Finite Windows; Precious Artifacts

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Over the next couple of entries, I’d like to talk about the research process involved in gathering information about an obscure historic figure, and explain the process of reviewing artifacts for use in my research.

Most of the time, when I’m visiting an archive to collect documents or artifacts, I have a finite window in which to view the documents. Although I call ahead or visit the archive’s website to check out their holdings lists so that I know what exactly is in their collection, those lists don’t got into a lot of detail. I won’t know exactly what’s in the boxes until I get there — and then, once I are there with the box of documents in front of me, I have to read every piece to make sure I’m getting what i need.

Two tables worth of research materials, when I was at the University of West Florida. About half of the artifacts I handled were in good condition. None of these artifacts are digitized.

Two tables worth of research materials, when I was at the University of West Florida back in 2014. About half of the artifacts I handled were in good condition; the holdings list did not go into detail about what was in each document. Finally, none of these artifacts are digitized, so I had to read everything.

Because I have limited time, I get permission from the archivist to scanning or photographing the documents. So, on most of my archive trips, that’s what I’m doing for six or seven straight hours.

My students ask me if, when doing this, I find I’m collecting artifacts and documents that don’t have any relevance. That may be true; however, in gathering information to tell Emmett’s story, it isn’t just about collecting information about HIM, specifically (although that is important), but it is about collecting information about the context of his life.

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The barber shop in the San Carlos Hotel, about 1920, one of the many amenities offered at this first-class hotel. Emmett probably had many haircuts and shaves here — maybe even a manicure after he was elected to congress. Source: Cottrell Collection, University of West Florida Archives.

For example: Emmett never owned a home of his own, but he lived for a few years at the San Carlos Hotel, as a long-term tenant.

George S. Hervey. Source: The Pensacola Journal, 1909

George S. Hervey. Source: The Pensacola Journal, 1909

Some of the context around this would be Emmett’s relationship with the own, George S. Hervey, the different amenities and services the hotel offered to short-term and long-term tenants, and so forth.

In one of the archival boxes, there may be old bills and correspondence from Hervey to different long-term tenants from the early 1900s, which would give me an idea of how Hervey managed the hotel, and the accommodations given long-term tenants.

This first part, the gathering of data, can seem a little haphazard, but my experience has been to gather as much as I can that I think is relevant, and then to separate the information into three categories:

  • Directly relevant information
  • Supporting information
  • Background information

The information I have collected over the past three years on the San Carlos Hotel for the years 1909-1918 (when Emmett would have been a regular guest) is mostly supporting information and background information. What I’ve learned gives me an important understanding of what it would be like for a bachelor to live in an elite hotel when his fortunes were on a downward trend.

In the next post, I’ll take an artifact that Emmett’s grand niece (i.e., the granddaughter of Emmett’s sister, Katie Wilson Meade) sent me a few months back, and walk you through how I analyze it from three different angles: Medium, message, and context. I want to show you how a piece of paper, which might not look like much on the surface, can tell you a lot about an individual.

Stay tuned!

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