Having archivists as researchers is a win/win for all! Researching Jimmy Carter

Welcome to another entry in the new ArchivesAWARE series, “Archival Authors” where we feature archivists who have used their professional experience to inform books they have written for the general public. What inspired them? How did archivistics affect the tone or direction of their book? What did they want readers to take away?

In this post, Kaye Lanning Minchew talks about her new book, “Jimmy Carter: Citizen of the South.” Minchew recently retired as Executive Director of the Troup County Archives and Legacy Museum on Main in LaGrange, Georgia, an institution that received the SAA Council Exemplary Service Award under her leadership. A Fellow of the Society of American Archivists, Minchew has served on the Board of Regents for the Academy of Certified Archivists, served as NAGARA’s representative to the NHPRC, has chaired the Georgia Historical Records Advisory Council, and was named Georgia’s Writer of the Year for History in 2017 for her book “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: A President in our Midst.”

Transitioning from being an archivist to an author now seems to have been a natural progression in my career. Throughout the 32 years that I worked as director of the Troup County Archives in LaGrange, Georgia, I often said that if I got to research even one-fourth of the time that people thought I did, I could be a very happy person! Now that I no longer direct the operations of a museum and an archives, I get to focus my energy on researching and writing.

My first pictorial history focused on Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Georgia. During my first book signing at Roosevelt’s Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia, I remembered another visitor who had walked the same ground. Jimmy Carter has spoken there several times, including giving a talk there on Labor Day, 1976, as his Presidential campaign entered the all-important fall season. With my new book, Jimmy Carter: Citizen of the South, I spent time at archives, especially the Jimmy Carter Library as I made extensive use of photographs, oral histories, and other archival records. Spending time researching and writing has had many rewards.

Researching a fairly-recent President meant that there were many resources available and some, but certainly not all, resources were digitized. My book focuses primarily on Carter’s post-presidency but one has to understand that his hometown of Plains, his Georgia governorship and his presidency of the United States from 1977-1981 to fully appreciate the many activities of this man. The photos, oral histories, newspaper and magazine articles used in my book help tell the Carter story.

Being a researcher at an archives instead of being a staff member is always interesting. Archives have varying rules and processes plus each place makes materials accessible in different ways. Try to share rules of an archives on your website so researchers can review them in advance. When I arrive at an archives, I am happy to look over the rules but I tend to be distracted by the research I am about to do so seeing the rules in advance and onsite can be a plus.

Another issue I face as a researcher is getting permission to publish a photo or a long quote. At the Troup County Archives, we always tried to respond as quickly as possible to such requests and I appreciate the many archivists who do the same, even during Covid days where staff may be working remotely. Answering questions from researchers and sharing information about using quotes or photos in a timely manner makes things much easier for authors. Researchers realize there may be legal issues but, whenever possible, try not to take six or ten weeks just to give a legalese answer!

One plus in having a former archivist or an archivist who is writing a book in their spare time is that these people appreciate the hard work involved in getting your collections ready for researchers! Authors/archivist get excited about a slightly blurry photo that helps prove one of their points. Assuming finding aids are readily available online, former archivists likely read those finding aids before their visits and use them to direct their research. Finally, those same researchers can sometimes help identify unidentified or incorrectly identified photos and documents, as long as they know you want the corrections and researchers can offer proof for their identifications. Generally having archivists as researchers is a win/win for all!

The Historic Kentucky Kitchen

Welcome to the first entry in the new ArchivesAWARE series, “Archival Authors.” Here we will feature archivists who have used their professional experience to inform books they have written for the general public. What inspired them? How does one write a proposal for a publisher? How did archivistics affect the tone or direction of their book? What did they want readers to take away?

In this first series post, Deirdre A. Scaggs, Associate Dean, Special Collections Research Center, and Director of the Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Research Center, shares how processing the papers of a poet and folksinger led her to explore values of family, shared experiences, and collective history.

While working at the University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) in 2012, I became intrigued with a set of recipes that were revealed during a processing project. Logan English was a poet and a folksinger who died fairly young in a car crash and his parents had donated his papers to SCRC. I couldn’t stop thinking about his recipes – many were stained, they contained plans for dinner parties with wine pairings, and Logan even wrote instructions for guests to write poems about their meals. I could tell that Logan had made these recipes, he had enjoyed this food, and shared meals with his friends and family.

I was struck by his story and it reminded me of how important family and shared meals were to me. It seemed like such a broadly relatable experience, and that while Logan was gone, this very tangible piece of him had survived. More than that, I wanted to experience it too. I became intrigued with the idea of bringing his archives to life through smell and taste, and shared experience. Before I knew it, I was actively searching for more recipes in other collections. I collected a small amount to test and write up and then I approached the University Press of Kentucky regarding a contract.

The Historic Kentucky Kitchen: Traditional Recipe’s for Today’s Cook (The University Press of Kentucky, 2013) is a book for the modern home cook. It is also a living history, steeped in Southern and Kentucky food culture. I want to acknowledge that attributing each recipe to a creator/maker was mostly impossible. This book was created from handwritten recipes saved by both wealthy and average families. Many of those early families would have had servants and cooks who were African Americans. I want to acknowledge their contribution even they could not be identified by name.

The Historic Kentucky Kitchen contains more than one hundred, mostly handwritten recipes, dating from 1850-1950. All of the recipes come from family papers or historic cookbooks in the University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center (SCRC). Each recipe was tested, modernized, and curated for inclusion.

In conducting archival research for The Historic Kentucky Kitchen, I was looking specifically for handwritten recipes in the public policy archives, university archives, and manuscripts. Often these collection inventories were made before food culture and history became a popular topic of study. But being an archivist made a great deal of this research easier since I had broad knowledge of the collections, access to internal databases, and there was a team of students doing a reprocessing project on some of the earliest collections.

Handwritten recipes are often hard to read, they can be faded, or stained. Significant historic cooking research was required to interpret not only the process of cooking, but how to know what old measurements meant. We use standard measurements now, but historic recipes often include references to butter the size of an egg, a teacup of this, or a gill of that. In agreement with the publisher, I was seeking to create a well-rounded cookbook that focused on regional, Southern cuisine. So, I needed to find very specific recipes such as: mayonnaise, burgoo, bourbon, pound cake, biscuits.

Focusing on handwritten recipes was critical to me. I felt like these were the recipes that had familial significance, might have been passed down to family or friends, ones that were more likely to have been cooked, experienced, and been part of that family’s collective memory. For me, these unpublished manuscripts were the key to the success of my project. As mentioned above, I needed specific recipes to produce a complete project and so I opened my research to include early Kentucky cookbooks to fill in gaps that I was unable to fill with handwritten recipes.

My recipe research continued through the life of the project, although the bulk was focused during the first six months. I had seen cookbooks that were essentially reprints of historic recipes and for that reason they weren’t fully functional for a contemporary cook. I wanted to change perceptions that I had heard – that old recipes are bland to today’s palette. So, I had to test each of these recipes. I needed to select the ones that tasted the best. And, I needed to standardize the measurements, provide adequate instruction for cooking techniques and time.

It took two years to test recipes for the cookbook and there were plenty of failures, much trial and error, and wonderful success. It took another full year to write and edit the cookbook.

Upon publication there were a number of positive outcomes. I got to share my passion and research with colleagues, friends, school children, and people all across Kentucky and beyond. As a result of my talks, I generated interest in the preservation of food history and culture which prompted numerous collection donations to UK Libraries SCRC.

To me, these recipes represent our collective history. The traditions we share today were informed by that history and I believe this cookbook maintains that connection. The Historic Kentucky Kitchen is a truly functional cookbook with delicious meals that bridge the past and present. These recipes have been taken out of the archives to be made, shared, and to create new memories for future generations.