Preserving Douglass


As we gear up for the 2020 NY Statewide Preservation Conference (December 1st-3rd), we’re diving back into past Conference topics with thoughts from some of our 2019 Conference speakers. This post is the first in a two-part series from the 2019 session, Preserving Tangible & Intangible Heritage: Frederick and Anna Murray Douglass as a Case Study.

by Autumn Haag

Archivists have moved away from using white gloves in recent years, but we still have a mandate to preserve the records in our collections for future generations. This includes paper records, as well as cassette tapes, vinyl records, photographs, 16 mm film, and digital files. Here at the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation (RBSCP) at the University of Rochester, we seek to acquire, preserve, catalog, and provide access to our collections, many of which are one-of-a-kind.  Acquiring and cataloging are concepts that align with one another, but there is a fundamental tension between preserving something and using it. What does it mean to preserve something *and* make it accessible at the same time?

Preservation is a fight against what the Canadian Conservation Institute calls Agents of Deterioration (think of them as the Eight Horseman of the Archives Apocalypse).  They are theft, vandalism, fire, water, pests, light, heat, and humidity. Traditionally, one way archivists have fought these agents is to limit the number of people who could work with archival material. Some archives erected barriers to entry; calling themselves treasure rooms or vaults and only allowing “serious” researchers to access their collections.

RBSCP takes the opposite approach, working within the University and the greater Rochester community to ensure that as many people as possible have access to our records. We are always looking for new opportunities to share our holdings and expertise with the community. Currently, that means doing more research on behalf of our researchers and offering free reproductions. We appreciate that there is something special about working with an original document, whether it is a hand-colored photograph of a Civil War Soldier or a Kodak newsletter, and we look forward to the day we re-open to the public, both patrons with research goals as well as those who are simply curious. (Figure 1)

Figure 1. Hand-colored tintype of John McGraw, 1864, John McGraw Civil War letters, D.528, Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester. Photo by Lisa Wright of the University of Rochester’s Digital Scholarship Lab.

We believe that the use of our records can lead to their being preserved. The more students, artists, teachers, scholars, genealogists, house historians, and scientists who use our records, whether in-person or virtually, the greater reach they have in the wider world. The Frederick Douglass papers at RBSCP is a great example of a heavily used collection with a wide reach. It contains letters, books, newspapers, photographs, and ephemera, including a lock of Frederick Douglass’ hair and a Frederick Douglass finger puppet. (Figure 2)

Figure 2. A lock of Frederick Douglass’ hair. Photo by Lisa Wright of the University of Rochester’s Digital Scholarship Lab.

The collection was especially popular in 2018 as the City of Rochester and many institutions in the area celebrated Douglass’ 200th birthday. Researchers from Rochester, across the country, and as far abroad as Scotland visited us to learn from and be inspired by the papers. Books, articles, sculptures, college essays, concerts, and lectures came out of this research. (Figure 3)

Figure 3: Statue of Frederick Douglass with artist Olivia Kim, who created 13 of them. Photo by the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation.

As the curator of the Frederick Douglass papers, I am actively building the collection with new Douglass material. Several factors drive how we build it. The first is the scarcity and cost of items written by or directly related to, Douglass’ life and work. We cannot add letters written by Douglass to the collection very easily. Second, I consider the gaps in our collection. Should I try to acquire more photographs, or is written material more valuable to us? Last, I consider how to build a collection that not only reflects Douglass during his lifetime but his legacy in Rochester and beyond. This has led me to collect children’s books about Frederick Douglass, prints and posters of his image, many by Rochester artists, and modern Douglass ephemera, including earrings, dolls, and stickers. I hope that as the collection grows in new ways our researchers are inspired to take on new Douglass-related projects. (Figure 4)

Figure 4. Frederick Douglass doll. From the Etsy store lategreats. Photo by Lisa Wright of the University of Rochester’s Digital Scholarship Lab.

We also use digitization as a preservation tool. We acquired a piece of sheet music that was written in 1847 when Douglass returned to the United States after spending 18 months abroad in the United Kingdom. There is only one other copy of this music in existence, at the British Library. We immediately digitized the piece and put it up on our website. It has been downloaded and performed by groups in Rochester and New York City. Eastman School of Music students performed it at Hochstein in 2018. The digital copy allows users around the world to access the music without its being physically touched. (Figure 5)

Figure 5. Griffiths, Julia, et al. Farewell song of Frederick Douglass : on quitting England for America, the land of his birth. Published for the author, by Duff & Hodgson, 65, Oxford St., 1847. Photo by Lisa Wright of the University of Rochester’s Digital Scholarship Lab.

Preservation includes the material the record is made out of as well as the content it contains. A PDF of a Frederick Douglass letter viewed online has the same content as the paper letter, but its physicality is very different. In some cases, a researcher may just need the information from the letter, but in others, having access to the original is important. Does the paper match our other Douglass letters? Did he write the entire letter himself, or did he merely sign it? Is there anything written on the back of it? We are working on a new digital Douglass portal to replace the current Frederick Douglass Project website. We also worked with a dedicated group of volunteers to transcribe all of our Douglass letters. Both of these projects will preserve the content of our Douglass collection and make it more accessible to the public.

Preservation is more than just physically protecting fragile paper records. It is about keeping the content of those records alive. This can happen through use and digitization. I believe that we have a collective responsibility to share the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass (and others in our collections) and that this is best served through research, scholarship, creativity, and collaboration.

Autumn Haag is the Assistant Director of the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation at the University of Rochester and is the curator of its 19th-century activism collections, including suffrage and abolition. She co-curated the library’s 2018 Frederick Douglass exhibit and 2020 women’s rights exhibit. She has a MISt. in Information Studies from the University of Toronto.


Preserving Douglass