Chew Family Papers

"It's funny how things never turn out the way you had them planned..."*

Wednesday, 5/6/09
A few weeks ago now, I was feeling pretty good about the progress of the Chew Papers processing project. We had just reported to NEH that we had only 8-10 linear feet to process, and I was finally able to really imagine the project being finished. I was nearly finished with the last large series of papers, and expecting processing to be completed by early May. And then, everything changed. (Okay, so I'm being quite dramatic here, but that is definitely how it felt.)

Matthew walked into the processing room and told me that they had found some Chew materials in the stacks while surveying, and wanted to show them to me. He kept an optimistic tone, but I just knew that it wasn't good. He showed me these stacks (three full shelf sections, floor to ceiling), and my heart sunk. How did I overlook these materials??

Now, nearly empty... two weeks ago, full

I had never laid eyes on these boxes, despite the fact that they were only two rows away from the rest of the collection. Though it doesn't matter much now how they didn't make it into my original processing plan, they weren't in it, and so I felt pretty overwhelmed by the idea that they somehow all needed to get processed in the next month and half. After a lot of tears and an afternoon of personal reflection on my skills as a project manager, I dove in and figured out what needed to go where and considered how it might get done and by whom. Luckily, we've got a wonderful team here, and pretty much everyone in the archives division is now working on processing the last few series. Most of the material is related to the Chew Estate Office, which operated (from approximately the 1890s-1960s) to manage the finances, legal matters, and property transactions of various members of the Chew and Brown families. The papers cover the management of the family's many properties and the settlement of estates, primarily, but also document the donation of the Chew Family Papers to the Historical Society, among other topics.

There are some items in this new group of materials that have made the entire find worth it--like the handwritten list in the back of a volume related to the proceedings of the Benjamin Chew estate, which details how all of the records at Cliveden were stored. I called Matthew and told him that it felt like I had found the Rosetta Stone of the Chew collection. It lists the location of each group of materials, and offers a brief inventory of the contents of each packet. In many ways, this list is the archivists' dream...offering an actual glimpse into how the papers were stored and used.



Series X. Samuel Chew, Estates; Court Proceedings in the Estate of B. Chew (1844-1863)

It reminded me, too, that there are many other detailed inventories done by various family members over the years in our collection files. All of these items provide a real wealth of information for writing up the background and processing notes. The fact that so many people--family members, lawyers, archivists, and others--have sorted through these papers makes them incredibly interesting as a group, as well as sometimes quite frustrating. There are papers that clearly are part of the same group scattered all over the collection, but it has not always been obvious until we've gone through about 10 series!

After two weeks of working hard on this new group of papers, I am left with one cart of material that needs to be integrated into previous series, and a bunch of miscellaneous groups of documents that will likely fall into the "Other Family Members" series.

What's left to integrate into existing series

Today, while talking to some visitors from another institution, I found myself laughing at the absurdity of it all. Somehow, with the help of a lot of supportive colleagues, we are getting through this seeming-crisis. I hope that we will emerge at the end of July with a collection that is well-described, accessible to researchers, and easily searchable online. As I have been constantly reminded, the papers are much more accessible now than they were. We have actually done a pretty good job of reconstructing the ways that these papers were grouped considering the circumstances and the unwieldy nature of a 400 linear foot collection.

Dear researchers, soon there will be a finding aid online, I promise!

*The title to this post is a quote from Bob Dylan's epic song "Brownsville Girl," a fitting summary of this processing project if I ever heard one!

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