By Savannah Sewell, Registrar
I know lots of you have been wondering: what is Savannah up to?
Well, let me tell you… A lot of staring a photos of unknown people while accessioning a variety of collections.
The most recent being the MacGregor Collection which was donated to the Oshawa Museum in 2021. The MacGregor Collection is a variety of photos and documents that were collected over many generations of the MacGregor and Burr family.
When a collection such as this is donated to the museum, there are limited details about the family, names, and addresses. The MacGregor collection was fortunately donated with some historical land deeds and mortgage documents, school photos, yearbooks, and enough contextual information that the mapping of the majority of the family was simple, albeit timely.
It is my first time working in an archival role, and as such, honestly I was a little lost in how to proceed when this collection landed in my lap. So, as I navigated it, I tried to keep in mind that however it was accessioned into the archive, it needed to be accessible for future researchers. I had to ensure that if a family member or future historian wanted to piece together what I had, in less time, I had to make sure that the archival decisions were intuitive.
Here, I will detail the steps that I took to organize and make sense of the collection and why I made the choices that I did.
Step 1: Lay out donated collection
During this step I ensured that I had the groups of documents and photos all laid out so that I would be able to see all of the elements together. The box that the documents came in did not have any particular organizational elements, so I wanted to ensure that I didn’t miss any patterns by being disorganized.
After the documents were all laid out, I created four smaller collections to make working through the large amount of documents easier. I separated the photos, the legal documents, the yearbooks, and “other” and started with the photos.
Step 2: Identify Group Photos
Some of the photos had dates, names, and captions written on the photo itself; if that was the case then the images could be grouped together. There were also several images that did not have a caption, but others that had clearly been taken on the same day or trip, so they could be grouped. Other images could be identified by individuals in them, locations, outfits, or by occasion. I did my best to group people, families, locations, and similar photos so that when searching the collection, it would be simple to navigate space and time.
Step 3: Organizing and labeling
The images were transferred to an easily accessible album; each image was numbered, the caption or writing written in printing (because some of the cursive was difficult to read), and placed in order.
Step 4: Finding Aid Document
When documents are accessioned in the permanent archive they can be difficult to find. I created a finding table that corresponds to the image accession numbers, the captions, notes/research, people in the image, and tag words for the virtual archive system.
Step 5: Ancestry
In order to better understand the individuals in the image and the names on the documents, I used the museum’s ancestry.com account to map the family for four generations. It certainly cleared up a lot of confusion, especially considering there were FOUR individuals with the exact same name!
Step 6: Scanning
The documents and images were scanned to add them to the museum’s digital archival database.
Step 7: Finding a home
The final step to accessioning the collection is finding a permanent home for all of the documents. Each was appropriately labelled in the finding aid with its permanent location, whether an archival box, a drawer, or within the yearbook collection.
Questions and Concerns
Even though there was lots of information available from the donation, there are portions that cannot be taken any further than how they came in. For example, these images of Gwendolyn Vera Baker. In the portrait shown here Gwendolyn is 2 years and 6 months old, which is written on the cardboard frame of the image.
I have not been able to find the connection between the Baker family and our MacGregor/Burr family. However, there could be several explanations as to why this little girl’s image was saved in the family’s photo collection. Think of your own photo albums – they could be filled with friends, coworkers, or even neighbours.
This second photo’s caption is “Little Gwen smelling our morning glories when half grown.” I have accessioned these photos beside each other in this collection, assuming a relationship between the two and that the same child, named Gwen, is shown in both. However, though for research purposes the placement makes sense, it is not known if this is the same child. There are no dates on the images and they are different sizes, types of photography, locations, etc. The child in the second photo is also facing away from the camera, and though the hair looks similar, we cannot confirm their identity.
If these documents were of particular interest to someone or to a project where more detailed and accurate information was needed, then names could be cross-researched with other local archives. Other initiatives could be used as well, images or names could be sent out as a crowd-sourcing project into the community that the families were from, or census documents could be investigated.
The overarching question throughout the accessioning of this collection was, how do I make it as easy as I can for future researchers to find what they are looking for? I hope that I have succeeded.
Family collections like these can be so valuable to research, and this project was extremely enjoyable to work on. From coming to understand the family connections and dynamics, to organizing the images and seeing growing and smiling faces from the past, it is fair to say that accessioning family collections is a task that comes with lots of complications and more than a few unanswered questions.