Archival Adventures in Small Repositories

The Operative Word in Mont. Co. Historic Parks: Meticulous

Thursday, 11/3/11

Samuel W. Pennypacker was meticulous. That's not altogether surprising, since the man was both Governor of Pennsylvania (1903-1907) and president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. But when we surveyed his papers at Pennypacker Mills, now a house museum operated by the Montgomery Country Department of Parks and Heritage Services, we were nonetheless in awe. A historian and genealogist, he kept detailed and thorough notes on his research topics. He constructed comprehensive scrapbooks of probably every newspaper clipping about himself (specifically his governorship), even one specifically dedicated to political cartoons. "It ought to be an encouragement to gentlemen and men of sense in the future to see what little harm that sort of assault is able to accomplish," he wrote in the front of the album. For goodness' sake, Pennypacker even started a card catalog for his personal library—inspired, we were proud to observe, by the "cutting-edge" best practices that the Historical Society of Pennsylvania was employing at the time. There must be thousands of hand-written catalog cards in the library at Pennypacker Mills.

Governor Pennypacker would be pleased to know that the tradition of meticulousness is being kept up by the staff at Pennypacker Mills to this day. When the HCI-PSAR project first launched, we expected to find small archival repositories in total disarray—materials loose, without boxes or folders; collections separated in multiple locations; no inventories of holdings or "intellectual control" over the archives. We have observed such circumstances at a few small repositories. But not at Pennypacker Mills. With papers organized into series, safely enclosed in acid-free folders and properly-sized boxes, and described to varying levels of detail in inventory lists or databases, the state of collections at Pennypacker Mills is about what you would hope to find at large, well-established archives anywhere. As HCI-PSAR moves to new locations in Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties, it is interesting to observe the wide range of conditions and organization among the small repositories.

Because Pennypacker Mills was in such good order, we finished surveying their collection early and were able to stop by another Montgomery County Parks Department site where the operative word is operative...as in surgery. Sunrise Mill was the home of Chevalier Jackson (1865-1958), a laryngologist who invented the bronchoscope. If you have ever been to the Mutter Museum and seen the cabinet of drawers of buttons, pins, tiny dolls, and other strange objects removed from patients' throats, you have seen the "Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection." The Chevalier Jackson collection at Sunrise Mill isn't quite as, ahem, intimate, but it contains a fair bit of patient records, lecture notes, articles, and other papers.

See all finding aids for Pennypacker Mills.

See all finding aids for Sunrise Mill.

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