Perhaps there is a local historical society in the neighborhood where you live or work, and perhaps you have walked past it and thought to yourself, "I wonder what they have inside?" That simple curiosity was one of the driving forces behind the Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR), a project that seeks to uncover important archival resources held at small, primarily volunteer-run history organizations in the Philadelphia area. After over 1.5 years working on the HCI-PSAR project and visiting more than 60 small museums, local historical societies, and historic sites, I can vouch that many of them count truly important materials within their holdings. We found photographs of the world's first solar power plant, built in Maadi, Egypt in 1912-1913, at a small historical society in Northeast Philadelphia. We found the records of the oldest continuously existing troop in the United States National Guard at a small military museum on the campus of Drexel University. We've seen archival collections from abolitionists, politicians, naturalists, philanthropists, and army veterans; from an acclaimed dog-handler, a champion jingle-writing contestant, and a linguist/documentarian. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
The Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories is a project of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The goal of the project is to make better known and more accessible the archival collections held at small repositories in the five-county Philadelphia area. (To be eligible for inclusion in the project, organizations must be 501(c)(3) non-profits, have a history-oriented mission, and not employ a full-time, professionally-trained archivist.) HCI-PSAR Phase I, which ran from summer 2011 to fall 2012, focused on Philadelphia and Montgomery counties. HCI-PSAR Phase II, which began in fall 2012 and will conclude in fall 2014, focuses on Bucks, Chester, and Delaware counties.
As an HCI-PSAR Project Surveyor, my job is to visit small repositories and catalog their archival collections. We do not have the time or resources for digitizing or in-depth indexing, but we create basic descriptions of each collection. In about one and a half years, we've visited over 60 organizations and cataloged more than 600 collections, spanning over 1.15 miles of shelf space. We are contributing the catalog records we create to an online database of archival collections descriptions maintained by the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL), a group of 36 large, professionally-staffed libraries and archives. The collaboration between PACSCL and HCI-PSAR is exciting because it lays the groundwork for Philadelphia to become the most comprehensively-documented archives landscape in the country. In one location, researchers can search archival finding aids from the tiniest volunteer-run historical society in the suburbs and the largest professional institution in Center City.
If you're interested in learning more about our project, check out our website at http://www.hsp.org/hcipsar and follow our progress on Facebook or Twitter. My co-surveyor and I blog regularly about our experiences and highlight favorite finds at http://hsp.org/blogs/archival-adventures-in-small-repositories.