Context, Context, Context! A Lesson in Archival Description

Posted by Lara Michels on Monday November 15 2010

Right now I am working on a collection known as the Louis Getz papers and photographs in the Western Americana archival collections of the Magnes. I finished physically housing (foldering, sleeving, boxing) the collections and am now working on the catalog record.

My job in creating this catalog record is to provide enough of a sense of the content and the context of this collection for researchers to determine whether or not it might be relevant for their work.  In archival description context is as important as content. You can imagine that a researcher would need very little contextual information about Mark Twain (and, if they did need this information, it is readily available).  But the family of Louis M. Getz is not likely to be familiar to the average researcher and there aren’t any secondary sources to turn to for information.  It is my job, as archivist, to describe the collection in ways that might connect researchers to it. I have to provide the context to researchers so they are able to determine for themselves whether or not the collection might be useful to them. When collections come to the Magnes we try to gather as much information as possible from donors to help us with our descriptions.  Sometimes, however, donors don’t know or can’t remember many details and we simply have to dig through a collection and through any administrative files that exist to make sense of things. This is the case with the Louis Getz papers and photographs.

Here is the existing summary (taken from the Magnes website) of this collection (prepared at some point in the past 15 years or so):

Sam Isralsky was a treasurer of San Francisco’s Union League Club, the Chairman of its Auditing Committee, and the Business Manager of its publication, the Union Leaguer.

This collection contains numerous photographs of family members, including two of family members walking in the ruins of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire; newspaper clippings about Samuel Isralsky and Louis M. Getz and his son, Alvin; and newspaper clippings, dating from 1906 and that were housed originally in a scrapbook, relating to motion pictures, Burt Heard, and Heard’s theatre, which was called “Heard’s Big Show.” The scrapbook also had some information about the Golden Gate Mattress Company. In addition, the collection has an autograph album of Louis Getz (1888-1928); two bulletins of the Union Leaguer, one of which, from July 1933, contains a photograph of Samuel Isralsky; a flyer from the John F. Myers and Company store that advertised “Home and New Home Oil Heaters”; and an undated piece of writing entitled, The New Home Oil Heater.

A few problems with this summary immediately stand out to me. First, I wonder, who is Sam Iralsky?  I have no idea, from the information in the record, how this man is connected to Louis Getz.  Why, if these are the Louis Getz papers, does the summary begin with a biographical statement about Sam Iralsky?  Why are there materials from Mr. Iralsky in this collection at all?  Second, there is no real biographical information about Louis Getz.  Can I quickly find out anything more about Louis Getz from the materials at hand?  Third, since I have seen the collection, I know that there are photographs of Getz’s wife, Gertie, and her family (the Lapidaires of Virginia City, Nevada) throughout the collection. Why is there no mention of this family or of Nevada in this description?  A researcher might not be interested in this family per se, but may be interested in looking at the collection because of the Virginia City connection.  It is hard to say what researchers will do with archival materials but it is best to provide as much context, as many access points (to use a cataloging term), as possible.  This will open up the collection to a range of potentially interested researchers. Fourth, the description of the contents of the scrapbook are tantalizing but vague.  Can I illuminate further (and quickly!) the contents of the scrapbook?  What is the relationship of the scrapbook to the Getz family?

So, from my own brief assessment of the collection and its record, I know what needs to be explored in order to make additions or alterations to the catalog record. I know that I need to determine and explain who Sam Iralsky is and that I need to include information about Louis Getz’s wife, since there are many photographs in the collection relating to her family.  I also know that I need to glance quickly at the scrapbook and determine whether I can clarify the contents of it.

My first step is to quickly look back through the papers in the collection and through the collection’s administrative file and try to determine the connection between Sam Iralsky and Louis Getz.  I find a love letter to Gertrude Getz from Sam Iralsky dated 1936.  Hmm.  I decide to see if I can determine the death date of Louis Getz (this is good information to add to a record anyway–more context!!).  A search on Ancestry.com finds that Louis died in 1916. So it looks as if the widow Gertrude had a relationship with Sam Iralsky later in her life.  Indeed, a look at the administrative file for the collection reveals a brief (almost hidden) note that confirms that Iralsky was Gertrude’s second husband.  The materials in the collection (photographs, ephemera, pamphlets, letters) relating to Sam Iralsky are from Gertrude. Things are becoming clearer. It is not really accurate, I see, to call these the Louis Getz papers and photographs. These are the family papers and photographs of Louis and Gertrude Getz. Gertrude must be added to the record as a creator of this collection. Otherwise, the presence of materials from Sam Iralsky will not make sense to researchers.

Next, I quickly glance at the scrapbook to see what I can glean from it. It turns out that the scrapbook reveals a fair bit about Louis Getz.  I can see that he was the proprietor (along with Harry Lapidaire) of something called The San Francisco Disaster Company, which put on shows in the tent cities that sprang up in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.  Interesting!  So, the above record makes reference to the earthquake in connection with some photographs in the collection, but there is also an earthquake connection that could be highlighted in the description of the scrapbook.  Turns out the scrapbook has clippings from lots of Tent City productions and that “Heard’s Big Show,” referred to in the above summary, was a show presented on September 3, 1906 at the San Francisco Opera House that featured photographs of the earthquake and fire.

I suspect that the few minutes I spent clarifying the context of this collection will make for a much stronger collection description and for much greater access. Archival description is an ongoing process, but I am happy with this for now. The completed catalog record is here.  And here is one of the photographs of family members walking in the ruins of San Francisco in 1906:

Members of the Getz family walking in the ruins of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

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Filed under: Collections andRandom Musings

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