Lost & Found!

Overview

This important project is being underwritten by support from:
The van Beuren Foundation
The McBean Charitable Trusts
The Bay and Paul Foundation
The Newport County Fund
and many generous individuals

The Lost & Found project is a multi-year effort to gain appropriate intellectual control over a large, important, and multi-media collection at the Newport Historical Society. Phased originally to take place over 5 years, it was the goal of the project to assemble and store sufficient information to allow the NHS staff and the public to find and use the collections for research and education, as our institutional mission stipulates. The project also includes improvements to collections storage.

Since beginning this project in 2009-10; the NHS has focused first on the object collections and their documentation, and has also begun to work on the manuscript and photographic collections. As the project went forward, the NHS’s Board made the decision to create a new center for research at our headquarters building at 82 Touro Street, in part to ensure that proper storage conditions for all collections could be created. The capital campaign to support this work is ongoing, and has both improved and extended, the work of Lost & Found.

No project of this size moves forward without discoveries and reassessments. Collections staff have discovered during the course of this project that the objects collection, which was thought to be about 80% cataloged, is not. On the positive side of the ledger, old indices to the document collection have turned out to be more useful than expected, and were posted online with minimal improvements.

Overall, it is anticipated that this project will be completed, as a special initiative, in the year following the capital improvements. Currently, the campaign to raise the funds is moving along, and work on the building will begin either in the spring of 2014 or the spring of 2015. Once that decision is made this winter, a final plan – some of which will extend beyond the formal project period – for cataloging of objects, inventorying and re-housing of photos, and arranging and describing the document collections will be established.

Objects and Accession Information

From March to October 2011 the focus of the Lost and Found project was set on entering data from Newport Historical Society’s museum object catalog cards into the electronic collections database, PastPerfect. Many of the items were already in the database, but lacked important metadata. Specifically, these items were missing subject terms and associated people information. These metadata fields are especially important because they allow for the creation of indexes across a collection and aid exponentially in access and discoverability. Before this process, a researcher could not use PastPerfect to look up a specific name or topic and see all relevant collection items.

After all the cards were entered, PastPerfect became the collections authority – the items we knew we had were in the database. A system for identifying and cataloging items we didn’t know we had needed to be developed. The first step in that process was to digitize legacy accession information into a database that could be sorted and searched. Using a simple, yet effective, Excel spreadsheet, the information in accession books spanning the years 1911-1979 were entered. We had also located unfiled Deed of Gifts, announcements of new acquisitions in past issues of the Newport History Journal, and library donation logs. This information was added into a compiled database of accession information.

With this comprehensive accession database, when an item that was not cataloged in PastPerfect was uncovered, it could be searched to uncover the date of the donation and the donor. Many times this resulted in reuniting items that had come into the Society together, but had been separated. For example, our Collections Assistant pulled a waistcoat cataloged as D380 (an obsolete catalog number) for an embroidery show and tell. The item had a tag with donation information written on it. We were able to confirm the tag’s information by using the accession information database and in doing so, discovered that this waistcoat was part of a very large donation from the estate of the Elizabeth and Lucy Marvin. A few items in the donation had already been cataloged as accession 42.1. We were able to intellectually reunite all 43 items that the Marvin sisters’ estate had donated in April 1942.

In the past twelve months (fiscal year 2012-13), the curatorial team has been able to research and properly catalog approximately 465 collection artifacts, photographs, and manuscripts that were either unrecorded or recorded improperly.

There are currently 5,866 records for objects in PastPerfect. Most of these records are also published in our online collections catalog, which can be accessed at http://j.mp/nhscatalog. While we are satisfied with how far we have come, we have more work ahead of us than anticipated. It is now possible to estimate that more than half of the Society’s object collections are still uncataloged. Two of our more recent exhibits Hold Fast: Newport’s Enduring Bond with the Sea and The Greatest Trial: Lincoln, Newport and the Civil War, featured collections items that weren’t previously recorded. The items yet to be found do have value and will assist in the Society in furthering its institutional mission.

Documents/Manuscripts

Collections staff and interns under their supervision have begun the process of arranging, describing, and creating finding aids for our large and important collection of documents of Newport history. Currently, a spreadsheet inventory that can be searched by keyword and sorted is online here: http://j.mp/archivesinventory.

Proper finding aids are available via the web both on our online collections catalog as well as in the statewide archival discovery tool, Rhode Island Archival and Manuscript Collections Online (RIAMCO) for 12 of our manuscript collections. Our RIAMCO finding aids can be accessed at http://j.mp/nhsriamco. These twelve industry-standard finding aids each represent well researched cohesive collections of documents, some of them hundreds of pages in size.

Photographs

Photographs are being scanned and catalogued item by item. Relatively speaking, cataloguing at an item-level is a slow process, although we currently have over 2, 617 scanned and fully cataloged images in the PastPerfect database. The process to scan and catalog usually begins with a researcher or publisher query, rather than through a systematic scanning project. This allows us to better serve our designated community by making available highly sought-after images. We estimate that the Society’s historic photograph collection totals over 100,000 images. Unprocessed photos, however, are stored by subject and location, which makes them more accessible than other collections. Staff members are able to retrieve photos based on a researcher’s area of interest and pertinent photos can be browsed. Gaining full intellectual control over the photo collection will be the last stage of this project.

Conclusion

It is beyond question that the improvements to collections documentation, and the posting of catalog information, indices, and finding aids online has expanded the number of researchers that come to the NHS, and improved the quality of the work they are able to do. We are regularly contacted by folks who have found our collections online, and in return are able to refer potential researchers to online collections data. While this is the tip of an iceberg in collections accessibility, it is a state of functionality that will clearly begin to revolutionize the way the NHS serves the public.

During this process we are learning more about the things we have, and discovering that we have some spectacular objects and documents in our collections. We will post our discoveries periodically on the FOUND! page.