By processing the donated collection to the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture (CAHC) and with the help of the Mosaic Templar Cultural Center, I am able to bring you a general biography of Mary Lee Harris. First, its necessary to understand HOW we acquired this collection!
Mary Lee Harris’s collection was split up after her death in 1986, first donated to the Plantation Agricultural Museum in Scott, Arkansas back in 2004, where they put up an exhibit on the life of an African American woman living in the state of Arkansas. This exhibit included various artifacts that were salvaged from her home – trinkets such as silverware, clocks, dishes and even various furniture. From there, the collection ended up in the hands of the Mosaic Templar Cultural Center, while additional items were donated to the UALR CAHC. Interestingly, the items donated to the Plantation Agricultural Museum and the UALR CAHC were from the same person. So the donor was the one who split the collection up!
In my possession were many documents, such as correspondence to Harris, various news articles and hand written recipes. I also was fortunate enough to have in my collection her original diaries and a few bibles. After visiting the Mosaic Templar Cultural Center, I noticed that they had one box in particular of interest, including photos. With these two collections together, I can piece together the wonderful, if not tragic, story of Mary Lee Harris.
It is interesting to read the communication between the various museums and archives that were involved in the acquisition of these materials. To understand this collection is more than understanding the history of Mary Lee Harris – it is the secret world of communication between donors and the institution where they donate. The confusion began when I noticed that there were many questions left unanswered. I could piece together the history of her mother, mainly since Mary Lee Harris saved her mother’s birth certificate, marriage certificate and even the sermon pamphlet from her funeral. It wasn’t until Colin, the senior archivist, did a little digging did we find out that there was actually a history written about her and submitted for the Susie Pryor Award year ago. After reading through this, we discovered that many of the artifacts were donated to the Plantation Agricultural Museum and from there, the Mosaic Templar Cultural Center. What a journey!
This week has been more reading assignments that the previous weeks, and the underlying message is copyright and privacy. For our purposes, the big question is how do we protect the personal data found in donated materials and what is our role in control and manipulation? These are not negative things, but they can be perceived as such if archivists and museums do not do an adequate job of holding the material and then displaying the material in a manner that is not only beneficial to the museum or archive, but protects the privacy of the donor. Its an interesting concept to consider, and one that I think we easily disregard. Negotiations on donated material can range from relatively easy to extremely case sensitive and its important to realize that the person donated may not be necessarily worried about the documents being viewed by the public during their lifetime, but their children, and so forth.
As the holding facility to many important documents, some of which are sealed for a number of years, is the importance in displaying these documents to the public for historical research, or is the importance in preserving the material and showing good faith so others will feel safe donating their materials? What if someone donated materials that were extremely case sensitive and the archive were to publish these materials ahead of schedule. Not only could this damage the reputation of the person involved, but it could also damage the credibility and dependability of the archive, which was trusted to not publish the material until a future date. These situations are unavoidable if each donated collection is viewed case by case, and if the donor and the archive representative sit down and completely and thoroughly go over the procedure of when the materials will be able to be viewed, how they will be stored, the process from beginning to end and other smaller details.
Something additional for you to read over is not only the process of privacy in the United States, but in the entire world! Its truly interesting to see the differences and compare. In Russia, for instance, its common to have records sealed for up to 75 years after the event ended or the person died. In France, its 120 years! Combine these laws with a particular historical time period, such as the fall of the Soviet Union, and you have a true conundrum. When can we view these files? Do we wait the time allotted pertaining to each country, or do we allow the records to be opened immediately so that people can find their family, homes, or claim businesses? Its only one example but in the end, the answer was to take these sensitive situations and go case by case.
These privacy laws have shifted from generation to generation. From the Freedom of Information Act in 1966, which restricted access to government information; to the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, where law enforcement can access private data. We in the United States do not have a set in stone rule about privacy. We also view certain individuals differently, such as celebrities. Democrats and Republicans are both weary of government intrusion, but not necessarily private sectors. Where does this lead? Hopefully, there is a happy medium. One between open access to materials for historical research and preservation, and one that allows the private sector to feel safe and secure donating their materials to an archive or museum without consequences.
There lies the balance. Archives and museums are not considered “storage units” for personal belongings, but there are many historically significant materials that have been destroyed in the past because of these privacy issues. Don’t let this happen to your archive or museum! Remember that in the end, we are here to preserve history and, yes, display even the terrible and controversial knowledge to the public as well. Don’t damage your reputation, but keep to your values and run every donated material on a case by case evaluation. These are a few things I’ve learned about copyright laws, any you have to add?
Until next time!
It has been quite awhile since my last post. Between Spring Break and personally presenting a paper in Texas for a Phi Alpha Theta conference, I have been a busy woman! I am happy to update everyone on a few things since my last post.
For starters, I know last time I wrote Colin, the senior archivists I am working with at the UALR CAHC, and I went to the Mosaic Templar Cultural Center’s offsite location to be introduced to the second half of the Mary Lee Harris Collection. It was AMAZING! They have many artifacts that tell the story of this wonderful woman and her family. The one thing I found and was most interested in was a small box that contained many documents – newspapers, letters and photos. I also found current day correspondence between different people who were associated with first procuring these artifacts and document to be stored for future researchers. I was fortunate enough to go back on my own the following week to dig through this particular box to locate more detailed information and make copies of the lovely photos that now bring a face to not only Mary Lee Harris, but various family members as well.
Its interesting to see the history of this women and how her life came to my desk. Luckily, the rest of the answers are starting to come together. Between an essay written about her life and the artifacts, the collection that is stored at the Mosaic Templar Cultural Center and the papers I currently possess, we can piece together a basic understanding of her life. Mary Lee Harris, born in 1912, married at age 15 to a man who she later separated from but never divorced, who lived with her grandmother for a short period of time and then her mother and step-father until they all passed away – these details are now available for the public. Well…they will be once I finish my finding aid! Speaking of which, my first draft has been turned in and I am finalizing the changes as we speak. In the next few weeks I will start giving you a more detailed look at Mary Lee Harris and the progression I took to find her life story. Check back later!