Breaking Down a Large Collection: The Photographs Series

The Paul Whiteman Collection is currently estimated to be 582 linear feet. Taken all at once, processing such a collection would be a daunting and seemingly impossible task. In fact, the collection is so large (it contains not only paper files, but also a door and a small piano–more on these artifacts later), that it cannot be housed in a single location.

Paul Whiteman Collection

The majority of the collection resides in Sawyer Library on the main campus of Williams College. Much of the material in Special Collections is housed in a temperature-and-humidity-controlled space on compact shelving.

The remainder of the collection is housed in the Library Shelving Facility (LSF), a 6,000 square foot storage facility a short drive from campus. While the papers in the Paul Whiteman Collection are in Sawyer Library, the artifacts belonging to the collection are at LSF.

Library Shelving Facility

In order to process a collection of this size, it becomes necessary to break down the materials into series and work with the collection in pieces. When I arrived at Williams, there were already clear series determined for the collection, including music scores, audio recordings, vertical files, and photographs, among others. I decided to begin work in the “Photographs” series because it was a relatively small segment of the collection (about 10 linear feet), and there had been some preliminary work done to group like photos together.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of the photographs in the collection feature Paul Whiteman. There are photos of Whiteman with his orchestra, Whiteman on horseback, Whiteman with cars, Whiteman with family. One photo shows Whiteman accepting a glass of buttermilk during his stint as honorary Mayor of Ft. Worth, Texas. (Check out the photo on Twitter and Instagram)

Glass negative from the Paul Whiteman Collection.

There are candid photos and studio portraits. In some photos, Whiteman is dressed to conduct, and in some, he is dressed in costume (pirate, sailor, cowboy). Some of the folder labels that went along with the photographs–“Odd people,” “Gag photos,” “Whiteman with women”–were both more and less descriptive than would be helpful in navigating the collection. After reviewing the contents of the folders, “Odd people” became “Whiteman Collection images, miscellaneous,” “Gag photos” became “Whiteman images, comic,” and the folder labeled “Whiteman with women” was split into two folders, each named for Whiteman and one of his wives, who were featured in the photographs.

 Also included in this series are glass negatives of advertisements for Whiteman concerts.

Original housing of the glass negatives.

Originally stored flat in a cardboard box, the glass negatives have been rehoused in acid-free envelopes, labeled, stored upright, and cushioned by bubble wrap.

The rehousing of the glass negatives concluded work on the photographs in the Whiteman Collection, and the series has been added to the Paul Whiteman Collection finding aid.

Current housing for the glass negatives.

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Written by Laurel Rhame, Project Archivist