Artifactual Value, Part II (or) What a Difference a “b” Makes

Last week, this blog highlighted a case study in artifactual value from Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, an account of late-19th century Chicago based on archival research.  This week, we’ll detail a similar example from closer to home.

In TSLAC’s documents from the Confederacy, I often note evidence of recycling.  Sometimes this evidence takes the form of non-traditional papermaking materials (see previous entry, “Barn Floor Paper.”)  Other times recycling is apparent in remnants of previously printed materials, as in an example from this week:

Confederate document with recycling

This Confederate military document features recycled pieces of previous documents, such as the printed “b” seen here.


I have long suspected that such recycling, especially in non-disposable military records, was an indicator of economic stress in the Confederacy.  Informal conversation with colleagues supports this hunch: a conservator working on Union materials at another institution notes that their paper consists of comparatively high quality stock.  Here again is an example of artifactual value.  The physical paper on which these wartime records were kept offers historical information beyond the written records themselves.

I recently found further support for this interpretation of Confederate paper in Cathy Baker’s 2010 book, From the Hand to the Machine: Nineteenth Century American Paper and Mediums: Technologies, Materials, and Conservation.  Baker connects economic conditions in the South with scarcity in papermaking materials like rags, cotton, and bleach:

Just before the War, the South was largely dependent on the North for most supplies and equipment for its twenty-four papermills.  The chemicals needed to bleach rags for white paper for the Confederate government’s use or to process straw and raw cotton for news paper were only occasionally obtained from abroad through the Union blockades.  Few clothes and linens found their way into rag bags, and even if they did, they were often used for bandages instead of paper. 

-Cathy Baker, From the Hand to the Machine: Nineteenth Century American Paper and Mediums: Technologies, Materials, and Conservation, The Legacy Press, 2010, p 18.

Baker goes on to quote an 1863 newspaper account of an Alabama papermill, which struggled to maintain production without critical supplies like felt and wire mesh:

The energy displayed by Mr. Winter in keeping his mill running is worthy of all commendation.  He showed us fine tapestry carpet which he took from his floors as substitutes for felt, without which his mills are entirely useless… The want of wire cloth has forced Mr. Winter to convert his machine… (which) very seriously curtails his operations in the amount of paper turned off.

Memphis Daily Appeal, 6/13/1863, in Cathy Baker’s book (as above,) p 294.

That small “b” photographed above conveys a message about the Confederate economy much more succinctly than the words in this blog entry.  This is the power of artifactual value.  With access to primary, archival materials, researchers and the public have a chance to read more than what’s written on the page – they can also read the physical record left behind by historical forces.

For more on why it’s important to support public access to archives, see Christina Manz’s post on the closure of the Georgia Archives in TSLAC’s Library Developments blog.

In Favor of Artifactual Value

Since conservators work to prolong the life of physical things, they think a lot about artifactual value, or the information held in the material and craft of a physical object.  This thinking can be puzzling for lab visitors and the general public, who sometimes conceptualize books and archival materials simply as information carriers.  Bridging the conceptual gap between these two methods of thinking is one of the fundamental challenges of conservation outreach.  After all, the casual observer often notes, why not just digitize collections and be done with them?

The many significant complexities of digitization aside, it’s good to have some concrete examples of artifactual value in hand for cases like this.  I accidentally stumbled across one such example recently while reading Erik Larson’s portrait of late 19th century Chicago, Devil in the White City.  In a brief afterword, Larson described his research methods and his portrayal of the mentally unstable assassin Patrick Prendergast:

I do not employ researchers, nor did I conduct any primary research using the Internet.  I need physical contact with my sources, and there’s only one way to get it.  To me every trip to a library or archive is like a small detective story.  There are always little moments on such trips when the past flares to life, like a match in the darkness.  On one visit to the Chicago Historical Society, I found the actual notes that Prendergast sent to Alfred Trude.  I saw how deeply the pencil dug into the paper.

-Erik Larson, Devil in the White City, Notes and Sources, pp 395-96.

Prendergast’s notes to prosecutor Trude were made during a period of increasing delusion, during which Prendergast murdered Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison.  They offer an immediate, tangible example of artifactual value, the deep pencil marks enhancing our understanding of Prendergast’s increasingly paranoid state.  Larson’s remarks also demonstrate the impact of artifactual value on researchers and library patrons, who make discoveries in person that are likely not possible online or via reproduction.  His statement powerfully endorses primary research and the value of physical artifacts in libraries and archives.

The Unknown Craftsman

I recently finished a book that might be of interest in this forum: The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty by Soetsu Yanagi.  I first learned about this book through mention in a Brian Eno biography, but it is highly relevant for anyone invested in making, repairing, or appreciating handcrafted objects.

Yanagi was a maker and connoisseur of pottery in early 20th century Japan.  His appreciation of handcraft is rooted in Eastern traditions and Buddhist thought, and as such it provides ample exercise for a Western mind.  In Yanagi’s world, the objects we use enrich our human experience, and the best objects are made by anonymous craftsmen whose honest, imperfect work embodies genuine beauty. 

Yanagi particularly admires Korean pottery, especially from the 16th – 18th centuries, and he examines it in great detail.  Its beauty comes from craftsmen with a simpler mindset than he observes in Japan and the Western world.  As he explains, Korean craftsmen didn’t strive to assert their artistry or to create works of excellence.  In Buddhist terms, they worked in a non-dualistic mindset, one formed before the differentiation of artist and layman, beautiful and ugly, good and bad.  They relied on the traditions and materials at hand to create simple, useful objects without self-awareness.

Yanagi discusses the two paths through which artists and craftsmen may achieve their goals: the way of the individual and the way of grace.  Success is attainable through both, but the way of the individual is far more difficult.  On this path, artists must reinvent the wheel at every step.  With keen focus on defining and expressing themselves, they must labor to find and master materials and techniques that suit their needs (whose very definition requires even more labor.)  By contrast, craftsmen taking the way of grace can reach the same goal with greater ease by relying on tradition.  Rather than focusing on self-expression, they immerse themselves in inherited practice to create works of integrity and humanity. 

This is a fascinating take on craft tradition, one with keen awareness of the repetition inherent in learning to work with one’s hands.  Within Western culture, it provides an interesting framework through which to consider different kinds of artwork.  One can imagine the Abstract Expressionist painstakingly blazing the path of the individual, while the painter of monastic art followed the path of grace and stood on the shoulders of giants.  Who was more genuine?  Who was more skilled?  Who was happier?

Modern day Westerners like me will likely puzzle over arguments like these.  Aren’t we supposed to express our individuality?  Don’t we praise trailblazers as leaders and visionaries?  Head-scratchers like these hide on nearly every page of Yanagi’s book.  For example, Yanagi praises Korean potters for their simpler frame of mind, and for the genuine craft it produced.  But it took a more modern, sophisticated sensibility to appreciate that simple beauty.  Does this paradox pose a kind of duality?  And when we follow Yanagi’s line of thought, do we fly dangerously close to the noble savage argument, assuming that the grass was always greener in another country and another time?  

Regardless of the answers to such questions, The Unknown Craftsman is a genuinely thought-provoking counterpart to life in 21st century America.  It’s a look back to a time when machine-made goods were a new concern, and that’s fascinating for digital-age readers to whom even the machine era can look like the good old days.   The mind reels at how our culture has moved from handmade things to machine-made things to digital un-things.  Yanagi’s book is a snapshot from our walk along that path.

Digital Preservation

As a person involved in both libraries and music, I have a great many high-stakes encounters with the digital world.  Overall, I think the tenor of the discussion about this world can be too feverish.  Digital media are neither the sky falling nor the second coming.  They are media that work well for access; that work problematically for preservation; and that uproot economies of the arts.

Regarding digital media and preservation, I often wonder what will happen in archives as more and more information is born digital, and as the pace of its creation continues to quicken.  How can we archives staff collect all the digital records of a government, or of an artist, or of a company, and reliably shepherd them through myriad instances of hardware and software obsolescence? 

Here’s an answer I’ve been trying on for size lately: we can’t.  At least, we can’t in the completist way to which we’re accustomed.  That’s not to say we won’t try.  But given finite and decreasing resources, especially in the public sector, humanities, and the arts, I can’t imagine how archives can reasonably keep up with seemingly exponential growth in digital data and ensure its availability in 50 or 100 years.  Digital data are far less stable than paper, and in our shift from paper to digital, we’ve traded relative permanence for ease of access.  Simplified, in this particular Faustian bargain, we can have everything right now, but we can’t keep it.

Surprisingly, this idea actually gives me some relief from digital anxiety, like a cease-fire in the giant Tetris game of incoming data for archives.  There’s something in it that implies a near-Buddhist acceptance of change and loss.  But if we’re to accept the idea of a patchier cultural record, then selection becomes all the more significant.  Collections managers will have to make very smart decisions about what to keep.  Records retention policies will have to reflect this reality.  And is it OK for future researchers to guide our collective cultural understanding with a more selective view of the past?

I could say much more about this and related topics, but I’ll stop here in hopes of encouraging the commentary of others.

Salaries in the Bad Old Days

One interesting component of our Confederate muster roll collection is a record of the wages of Confederate soldiers.  A range of wages seems to have been available within each regiment: $11 per month for a private, $20 per month for a first sergeant, and a few intermediate salaries for lesser sergeants and corporals.

Right now, I happen to be reading Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain’s fond remembrance of his years piloting steamboats just before the Civil War.  That conflict was a death knell for the steamboating era, which was already in decline due to the technological advances of railways and tugboats.  Twain records vastly different salaries in the pre-war years: steamboat pilots made a minimum of $100 per month.  After labor organized, a few made up to $700 per month.

As an exercise, let’s equate the professional level of a Confederate Army first sergeant and a steamboat pilot.  (Respect for authority aside, perhaps these men were not completely different – both were trained specialists and mid-level professionals responsible for many people during defined tours.)  We can note that the sergeant in 1863 made anywhere from five to 35 times less than the steamboat pilot in 1860.

Hardly an auspicious beginning for a Gilded Age.

A Question of Value

Preservation and archives personnel are periodically called upon to answer the general public’s questions about personal or family belongings.  Along with patrons’ regular concerns, I have lately noticed a new and perplexing question: 

“What is the historical value of my item?” 

This is a significant and complicated inquiry that deserves a good answer.  Two main issues puzzle me, and I’d like to consider them separately:

  1. What does this question actually mean?
  2. What useful answer can I provide?

1.      What does this question actually mean?

My hunch is that seeking “historical value” is to seek a connection between personal and canonical history.  Individuals usually have a strong sense of the sentimental and family value of their photos and newspaper clippings.  But does that emotional connection have meaning for other people, or within a broader historical context? 

The historical value question often has a companion, either explicit or implied: “Don’t you want my materials for your archives?”  I wonder if we might reinterpret that question as, “Doesn’t my specific experience somehow represent our collective experience?” or more generally, “How do individual stories compose the larger historical narrative?”

Further complicating things are differing definitions of “value.”  A conservator looks at a newspaper clipping and sees brittle newsprint and printer’s ink: not very valuable.  A patron instead sees a family experience: extremely valuable.  Where do we draw the line between the physical thing and the story it represents?

2.      What useful answer can I provide?

The critical thinking beneath the “historical value” question is deserving of encouragement.  But with patron inquiries, encouragement generally implies a specific, actionable answer.  Open-ended answers, like, “You’ll have to research that for yourself,” usually de-motivate busy people.  Herein lays the challenge of answering this question.

To my knowledge, there’s no such thing as a contract historian-for-hire who accepts referrals the way an appraiser would.  For family items, my best institutional referrals are our local city history center and the state archives where I work.  But these options may require substantial follow-through from the patron, and archives staff realistically have minimal time for questions about personal collections.

Perhaps a better strategy would be to assemble a reference list of books on regional history that might offer useful contexts in which to place personal belongings.  Handouts and brochures always seem to be well-received, and a reading list might make an encouraging take-away.

I welcome comments about this issue.  Questions about historical value, however that’s defined, seem to offer a golden opportunity to engage inquisitive members of the public in historical and archival research.