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Stitched Together: Digital and Physical Textile Preservation

By Sam Smith, LCHS Intern, University of Idaho History student

In my previous blog post I detailed the work that I did in updating digital reference materials for the map collection at the Latah County Historical Society (LCHS). The importance of this job stemmed from the need to ensure that a researcher could easily find a digital entry to continue their work with ease. While this central theme would carry over to my next task, it would step a little more into the physical world.

LCHS maintains an important historical building in Moscow known as the McConnell Mansion. This beautiful old home has since been turned into the primary museum space used to showcase artifacts relating to the prominent families that previously owned the mansion. The mansion also serves as storage space for some of the large collection of stored artifacts. On the second floor is a small room designated for textile storage; this is where my job largely took place. Boxes and rolls of quilts, blankets, doilies, and towels line the shelves along the walls of this room. It truly is an impressive collection of artifacts which often came from local residents and represents the culture and handiness prominent in Moscow’s history.

Textile storage closet in the McConnell Mansion

Just as it is incredibly important to maintain the search systems for an online archive, it is just as important to maintain the physical location information of the artifacts. Therefore, it was my responsibility to go through the boxes and update the entries for each of the objects inside to reflect the room they were in, the shelf they were on, and which box they were in. Since the entries often had no accompanying images, I was tasked with taking some basic photos so that anyone looking for a particular piece could easily see the object described in the entry in the LCHS digital catalog. While these artifacts may be important for a researcher interested in historical thread craft or home-made textiles, the most common use for the artifacts stored here is to be displayed in the various exhibits within the mansion. By updating the location information and adding a photograph to each object entry, it becomes much easier to quickly find relevant artifacts to display.

This process was very time consuming and could be frustrating. Much like with the map collection, some object entries were not transferred over to the new hosting software. On occasion I would stumble across an artifact with appropriate identification attached to it, but no entry could be found. In those cases, I was tasked with creating an entry for the newly re-discovered artifact. Unfortunately, the internet connection was not very fast and creating a new entry was a time-consuming process. However, if this work had not been done, these incredible artifacts could have gone missing within the collection for quite some time.

Parallel to this task was that of preparing certain artifacts for storage in the collection. After updating their object entries, I was shown several appropriate methods for storing textiles. Large quilts are often rolled with protective covers to prevent damage and allow for convenient hanging storage. Smaller textiles such as afghans and blankets are stored within special boxes. Because folding can cause damaging friction to the cloth, archival tissue must be layered in between each fold and between the stored artifacts. The number of artifacts stored per box varied with their size and shape. A collection of handmade rugs was the most Tetris-like experience that I had, each one folding into a unique shape that I managed to neatly fit together.

The contents of a textile storage box.

While preparing the artifacts for storage, careful note of what artifacts were in each box had to be taken. Much like my work updating the digital location information, the physical labels on these storage boxes needed to reflect their contents for easy identification. Once I had compiled my list, I was tasked with creating the printed labels to be placed on the boxes. I had done this process once before for the boxes in the map collection, and it was an enjoyable process.

Updating the location information for the artifacts in the textile collection was a lengthy and very much behind-the-scenes job. It taught me a great deal about how important the physical management of a collection is. Wonderful objects can seemingly go missing because of small digital errors and a lot of physical effort must be expended fixing that issue. While I have not personally had the chance to request physical items from a collection, it would bring me a great deal of confidence to know that the archive in charge of them not only maintains their digital interfaces, but the physical storage spaces as well. It would be truly derailing to any research if a needed artifact could not be found in a timely manner because no one knew what box it was in.

Textiles wrapped in tissue paper before being "tetris-ed" into a storage box.

Having the chance to prepare some artifacts for storage was just as enlightening. While conducting the inventory process, I repeatedly encountered artifacts such as dish towels that were over 100 years old. While 100 years in the grand scope of historical study is not that long, to see that such a well-used object as a dish towel was still intact and in presentable condition was impressive to me. Understanding the methods for storing such fragile and important artifacts is important. Without having physical objects to interact with, many aspects of life in the past can become forgotten and distorted. I enjoyed that I was able to take part in ensuring that those in the future will be able to see objects from life in past Moscow.

This was my last job as an intern with LCHS. While I was only able to spend a semester working here, I feel that I’ve learned more than I expected. Being able to take part in the preservation of historical artifacts and knowledge is a fulfilling experience. Personally, I hope that other students like myself have the opportunity to interact with LCHS like this.

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