the country each year, and that has helped make people more aware of the exhibit and encouraged greater interaction with the materials. It has, in many ways, helped keep the exhibit relevant, as we’ve moved on from the 50th anniversary of the Great Society.

National History Day Article

NHDThemebook

Our article, “Congress Constructs the Great Society Through Conflict and Compromise,” appeared in the 2018 National History Day theme book.

In addition to instruction, we wanted to entice students to use the site for their research. One of the members of the exhibit team had worked with National History Day (NHD) in the past, and we contacted NHD about writing an article for the 2018 theme book. Each year, the NHD theme book consists of articles relating to the year’s theme, and it is unveiled at the national competition. They print approximately 12,000-15,000 copies, but most people access it online. The theme book usually receives approximately 300,000 page views.

Our article, “Congress Constructs the Great Society Through Conflict and Compromise,” provides an overview of the exhibit. By pulling out specific documents, photographs, and audio files available in the exhibit, we sought to highlight the numerous ways students could connect Congress’ role in passing legislation with the theme of “Conflict and Compromise.” Following the theme book’s publication in fall 2017, we saw a significant increase in traffic to the exhibit website.   Approximately 7,000 new users have tallied near 18,000 page views on the exhibit over the past eight months.  This represents more than a quarter of the 26,000 users who have visited the exhibit since its launch in April 2015. Like the lesson plan, the outreach that we’ve done to promote the exhibit via the NHD theme book has paid major dividends.

Lessons Learned and the Future of the Exhibit

Through collaboration among member institutions to build the site and partnerships to develop instruction and student research resources, “The Great Society Congress” digital exhibit successfully highlighted congressional archives for new audiences. If we did the exhibit over again, we would consider applying for a grant, particularly so we could help member institutions with costs associated with researching topics, digitizing materials, and creating metadata. Although we will not be adding content to the exhibit, we’ll continue to look for outreach opportunities (like this blog!) to help get more people interested in the exhibit.  We believe it will continue to be relevant for instructors teaching the history of the 1960s at various levels and a fantastic resource for anyone interested in learning more about the Great Society.

There’s an Archivist for That! Interview with Colleen McFarland Rademaker of the Corning Museum of Glass

The There’s an Archivist for That! series features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect. COPA member Anna Trammell, Archival Operations and Reference Specialist at the University of Illinois Archives Research Center/Student Life and Culture Archives, brings you an interview with Colleen McFarland Rademaker, Associate Librarian, Special Collections at the Corning Museum of Glass Rakow Research Library.

Colleen McFarland Rademaker in her office at the Rakow Research Library, Corning Museum of Glass (Courtesy of Colleen McFarland Rademaker)

Colleen McFarland Rademaker currently serves as associate librarian, special collections at the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass. Previously she was head archivist for the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth (2015-2017), director of archives and records management (2012-2015) and archivist (2010-2012) for the Mennonite Church USA in Goshen, Ind., and head of special collections & university archivist at the University of Wisconsin — Eau Claire (2006-2010). She serves on the Society of American Archivists Publications Board (2014-2020) and is certified as an interpretive guide by the National Association for Interpretation. Colleen received a B.A. in German and history from the College of Wooster, an M.A. in history from Cornell University, and an M.L.I.S. from the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee.

AT: How did you get your gig?

CMR: After working in academic archives for six years and religious archives for seven years, I took what may not look like a logical “next step” by seeking a position in a museum archives. However, the Corning Museum of Glass is not just any museum, and neither is it an archival program. I was immediately drawn to the institution’s interdisciplinary mission to document and promote the art, history, science, and technology of glass. Few repositories offer the opportunity to work both broadly and deeply across disciplines, and I embraced the challenge of serving patrons who bring expertise from incredibly diverse backgrounds to the research process. Having an interdisciplinary academic background myself, I recognized that this position might be a great fit for me.

As for the mechanics of getting the job, I confess that I applied for a different position than the one I currently hold. A very strong internal candidate was offered the position I originally applied for. In delivering that news to me, the chief librarian asked whether I might be interested in a different position in the organization. My answer was obviously an enthusiastic yes!

AT: Tell us about your organization.

CMR: The Corning Museum of Glass was founded in 1951. Corning Incorporated (then Corning Glass Works) gave the museum to the nation as a gift on the company’s 100th anniversary. The museum tells the world about glass by hosting over 400,000 visitors annually in its glass collection galleries, innovation center, glassmaking school, and center for glass scholarship, the Rakow Research Library. Guest artists frequently work and teach at the museum, and the museum takes glass demonstrations on the road with a hot glass roadshow mobile unit.

The museum’s commitment to glass scholarship is evident in the fact that the library is one its largest components. The library hosts researchers from around the globe, and library staff answered over 4,400 reference questions last year. The newly-formed special collections department provides leadership in managing all unique materials, but especially 20th and 21st century manuscript collections created by glass artists and manufacturers.

Rakow Research Library Reading Room (Courtesy of Colleen McFarland Rademaker)

AT: Describe your collections.

CMR: The Rakow Research Library holds the world’s most comprehensive collection on glass making. Its special collections include everything from a 12th century Mappae Clavicula (a medieval Latin text containing material formulas) to digital video capturing contemporary glass artists at work.  While special collections includes rare books, trade catalogs, works of art on paper, and archival collections, I’ll focus only on the archival collections here.

The library functions primarily as a collecting institution and has acquired over 200 manuscripts documenting the work of glass artists, glass factories, stained glass firms, glass researchers, and glass collectors. Some of our most significant and heavily-used collections are those documenting the local glass industry. While Corning Incorporated maintains its own corporate archives, the records of the cut glass manufacturer T. G. Hawkes and Co., and the art glass producer Steuben Glass Works are among our most beloved holdings. These records not only provide an important glimpse into the economic and social history of the region, but also support the provenance research of glass collectors. These records also complement the records of glass firms outside of the region, such as the recently-acquired records of Fenton Art Glass Company.

Among the personal papers in our holdings, glass artists’ papers have great significance because they document all phases of the creative process, from inspiration to execution. Glass recipe books, called “batch books,” are invaluable not only to glass researchers, but also to glass artists today who continue to experiment with glass formulas. And while the museum curators collect representative pieces from glass artists, the artists’ papers contextualize those pieces in photographs of and writing about the broader body of work.

The museum’s institutional archives also reside among the archival holdings. As the Corning Museum of Glass approaches its 75th anniversary (2026), its historic records are more important than ever. As the memories of long-tenured retired staff members begin to fail, current museum staff have increasing need to consult the institutional archives.

AT: What are some challenges unique to your collections?

CMR: The museum suffered a devastating flood in 1972, and none of the collections were spared. A selection of images of the flood damage and subsequent conservation work may be seen here. That the museum reopened just six weeks after the flood seems nothing short of a miracle! Significant resources were invested to conserve the collections, and the museum contracted with experts, including book conservator Carolyn Horton. However, the institution’s own records were not fully conserved, and original order was lost during salvage operations. Individual documents were chemically treated, dried, and repacked into dozens of records cartons. Some hold related caches of documents, while others do not. Imposing an arrangement on the museum’s early records presents a significant challenge because of the time it will require.  Sadly, MPLP is not an option for this project.

We are also in the midst of documenting the first generation of Studio Glass artists. Art glass production began to move from factories to small studios in the early 1960s, where artists could collaborate, experiment, and make one-of-a-kind objects. The pioneers of the Studio Glass movement are now considering their legacies, and many wish to make their papers available to future generations of glass artists and researchers. The volume of papers and the narrow timeframe for collecting pose a formidable task.

AT: What is your favorite part of your job?

CMR: I have the privilege of working with tremendously knowledgeable and dedicated people! Having worked as a lone arranger for most of my career, I am enjoying the company and expertise of others who share my sense of mission and passion for the collection.  I also appreciate the enthusiasm and intellectual generosity of the glass community – the artists, collectors, and scholars who create and use the records under my care.

Stay tuned for future posts in the “There’s an Archivist for That!” series, featuring stories on archivists working in places you might not expect. If you know of an archivist who fits this description or are yourself an archivist who fits this description, the editors would love to hear from you—share in the comments below or contact archivesaware@archivists.org to be interviewed for ArchivesAWARE!

Archives + Audiences: Journalist David Grann on “Killers of the Flower Moon”

David Grann, author, Lost City of Z

This post is part of our new Archives + Audiences series, which features the perspectives of archival audiences – scholars, journalists, filmmakers, artists, activists, and more – for whom archives have been an important part of their life and work.

In this Archives + Audiences entry, we bring you an interview with David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (Doubleday, 2017), on the centrality of archival research to the writing of this important yet little-known chapter in American history.  Just released in paperback on April 3rd, Killers of the Flower Moon has garnered a mass of critical acclaim and was a National Book Award finalist.

David Grann is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the bestselling author of The Devil and Sherlock Holmes and The Lost City of Z, which has been translated into more than twenty languages. His stories have appeared in many anthologies of the best American writing, and he has written for The New York Times MagazineThe AtlanticThe Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.

ArchivesAWARE: What archival collections did you use for research while writing Killers of the Flower Moon?

Cover of “Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann (Doubleday, 2017)

Grann: I drew on records from so many archives. They included the National Archives, Library of Congress, Oklahoma Historical Society, Osage Nation Museum, Oklahoma State Archives and Records Management, Texas State Library and Archives Commission, and University of Oklahoma Western History Collections.

ArchivesAWARE: Were there any collections that you’d single out as being most essential to the writing of the book?  Why?  How did you come to discover those collections?

Grann: A branch of the National Archives in Fort Worth, Texas, was an essential repository for my research. Many federal records concerning Oklahoma—including documents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the judicial system—are stored there. Among the unexpected documents I found in a box here was the secret grand jury testimony from the prosecution of some of the murderers of the Osage. This testimony proved invaluable in telling the history of what happened and being able to record the voices of many of the participants. It’s why I think it’s important when doing archival research to look through boxes that may not be precisely catalogued, because you don’t know what you might turn up.

ArchivesAWARE: Did anything in the collections surprise you or spark an “a-ha!” moment?

Grann: At the archives in Fort Worth, I also came across a tattered logbook, which contained the names of white guardians. Because of extraordinary racism, the U.S. Congress had passed legislation requiring many Osage to have white guardians to oversee their wealth. The logbook listed the Osage who had been assigned to each guardian, and if one of these Osage had passed away under the guardianship system, a single word was usually scrawled by his or her name: Dead. I noticed that one guardian was assigned to five Osages, and all five of their names were followed by that word. Another guardian had thirteen wards, more than half of whom had been listed as deceased. And so it went. The numbers were staggering and clearly defied a natural death rate. I began to get a sense of the breadth of the systematic murder campaign against the Osage.

ArchivesAWARE: Was there something you were hoping to find but didn’t?

Grann: In research, especially historical research, there are always some gaps of information, which gnaw at you.

ArchivesAWARE: Did you encounter many barriers to accessing or using any collections?

Grann: No, I was fortunate. Not only did institutions share with me their collections, but many Osage who had kept letters and court records and photos also did.

ArchivesAWARE: How would you describe the overall impact of archival collections on the writing of the book?

Grann: This book is born out of archives. It could not have been written without the benefit of these collections, and the many archivists who kindly guided me to hidden troves.

ArchivesAWARE: Is there anything else you would like to share about your archival research experience in connection with Killers of the Flower Moon?

Grann: Perhaps the most remarkable discovery happened when I told a librarian at the New York City Public Library about my research. To my astonishment, he told me that some members of his family were from Oklahoma and were related to several of the victims and the murderers I was writing about. He put me in touch with them, which led to a wealth of information.