Walter Magnus Teller Collection

Emily Esten from UMASS Amherst is currently interning in the Museum’s Research Library. Her first project centered around Manuscript Collection #131 (Mss 131) with a complete finding aid serving as the finished product. Below are Emily’s reflections on her first completed project:

Essentially, Mss 131 is a collection called the Teller Papers, a gift from Dr. Walter Magnes Teller that consists of correspondence and research materials from his work on studying Joshua Slocum. The collection was assessed in 1989, but a proper finding aid didn’t exist. That was my assignment: create the finding aid.

Joshua Slocum is an interesting character – born Canadian in a small town of Nova Scotia, later became an American citizen, and managed to make many impressive sea voyages, the most notable being his solo voyage around the world. The sloop he used for that particular voyage, the Spray, was given to him during his stay in Fairhaven, Mass. Slocum mysteriously disappeared while on his way to the West Indies. Teller wrote two books on Slocum: The Search for Joshua Slocum in 1959, and The Voyages of Joshua Slocum in 1971.

The collection includes a wide array of documents – over one-third of the collection is correspondence, but it also includes photos, a draft of a script for a movie of Slocum’s life, and photostats of original Slocum letters. It’s divided up into three separate sections: Correspondence, Research Materials, and Additional Teller Publications and Materials.

I found lots of interesting items in this collection – here were some of my favorites:

  • A handwriting analysis report of one of Slocum’s letters, 1954 (I don’t remember the results of this report, but it reminded me of the fact that a biographer needs to go through literally EVERYTHING in order to get a good idea of who the individual was.)
  • A draft of the speech Teller gave at the Fairhaven plaque dedication ceremony, April 1959
  • Joshua Slocum stamps from Christmas Island, 1977 (You know you’ve made it when you’re on a stamp.)
  • Slocum’s marriage license to Virginia. (I’ve never seen a marriage license before, but the language used in it was a little frightening, to say the least.)
  • A copy of Canadian Geographic, 1980. (I didn’t realize the entire magazine would be in the folder – it had to be at least an inch thick!)
  • A letter from Teddy Roosevelt to Joshua Slocum (the two met on at least one occasion.)

The really interesting finds were in the newspapers. I spent several hours standing by the photocopier in order to make copies of newspaper clippings, since clippings are printed on paper that will quickly fade and fall apart. Clippings are difficult to decipher – sometimes, the particular article or picture was difficult to find, and so I had to scan the page and figure out its relevance to the topic at hand.

I also loved reading all the letters reading through the correspondence – some of it wasn’t so interesting (mostly the receipts), but a lot of them explained little details of Teller’s and Slocum’s life that couldn’t be expressed through basic records. Also, letters are rare gems in today’s technological environment (at least for me,) so being able to see the beautiful (and ugly) handwriting was very neat. By the end, I could recognize the author of some letters by their handwriting!

One of the last steps of the process was using the Library of Congress’s authority listing. Authority listings are similar to tagging things on Tumblr – it’s a way of organizing relevant topics of the finding aid. For example, in this finding aid, listings like “sailing,” “Spray (Sloop),” and “Smithsonian Archives,” are included.

Once I finished adding that into the XML coding, my supervisor posted it directly into the site so we could see if there were any issues. I’m not perfect – there were a few mistakes, as well as one really noticeable one, which had random commas in front a list of entries. Fortunately, this was a quick fix, and all that was left to do was add a link to the finding aid on the main page.

After all the computer stuff was all set, I put official labels on the boxes and placed the nine boxes back on the shelf, ready to move onto the next project.

Working with this collection was definitely a challenge – I had the inventory list to give me an idea of what should be found in these folders, but little guidance as to what to do with it. But as I’m starting to learn, that’s an archivist’s job – what to do with all this information.

2 responses to “Walter Magnus Teller Collection

  1. Douglass Moody

    “◾A draft of the speech Slocum gave at the Fairhaven plaque dedication ceremony, April 1959″ Slocum or Teller gave speech?

  2. Teller. Slocum died exactly 50 years earlier.

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