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The James Wood Poplar Grove Collection
MSA SC 5807 Series 13

A Sample drawn for appraisal and indexing

Collection Dates:

17th-20th centuries

Collection Description:

Papers found in at Poplar Grove/Brampton Plantation in Queen Anne's County.
Deposited at the Maryland State Archives for appraisal, processing, and placing images on line.

For information about processing the records from Poplar Grove by the 2008 summer internship program see The Poplar Grove Project blog .and the following introduction.

Some examples of the documents found at Poplar Grove include a broadside directed against the re-election of President Martin Van Buren.

Item inventories and images of the contents of the records transferred from Poplar Grove to the Maryland State Archives will be available as editonline ebooks. An example are the Letters to A. M. H. Emory, which form the first series of this collection.  For additional ebooks of images from the collection, see the  Collection Inventory


original/electronic images


Reflections on Salvaging a Family Archives

Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse, State Archivist
November, 2008, Revised June 23, 2010

This series (series 13) was created with originals pulled as the collection was being boxed for transfer to the Archives in the first phase of salvaging the collection. It was intended as a sample designed to assist in the virtual organization and indexing of the collection. Once the collection was moved to the Archives for the second stage of processing, this series was supplemented by a sample of 1,000 images selected as the collection was scanned and moved to its current series organization in acid neutral folders and archival containers. Both this series 13, and the image sample of the rest of the collection, were then used to assist in the design of the indexing and virtual organization of the collection which is the ongoing final phase of providing public access.

My introduction to the collection of  historical records at Poplar Grove Plantation in Queen Anne's County, Maryland, came with a call from Adam Goodheart, Director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.  He told me that a few years ago in the course of a fascinating archaelogical field study of a Queen Anne's county plantation slave cabin, family papers had been discovered in the plantation house.  At the time an effort was made to assess the content of the collection, but time and resources were limited, and not much progress was made.  Since then the owner, James Wood,  had become increasingly concerned about the collection, and welcomed advice on what to do.   Adam asked if I could spare a day to visit the collection and offer some suggestions.

I met Adam and James at Poplar Grove on a beautiful day in May, 2008.    It was clear from what we had time to sample that the surviving records were a treasure trove relating largely to the antebellum history of Maryland and the Nation, as well as to the economic history of the region throughout much of the 19th century.  In one out building we even found an extensive collection of records kept by one member of the family who prospected for minerals in Guiana in the first half  of the 20th century.   The records were not in the best of shape and called for immediate attention to prevent any futher loss and deterioration.

I suggested a plan to James and Adam.  If the Starr Center could come up with matching funds for four summer interns and recruit the interns from Washington College and the family, I would devise a salvage and management plan, provide a place to process and house the collection, and supply half the money for the interns from the Archives of Maryland fund of the Maryland State Archives.

We were exceptionally fortunate in the selection of the Poplar Grove Project staff.   Washington College supplied Albin Kowalewski, who was chosen to coordinate and manage the project under my supervision,  James Schelberg, who was drawn to the collection because of  the significant amount of material relating to a Civil War general, and Jeremy Rothwell, who knows everyone in Queen Anne's County and the surrounding area, as well as having a deep appreciation of agricultural history.  We were doubly fortunate in the family's suggestion for the internship in Olivia Wood.  She not only brought a high level of enthusiasm and family knowledge to the team, but also her close relationship with her grandmother, author of an excellent book, My Darling Alice, inspired by correspondence her grandmother found in the collection, helped us all to better appreciate the cultural and literary value of what we were finding.

In all the internship was satisfying on all fronts.  The interns presented their findings at a well-attended conference at Washington College on November 24, 2008.  They moved the audience with the high quality of their reports, as did James Wood with his closing reflections on serendipity and entropy as it related to his unexpected inheritance of Poplar Grove and its contents.

The Poplar Grove project gave me the opportunity to put into action ideas that I had formulated over many years about how to most effectively process and make permanently accessible a large collection of family papers quickly and economically.  Because the collection was in such disarray and presented a wide range of conservation issues including mold, mouse droppings, and even the presence of a decomposing dead dog, it was clearly a worst case scenario fraught with a wide range of challenges, perhaps only exciting to an Archivist, but definitely worth the effort, especially as a model for the future of collection management.

The first stage of processing was to flatten, folder, and box the collection as quickly as possible, removing the papers from the peach baskets, lard tins, attic trunks, out building attics, and second floor heaps in which they were found, and placing them in absorbent folders that would remove any unwanted moisture and dry out the paper.

This first stage was a simple, not a terribly pleasant one, yet one filled with the 'aha's' of discovery that kept us going through several days of the very hottest weather of the summer. Thanks to James Wood, the owner, who installed an air conditioner in the kitchen of the plantation house where we worked, it was bearable.  For the most part, we kept the papers in the disorder they were found, placing them in highly absorbant (cheap) folders,  with as many as  6-10 flattened documents per folder, and placing the folders in a standard, one cubic foot,  record center box, lined with a clear plastic garbage bag.  As we foldered and boxed, a  limited number of selected items that helped explain the character and extent of the collection were pulled and placed in this separate series  for appraisal purposes. The sample here included the first items in the collection to be addressed in the second stage of processing, and among the first to be scanned and placed on line.

To get to the comfort of our processing office as quickly as possible, we worked at a fast pace.   Adam joined us as much as he could and was forever encouraging us to look more closely at the scraps and nooks and crannies for more, when we were sure that we had salvaged all that could be kept from recycling.   Generally he was right, but at last we did manage to take under our charge almost every salvageable  scrap of record  remaining at Poplar Grove.  We were pleasantly interrupted a few times by the press which took a great interest in our work and gave the project national publicity,  which the Starr Center in turn reflected in a very popular Project Blog to which we all,  in some measure contributed articles.  

In the end we moved over  80  record center boxes and over-sized containers to the Archives processing center (a commercial warehouse, the address for which we do not make publicly available for security reasons).

The rest of the first 10 week summer internship  was spent in the comfort of the warehouse office sorting, re-foldering into acid neutral folders placed in archival storage boxes, and scanning the papers in their sort sequence.  The collection was sorted into series that seemed, from the appraisal selection and our initial boxing experience, to make the most sense for the overall management of the collection.   For Poplar Grove that generally meant sorting by principal recipient or person most likely to have been associated with keeping the records. We did not intend to spend a great deal of time doing more than making a best guess at series sorting and keeping the results in as good chronological order as possible.  Little time was meant to be spent on refinement of sorting.  The idea was to provide a simple, logical framework for the gross management of the collection, employing elementary conservation techniques as we went along.  For example, the cheap folders for the intial boxing absorbed much of the unwanted moisture and helped flatten the papers. The sorting and re-foldering was accompanied by elementary cleaning, and scanning of as much of the contents as the time of the ten week internship permitted. The work of refined cataloging, description, and indexing would be left to the virtual reality of the web based inventorying, transcribing, and editing programs which I had designed.

As part of the proof of product of the internship, Olivia Wood had the dual responsibility of testing our new approach to on-line transcription and editing of collections, the pilot for which is http://editonline.us.  While the project staff  did most of the scanning, the Archives staff (in the person of  Erin Cacye, a former MSA intern) scanned the first series, a collection that was found very early on in the bottom of a nearly empty trunk in the bee infested attic of Poplar Grove. As discoveries were made by interns and staff, stories were written for the Poplar Grove blog, such as the entry on the documents relating to the Eastern Shore Railroad. The mouse eaten original map, it turns out, does exist in print and has been placed on line in its printed form by the library of Congress.  Eventually all the scans of the collection will be accessible through this pilot editing and transcription project, enlisting as much free help on line as possible in transcribing the contents of the collection. 

Once all but the fragments of paper had been placed in archival acid free folders and boxes, the Assistant Director of Special Collections at the Maryland State Archives, Maria Day, labeled the boxes, counted the folders, and described the collection to the box or book level in our Special Collections cataloguing system.  Her cataloguing work can be found on line at the Maryland State Archives web site as Special Collections MSA SC 5807, the James Wood Poplar Grove Collection.  There it is linked to the ebooks of the papers themselves which I produced in the evenings and on weekends on my home computer as my personal contribution to getting the project on line.

In doing so, I intentionally used a very simple ebook approach written in Perl that I had devised for my own electronic publications.  The Perl programs produce a static, as opposed to a dynamic, ebook.  Dynamic ebooks are generally created on the fly utilizing database/table driven systems such as sql or Oracle and pose massively expensive future problems of management and deployment.   I believe that this static ebook approach  is all that an individual or struggling historical society can afford, and that it makes the product, the resulting html based ebook,  as close to platform and operating system independent as possible in the rapidly changing and volatile world of electronic information.

The second summer's program (again in partnership with Washington College) continued the processing and imaging of the collection) and this summer one intern supported by Washington College, is placing the ebooks for all series on line.

By the end of the summer, 2010, all of the scanning of the Poplar Grove collection will be complete and on line as images.  As a rule of thumb in 2010 dollars, it cost about $250 an archival box usually called a clamshell (a legal sized acid neutral box approximately 5" by 15")  to process, folder, scan and place  its contents on line, and about a cent a page per year to maintain it live on the web. In all there are 83 clamshells plus 73 titles of books and several boxes of unidentified scraps. 

The next phase of processing, which will be begun this summer, is to provide topic/index access to the collection that leads directly to the images in the collection, and transcriptions by anyone who wishes to help further access and use of the collection through whole text indexing. As time and resources permit, a virtual index and traditionally organized access to the collection (topical, chronological, name, and place) will be provided on line using such open source tools as Zotero.

While this approach to processing and 'indexing' a collection is the least expensive and most efficient way to provide effective public access, it requires public support beyond the meager resources of any historical society and most public archives, including the Maryland State Archives. To preserve and make accessible the archival treasures of the State, support must come through funding from granting agencies and from the interested public in the form of contributions both in time and money.

Tax exempt contributions for the support of this and other processing projects can be made to the non-profit support group of the Archives known as the Friends of the Maryland State Archives, c/o the Maryland State Archives, 350 Rowe Boulevard, Annapolis, MD 21401.