Hidden Collections Revealed: Behind-the-scenes on the Belfield Papers

(Update: processing is now complete for the second phase of the Hidden Collections project. View finding aids here.) 

Belfield, a historic home once occupied by famed Philadelphia painter Charles Willson Peale and his family, was also home to descendants of several of Philadelphia’s most prominent families until the late 20th century.

The papers — totaling more than 100 linear feet and spanning four centuries — document members of the Emlen, Fisher, Hall, Lindley, Logan, Meigs, Wister and other families and were still housed in their original packing boxes. That would be boxes that previously held cases of candy bars and liquor.

Project processors Celia Caust-Ellenbogen and Michael Gubicza, aided by project manager Holly Mengel and project archivist Courtney Smerz, were able to create order out of this chaotic collection by using strategies based on Mark Greene’s and Dennis Meissner’s 2005 “More Product, Less Process” article as part of PACSCL’s “Hidden Collections” project supported by a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. That project has created a searchable database that contains its 140 finding aids, as well as dozens of others contributed by PACSCL members and ones produced by a similar project, the Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories.

As part of processing the Belfield Papers, Celia, Michael and Courtney created a finding aid, a wonderfully entertaining blog post, and a collection of 209 images on Flickr (including images of some family recipes carefully tested by the project archivist — check out the “picnic turnovers“!)

Although the Belfield papers are at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Belfield itself is on the campus of another PACSCL member, La Salle University, where English professor James Butler is its chronicler. As Butler’s book on Belfield was going to press in the 1990s, he learned of this collection and, as he put it, “I was given permission to open a few of the liquor boxes and to peer into the absolute chaos of their contents, but unfortunately some of those disorderly contents were medical records of still-living people. Things would have to be sorted before I could dig further. My book came out, but I thought of it as ’Belfield’: An Incomplete History….”

Now processed and available for research, the Belfield Papers will shed light on a range of topics relating to local history, historic preservation, women’s studies, the history of medicine, to name a few. And Professor Butler is poised to hit the boxes for the second edition of his “Belfield”: A History.

Courtney Smerz also comments: ” Having spent over two years prepping collections for minimal processing and working with processors to process those collections, I can say confidently that the Belfield papers was one of our most challenging ventures and definitely our greatest success!  This was a collection that was truly hidden and 100% inaccessible for research.  There was no way to even know who or what was documented in the collection, let alone know in which disorganized box to look first.  That there were medical records was the least of our worries!  The collection was processed in less than 4 hours per linear foot.  Though its post processing arrangement is general, for sure, it is now appropriately housed and completely accessible.  The Belfield papers ranked high on the survey and did not disappoint in processing.  This collection is chock full of information on lots of interesting topics that would never have been known without minimal processing, and we’re hopeful that they will be of good use to many scholars. “

Explore the Belfield Papers and the Hidden Collections project:

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