This is a guest post by Manuscript Division archivist Katherine Madison and is the latest in an occasional series that looks behind the scenes at the work of Manuscript Division staff.
When archivists receive a scrapbook with a new collection, they have to make a choice: do they keep the scrapbook whole, or do they disassemble it? Scrapbooks are fascinating objects that tell unique stories, but they come with a host of preservation challenges. In the case of the National Woman’s Party Records, the archivists made the decision to keep each of the forty-seven scrapbooks whole. You can read more about that process here. When I processed the Edwin Swillinger Papers, I made the opposite choice.
The Edwin Swillinger Papers document his military service as an army medic in post-war Japan. Swillinger and his twin brother Richard enlisted after the end of World War II in 1945. Following training at Camp Polk in Louisiana, they were sent abroad to the 118th Station Hospital in Fukuoka, Japan. Upon returning to the United States in 1948, the brothers attended medical school together at the University of Cincinnati, graduating in 1954.
When this collection arrived in the Manuscript Division, it consisted of several letters, a medical report on radiation poisoning, a biographical sketch written by Swillinger’s daughter, and a large scrapbook I dated to sometime in the 1950s. The scrapbook contained dozens of photographs of military camps (both in the U.S. and Japan) from Swillinger’s military service in the late 1940s. Some photographs documented a trip Swillinger took to Camp Patton in Nagasaki, Japan, and show scenes of the bombed-out city. The scrapbook also contained Edwin’s and Richard’s Selective Service orders and some mementos of their camp life, such as meal tickets and slips of paper recording their firing range scores.
Unfortunately, the scrapbook itself was in poor condition. The paper on which the photographs were mounted was brown and crumbling – an obvious sign of acidic decay. While the photographs were neatly inserted into individual mounting corners, the pages containing the paper documents were not organized at all. Documents were stapled in large clumps, obviously put away for safekeeping rather than display. The acid from the pages of the scrapbook itself had also begun to eat away at these mementos of Swillinger’s life in occupied Japan, turning the papers an orange-brown wherever they came into contact with the book’s pages. Given more time, these pages would have begun to damage the photographs as well.
I made the decision to disassemble the scrapbook in order to preserve each of the individual items it contained. First, I made a color photocopy of every page (including the front and back covers) so that the scrapbook’s full context could be preserved. I wanted researchers to be able to see how Swillinger arranged his memories across these pages – starting with his and his brother’s Selective Service orders, and moving on to photographs and other mementos.
The next step was to detach carefully the paper items from the pages and place them in acid-free folders. Now researchers are able to look at the government letter ordering Swillinger to report to his local Selective Service board “at 3:30 P.M. on October 11, 1945” without risking tearing its edges where it was stapled to the scrapbook. They can also read the “Souvenir Edition” of The Last Leg Log newsletter of the USS James O’Hara – which carried Edwin and Richard back to the United States in February 1948.
When I finally removed the photographs from the scrapbook, I quickly discovered that most of the images were labeled on the back. These captions would not have been accessible to researchers if the scrapbook had remained intact, so disassembling the book not only increased the lifespan of these materials, but it also uncovered beneficial information for researchers. It is now possible to know the names of the people depicted in each photo, to identify which photographs were taken at an army base in the United States versus in Japan, and to determine the dates of many of the images, such as Swillinger’s trip to Nagasaki in July 1947.
It took a little over a week to disassemble this scrapbook, rehouse all its materials into appropriate folders and sleeves, and make photocopies of the fragile material. Now, the Edwin Swillinger Papers are open for researcher access in the Manuscript Division Reading Room, and researchers can learn about this slice of life and American history in occupied Japan.
Do you want more stories like this? Then subscribe to Unfolding History – it’s free!