Summer in the Memphis Room

Each summer, our Archival Fellows from Rhodes College are required to write a brief reflective essay on their time in the Memphis Room.  This year, Regan Adolph submitted the following essay to her professor.  She has given us permission to post it here, and we do so because she does such a wonderful job of capturing the excitement and variety of experience that working in the archives can provide.

Tomorrow is Regan’s last day, and though we are sad and will miss her (as we already miss Lanier!), we are so glad that we had the opportunity to play host to these two wonderful young ladies and to help them learn to apply their knowledge and skills to preserving Memphis’ history.  We are so proud of both of them and we cannot wait to see what they do next!

Walking into the Memphis Public Library and Information Center for the forty-sixth time this summer, on the tenth Monday of my fellowship, I realized that I was just as excited to start my day in the archives as I was on that first Monday in May. I genuinely looked forward to working on my current project, seeing everyone in the history department, and being responsible for something in the Memphis and Shelby County Room that would be the authority on a certain topic. Knowing the importance of what I was accomplishing, utilizing my passion for meticulous organizing, and working alongside someone of considerable similarities made for an incredible experience as an Archival Fellow.

It’s hard to describe my initial expectations for the summer. I had been in contact with many museums and historical societies about a summer position when I was awarded this fellowship. It was completely unexpected—I’d assumed it wasn’t a possibility the summer after my freshman year, but I am extremely grateful I was presented this opportunity, even as I felt I was in this head-first. The ending weeks of the semester were filled with calls to parents and housing plans, and when I found out the other person working with me would be Lanier Flanders…well, that was just icing on the already perfect cake.

I honestly don’t believe there could have been two people that worked and lived together better than Lanier and I. Our love of history and attention to detail led to a fantastic first six weeks. Separately, we processed our own collections while constantly bouncing off feedback as we learned the archival procedure. And through art museum tours, farmers market visits, new workout classes, baseball games, cooking, and sharing an apartment at Rhodes, we have become so much closer. I look forward to keeping in touch while she’s studying in Europe.

Along with believing that I couldn’t have had a more perfect coworker, I also think that my first collection was absolutely perfect. Because of the variety of objects and document types, I was constantly asking questions and building my archival skills. And through a little detective work, I was able to locate, contact, and meet the grandson and great-granddaughters of the woman who chronicled her life in the early twentieth century! The Bryan Eagle Family Collection truly represents what I love about personal history: I investigated and connected the dots as I tried to figure out family trees and career timelines to gain a deeper insight into their lives. Even though their family story doesn’t really matter on the surface to almost everyone, I recognize its historical significance. And for me to be the one who processed it entirely, to know the most about that part of their family besides them, to present a finished product to their descendants…I’m very proud. The immense pleasure from this collection and every single other I worked on this summer only solidified my love for historic preservation.

The end of the first week brought the end of the Eagle family and Ronco pasta collections and the beginning of an awesome Awsumb collection. Lanier and I were a little puzzled at first, as it seemed most of the collection was done. There were labels on the blueprints and a complete finding aid, but as we started going through each blueprint, we realized many were missing. My “OCD-ness” loved redoing this collection, creating Excel spreadsheets, and preserving some of the coolest Memphis blueprints that most people I know won’t see. And thanks to previous processor Jill Davis’s fantastic research, we were able to enjoy reading about the Awsumb family. We learned so much about the city of Memphis: it led us to the Egyptian club, Rhodes’s buildings, and above all, Gwen Awsumb.

The life story of one Awsumb architect’s wife was incredible. She really got us going one day—Lanier and I got so excited to map out her information that we tracked down a giant whiteboard and covered it with significant points as I read aloud her entire memoir. I learned more about Memphis history in this period of time from her personal accounts and newspaper clippings than I ever knew before. Lanier and I nurtured the idea to write a paper describing the family we were studying and how their architecture reflects the Memphis climate and community development during that time. I was almost halfway into the fellowship and definitely even more excited than day one.

Finishing the Awsumb Architectural Collection rather quickly, we were given the opportunity to process every single Memphis blueprint we could find in the library. I couldn’t have been happier—going from the basement to the side storage rooms in the history department collecting numerous blueprints and using our new architectural processing knowledge, we got right to work. We tied and labeled over 150 architectural drafts, utilized the entire workroom and archival supplies, and kept up a systematized spreadsheet. I realized that my organizational skills also pertained to programs like Excel, and I know that my mix of abilities would be perfectly put to use in an archival setting like this.

Gina Cordell and Sarah Frierson (who have honestly been the two best parts of working here) graciously took Lanier and me on a small field trip during Lanier’s last week. We brought a copy of the original Majestic Theater blueprints to lunch at the Majestic Grille and rode past buildings we had been seeing on paper all week, like the Nineteenth Century Club and Idlewild Presbyterian Church. But the highlight of that trip was definitely making the acquaintance of Willy Bearden. Listening to him tell his story was incredible, and I feel so grateful for this fellowship that has given me opportunities like this.

As the last month of the fellowship left me in the archives generally alone, I continued to learn about the city through a few smaller collections and make even more Memphis connections. I had the absolute pleasure of becoming friends with Mr. Howard Lee, a ninety-five year old Pearl Harbor survivor and resident of the Parkway House penthouse. He treated me to a fabulous view of Overton Park as I listened to him tell stories of the War and collected mementos of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association to add to my next collection. I contacted the curator at the University of Memphis Archives to obtain the rest of those objects but unfortunately learned that it’s hard work for a collection to be combined.

My last two collections mostly revolved around white women in twentieth-century Memphis. Beebe Woodside’s small collection opened my eyes to the regal-ness of the Cotton Carnival, and I am in the finishing stages of processing the Dilettante Club Collection. I will meet with a few current members this week to acquire more material and information for the collection. I also look forward to attending a meeting in the fall! Processing the Dills gave me a different insight into Rhodes as well; most students don’t get to see or learn about our school’s history this way.

I almost forgot about one of the neatest experiences of the summer—History Detectives! One of my favorite television shows filmed an episode in the History stacks, and I was there to help. I discovered a few points in the microfilm that the host decided to use as his central argument, and I was on hand all day to aid in production. That was definitely a memorable day in the archives.

If I had to use one word to describe my fellowship experience, it would be treasure. Not only was it my go-to phrase to describe to outsiders what I was doing (“It’s kind of like National Treasure!”), it represents both the documents of the collections and the people I met and worked with. There are real hidden treasures in Memphis lying in wait—not just forgotten buildings, secret societies, or historical restaurants and festivals, but people. People like Mr. Bearden, Mr. Lee, and the Dilettante ladies. People like Mr. John Dulaney, who processes a collection of the Memphis Park Commission most mornings and shares a love of preserving local history. People like Jasmine, Laura, Mr. Robert, Ms. Joan, Ms. Verjeana, Ms. Toney, and Marilyn, who always answer any questions and are so welcoming and warm in the sometimes freezing archives. And there are treasures like Mr. Wayne Dowdy, who was so generous to give the History Detective reigns over to me and who knows an unbelievable amount of Memphis history.

I’m not sure where my future coursework in the History Department at Rhodes will take me, but I’m sure that spending this summer working and learning in the Memphis Archives will be one of the most beneficial things on my résumé if I journey into a career in historic preservation. This is not the last time this library will see me though; I am fully prepared to continue volunteering here for the remainder of my time at Rhodes and look forward to digitizing collections and labeling architecture boxes when I return in August. I am truly grateful for the History Department at Rhodes in presenting me with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, for this staff and the informal vibe between coworkers (thanks to Sarah for making a must-see eighties movie list!), for the connections between fantastic Memphians, for being able to work with someone who’s become one of my closest friends, for the chance to live in this fun-filled city for a summer, for accumulating knowledge about the inner workings of local history, and, ultimately, the chance to play detective while recognizing and applying my strengths and talents in this field. Archivists must understand the historical context of the documents they preserve, and my attention to detail, desire for closure, and love of organizing depict this as a very possible career. I understand and appreciate what this fellowship has given me, and I hope that next summers’ fellows value this experience as much as I have!

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Filed under Archival Fellows, Collections, History Department

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