May 25, 2017 | Sarah Buffington, Curator + Coralee, Volunteer
We empty 15 humidifiers around the site. None of the buildings are air conditioned. Coralee and I are both surprised by the amount of water. 24.5 gallons / day. Even more if Sarah had enough time to empty them more often. We empty one in a cellar and Sarah shows us a vault where the Harmonists hid gold. Coralee is fearless. Headfirst to take a photo. She told me that she volunteered to crawl through a similar space in the past. We stop by the “cabinet shop” and the volunteer points out discrepancies in the cabinet making exhibit. “The one piece that doesn’t belong,” he says. Sarah checks in with the researchers working in the archive. She discusses fees and use agreements. One researcher has a blog about Ambridge and asks Sarah about the use fees for various types of publications. The second researcher asks Sarah if her job is paid and what exactly her job is. Sarah chuckles politely before listing her growing number of seemingly endless tasks. The researchers are looking for information about Harmonist buildings outside of the Old Economy Village site. Sarah is not sure where to direct them, because their interests are incredibly broad and somewhat unfocused. The researchers discuss Tom Marti, a local man that is also interested in Ambridge history. They discuss his family history: he was adopted and is now searching for more information about his family history. Sarah gives them Tom’s contact information. The researchers are chatting and bullshitting much more than researching. Wasting Sarah’s time. I can’t tell if Sarah doesn’t mind or if she is just incredibly patient.
Her job probably requires coming to terms with lost time.
Sarah considers what to focus on. She decides to help Coralee organize mail correspondence written by Tom Knoedler, the caretaker of OEV (from 1905 to 1916) and caretaker of local history. Love letters and business letters. Coralee sorts the letters. Hot pink post-it notes stuck to paper from 1889. She is having trouble deciphering her handwriting from the a previous day. Layers of decoding. Sarah finds pins left next to the scanner. They should be holding letters together. She doesn’t know where they belong. Someone will have to search through the love letters looking for small pin holes. Sarah moves to the computer. She is working on changing the naming system for site buildings and is transitioning to different archival software. “This computer is extremely slow.” The loading icon spins and spins and spins. The current naming system is largely based on individual and collective memory of staff. No formal, agreed upon terms. So what happens when all the staff is gone? Researchers are still talking in the background. Something about stained glass in a local church. One says that there was a rumor that John Duss, the last living trustee of the society, was laundering money.
Sarah has a regular, committed volunteer that helps exclusively with digitizing. But she is elderly and has trouble with her memory. Her forgetfulness and confusion live within and shape the digital archives, manifesting in duplicate records, misinformation, and incorrect labels and placement. 90,365 incomplete records in the entire Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission's digital archive. What makes something “incomplete”?
Sarah tells me about her to-do list. Never ending. It’s a practice in humility and a performance in futility. “Check archeology? What was that?” she asks aloud. “File papers” needed to happen since January. It’s the end of May. She admits that there are some things on site that have not been filed since the 90s.
Sarah trains me on cleaning objects in the collection. We clean baskets made of willow, covered in accumulated dirt and dust. Objects like the baskets used to be stored in the historic buildings. No temperature, light, humidity or insect control. Dark particulate pollution from the neighboring steel mill and related industry used to settle and accumulate on local Ambridge buildings. The American Bridge Company closed in the 80s. It fabricated steel for the Empire State Building and the gates for the Panama Canal. Before Old Economy Village's current storage was built in 2003, objects would be affected by this industrial matter. “Black sugar” locals call it. Sarah talks about the merits of wearing different types of gloves while cleaning. None are perfect or without certain problems. We clean from top to bottom. Dirt falls down. Gravity. Time. Sarah leaves certain particles and small objects embedded in the basket. Potential clues regarding what the baskets were used for. A lot of my projects and goals are in limbo Sarah says. She wants to sort and reorganize different objects in storage. But there is no point until after the capital campaign and the leaking humidity and rust problems in storage are taken care of.
Gloves after cleaning two baskets. And "Sarah is..."