Happy Preservation Week

With all that’s going on during the worldwide corona virus era, it can be challenging to think long term.  But that’s what archivists do, and this pandemic is no different.  So I’d like to take this opportunity to share information about an annual national event called Preservation Week.  Why am I writing about this to our blog readers?  Because YOU can get involved!

Personal papers including formal correspondence, postcards, family letters, enclosures, a program, and a gift tag.

Preservation Week (PW) is an effort headed by the Association for Library Collections and Technology Services (ALCTS), a division of the American Library Association.  While preservation activities typically focus on historical collections in libraries, archives, and museums, the PW web site states that people should take action on “the items held and loved by individuals, families, and communities.”

That’s where you come in.  The ALCTS web site has a Saving Your Stuff page with tips on caring for photographs, books, paper, audio visual materials, digital content, etc.  You can also get free advice from a preservation expert in her Dear Donia page.  And if you’re home with a family member, you can “attend” a free oral history webinar on conducting an oral history interview.  What better way to spend your time when there are no public activities and you’re cooped up inside most of the time?

Photos from the Monger, Shattuck, and Putnam paternal line. Carte de visites, photographs, “Shattuck Saga,” and Last Will and Testament.

Another source of information on collecting and caring for personal materials is a book that just recently came out.  Creating Family Archives by Margot Note is “a step-by-step guide to organizing and preserving your family memories and documents.”  You can find more information and even sample pages on the Society of American Archivists web site, where you can also place an order.  This reasonably priced book ($24.99) is also available on Amazon.

I’ve noticed that many cultural heritage organizations are asking people to keep journals of their pandemic experiences.  Check your local historical association or public library to see if they plan to collect that sort of documentation.  Even if they don’t, you may just want to record your thoughts and activities for yourself.  If you do, be sure to preserve it for posterity!

And last but not least, please remember to preserve yourself from COVID-19!

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Continuing Up the Hill: the ’87 Gymnasium

Rendering of the proposed gymnasium as it appeared in the 1912 Transit.

The ’87 Gymnasium was dedicated in June 1912. Planning for the new facility went back a couple of years earlier to 1910 when a Board of Trustees committee was established to investigate the feasibility of developing a department of physical culture at the Institute. The committee concluded that a completely equipped modern gymnasium was necessary if such a department was to be established. In June 1911 Stewart Johnson, Class of ’87 and a member of the Board of Trustees, announced that his class would finance the construction and equipping of the building.

Lawlor & Haase, the architects of the Walker Chemical Laboratory and Russell Sage Laboratory, were retained as architects. Dr. Dudley Allen Sargent of Harvard University, an eminent authority on college gymnasiums, was hired as project consultant. The construction contract was awarded to the Whitney-Steen Company of New York City. According to The Polytechnic, “The gymnasium is designed in the current American classical style. It primarily is colonial of the Georgian period and detailed in classical Italian.” It was built of Harvard brick, laid in Flemish bond style with limestone trim and a copper roof. The swimming pool was to be a duplicate of the Carnegie pool at Yale. Total cost of constructing and equipping the building was $150,000. Ground was broken for the building on September 12, 1911 and work was completed in November 1912.

A swimming pool 75 feet by 30 feel is situated in the basement, which is eighteen feet in height. There is a gallery around it. The basement also contains four bowling alleys with a mezzanine floor above on which are shower baths and 800 lockers. Filters for the pool and a wash room are also in the basement. The first floor contains rooms for baseball practice, basketball and fencing, a squash court and the offices of the Professor of Physical Training. Above this floor is a room 125 feet by 64 feet in size with a height of 23 feet to the trusses and 36 feet to the peak of the roof. It is used for general gymnastic practice. A running track encircles this room in a gallery ten feet above the floor. The building is completely equipped with the best forms of gymnastic apparatus. In consequence of the construction of this gymnasium, the Board of Trustees has inaugurated compulsory athletic exercise for members of the freshman class, and the existence of the pool has enabled a rule to be adopted requiring that each member of this class must know how to swim.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Bulletin: ’87 Gymnasium. Vol. 11, no. 4, December 1912, pp.4-7.

Work on the building was closely monitored by the student body, most of whom were civil engineering majors and no doubt enthusiastic sidewalk superintendents. The Polytechnic featured almost monthly progress reports, including photographs that have left us with a diary of the building’s construction.

A large L-shaped addition was made to the east and south side of the gym in 1937. The addition included handball courts, bowling alleys, locker rooms, offices, an “exhibition court,” running track and a rifle range. Improvements were made to the swimming pool and space for spectators was increased. The addition and building alterations were designed by faculty in the architecture department and the preliminary plans were drawn up by senior architecture students. The project was completed in the spring of 1938.

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A Last Minute Gift

As 2019 is winding down and we’re preparing for the Institute’s annual holiday break, a surprise arrived in the Institute Archives.  A FedEx box was delivered containing a heavily wrapped parcel.  An RPI yearbook perhaps?  Or maybe an old photo album?  It was neither.  Rather, John, Jen and I opened the package to discover a student scrapbook dating from the 1910s.

Samuel S. Waters scrapbook, 1913-1918

According to the donor, the scrapbook was found while “straightening up some dusty corners of our community library.”  Since there was no known local affiliation the volume was sent to Rensselaer – more than 100 years after its creation!

Samuel S. Waters

Our records hold precious little information about the book’s compiler, Samuel Stephenson Waters, RPI Class of 1917.  The 1917 Transit sheds some light, including that prodigal son “Steve” Waters had returned from “a year’s vacation.”  He had apparently been quite involved in student activities as president of his freshman class, a member of the Rensselaer Union Nominating Committee, and a player on his class football team.  Perhaps his focus on non-academic endeavors explains the fact that Mr. Waters never graduated from Rensselaer!

The scrapbook itself lays bare Waters’s less than stellar academic record.  Many of his grade cards are glued onto its pages, and while he passed all of his admissions tests, things went downhill from there.  His grades cluster at the lower end of the scale of RPI’s grading system, including d (deficient), n (not examined), and the curious n.s.e. (not sufficiently examined).

In contrast to his math and science classwork, Waters did well in French and drawing courses in which he regularly earned a p (passing).  However, those courses could not carry him through the rigorous civil engineering program in which he was enrolled.

The scrapbook also provides ample evidence of Waters’s activities outside of the classroom.  There are concert programs, season passes to RPI athletic competitions, and never-before seen photographs of pushball & flag rushes, surveying expeditions, etc.  As a military school graduate, Waters also interspersed the pages with clipped articles, poetry, and other materials related to military duty.  Selective service cards indicate he registered in 1917 and appeared before the draft board in 1918.  It’s unlikely he served in World War I, since a telegram indicates he commissioned as a captain on November 23, 1918.  The armistice was signed twelve days earlier.

We’re grateful for this donation documenting a young man’s life at RPI.  Among its many bits and pieces are a few small Christmas cards.  I share this last minute gift with our readers in the hope that you enjoy a wonderful holiday season.

Christmas card, circa 1917
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Continuing Up the Hill: the Pittsburgh Building

From 1893 to 1912 Rensselaer’s administrative offices were located in the Alumni Building on Troy’s Second Street. The building also housed the Institute’s library and teaching collections for geology and mineralogy. Located a half-mile from the main campus, the building was inconvenient for both students and administrators.

In 1909, at the mid-winter alumni dinner in Pittsburgh, the Alumni Association of Pittsburgh pledged $125,000 to build a new administration building closer to campus on the former site of the Ranken House. The building, made of Harvard brick and Indiana limestone, was designed by W.G. Wilkins, a Pittsburgh alumnus, who donated his services. The structure was formally presented and dedicated on Alumni Day, June 13, 1911, though it was not completed until February 1912.

The main entrance is on the third floor, since the building is situated on a hillside. The two lower floors contain a book stack room, rooms for sending out catalogues, for exhibitions of drawings, for storage and janitors’ quarters. The main floor contains a book stack room, the reading room, the meeting room for the Trustees and Faculty, and the offices of the President, Treasurer and Registrar. The fourth floor is devoted to the Department of Geology, containing a large museum of geological and mineralogical specimens, and the lecture room and office of the Professor of Geology. One large hall, 100 feet by 64 feet in size, on the fifth floor is used for general meetings and social purposes.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Bulletin. vol. 11, no. 3, September 1912, p.11.

The Pittsburgh Building continued to be used as the main administration building until it underwent a $7.5 million renovation in 1998 to become the home of the Lally School of Management and Technology. The renovation, made possible by a $15 million gift from Thelma P. and Kenneth T. Lally and by additional support from Rensselaer alumni, transformed one of Rensselaer’s oldest buildings into a technology-intensive center for teaching and research. The project was completed by Lee Harris Pomeroy (Class of 1954) Associates.

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Augmenting the Archives: Accessing 19th Century Documents through the Lens of 21st Century Technology

Speakers, John Ansley (Marist College), Andrew Boreman (The Strong Museum of Play), Jenifer Monger (Rensselaer), Rebecca Rouse (Rensselaer), and Tom Sommer (West Las Vegas Library)
Photograph by Craig Huey

At this year’s national Society of American Archivists (SAA) conference in Austin, Texas, I had the honor of presenting to a crowd of over 100 archivists for a session titled Unboxing the Archives: Transforming Collections with Augmented Reality and Collaborative Design. This session included five speakers from academic, museum, archives, and public library settings. Each speaker gave presentations about their own interdisciplinary collaborations using augmented reality (AR) and/or virtual reality (VR) to share collections with researchers, students, and the public. My presentation, “Augmenting the Archives: Accessing 19th Century Documents through the Lens of 21st Century Technology,” focused on a remarkable collaborative endeavor that took place at Rensselaer Libraries in 2017. Though two years have passed since this project took place, it continues to thrive via conversation and throughout the relationships that were forged. This project was a great model for success and made an impact on everyone involved. It fostered deep collaboration, innovation, and storytelling. We paved the way for Rensselaer Libraries and the Institute Archives to engage our communities in unprecedented ways.

Video augmentation of author Erica Wagner, over drawing in notebook by Washington Roebling. Video capture, 2017; notebook circa 1865. Photograph, courtesy of Erica Wagner, 2017.

Project Scope: Within the course of about eight months in 2017, Library Director Andrew White, Archivist Jenifer Monger, Professor Rebecca Rouse, author Erica Wagner, and junior Noah Zucker (GSAS, Class of 2020), completed “Finding Roebling” a multimodal AR exhibit experience. The project coincided with the release of a new biography, Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built The Brooklyn Bridge by Erica Wagner (Bloomsbury).

The author conducted the bulk of her research at Rensselaer’s Institute Archives with material from our extensive Roebling family and Brooklyn Bridge collection. What culminated was an exhibit which showcased manuscripts and artifacts that were augmented with additional imagery, animations, 3D models, and text. One part of the exhibit entitled “Erica’s Desk” simulated Dr. Wagner’s research journey using a mobile app. The user accessed AR content tied to each physical object that illustrated Erica’s personal research journey. Another part of the exhibit showcased a student’s creative development of an exhibit experience using the Microsoft HoloLens which provided mixed reality using smart glasses.

” I first walked across the Brooklyn Bridge probably when I was about 16 years old: although I’d grown up in New York City, I hadn’t done it until then. I was so struck by the bridge- of course that’s not unusual. But I was kind of surprised that I didn’t know anything about it. How it had come to be there, who made it, when it was made? So I started to read about it, and when I did, I encountered the voice of Washington Roebling. It is really true to say that as soon as I started to read anything that he had written, I heard him speaking to me. That’s the only way I can put it. It’s that which led to this fascination, this obsession…” Erica Wagner

Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge by Erica Wagner. Bloomsbury Press, 2017

Author, Erica Wagner: Between about 2009 and 2017, author Erica Wagner conducted research in the Rensselaer Institute Archives, using the Roebling Collection to write the first biography of Washington Roebling. She was so invested in telling the story of Washington Roebling and so compelled by her research experience at the Archives she became very excited and eager to go beyond the published book. Erica and I had many long conversations about her research and interest (as well as intrigue) with some key items in the collection. We wanted to create “something,” do “something” to honor this magnificent endeavor of hers and I was eager and excited to somehow showcase this collection in a new way. We began brainstorming!

The Roebling Collection: First, I would like our readers to know about one of the Institute Archives’ crown jewels: the Roebling collection. This includes the personal and professional papers from members of the Roebling family, the designers and builders of the Brooklyn Bridge which crosses the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Much of the collection documents specifically the design and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. The collection also reveals who the family was: John A. Roebling, a genius engineer, known for his innovations in suspension bridge construction during the first half of the 19th century; his son Washington Roebling, a Rensselaer graduate from 1857 who became Chief Engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge construction project after his father died of tetanus two weeks before construction began; and Emily Warren Roebling, Washington’s wife, best known for carrying out her husband’s construction plans when he was stricken with decompression sickness (the bends) and bed-ridden for much of the construction project. This collection was donated to Rensselaer by Washington’s daughter in law, Helen Pierce Roebling in the 1950’s.

The family and story of the bridge’s construction has been a beacon call for a plethora of global researchers. David McCullough, author of The Great Bridge (1972), was the first researcher to use this collection extensively. The collection also laid the foundation for Ken Burns’ documentary film Brooklyn Bridge (1981), and the BBC’s docudrama series for Seven Wonders of the Industrial World (2003).

Finding Roebling Exhibit, Folsom Library 1st floor
Photograph by Noah Zucker (Class of 2019)

The Collaboration: Early in 2017, months before Erica Wagner’s biography was released, ideas for an event began to percolate. Rensselaer Professor Rebecca Rouse and I were introduced to one another by Rensselaer’s Library Director who saw the potential to unite us, and we began brainstorming. Rebecca and I dovetailed our expertise; her research focuses on theoretical, critical, and design production work with storytelling for new technologies. She is an expert in the design and development of mixed reality projects. As archivist and curator, my expertise lies in promoting a meaningful exchange between visitors and content, highlighting collections in ways that promote dialogue, new perspectives, and a transformative experience. More importantly, we forged a dynamic relationship with the researcher, Erica Wagner, who was excited to share her research journey and wanted to collaborate with us and bring to life how she came into direct contact with Washington Roebling’s presence by using the Roebling collection in the Institute Archives. Rebecca suggested we hire one of her top students in Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences to add some flair and help us create an exhibit experience that incorporated augmented reality. This was brilliant – since AR allows you to gain real-estate in an exhibit with added design features that overlay digital components onto the physical world. We had a vision, administrative support for our endeavor, we formed a team, and the creativity flowed forth!

“Let the engineers explain the bridge, I want to tell the story of Washington Roebling.” Erica Wagner

Video augmentation of author Erica Wagner, over exhibit item. Photograph by Rebecca Rouse
Finding Roebling, 2017 – exhibit cases on main floor of Folsom Library. Content from the Roebling Collection, Institute Archives and Special Collections. Photograph, courtesy of Erica Wagner

Concept Design: We based the design and curatorial decisions on Erica’s research, the way she wrote the biography and the story behind her research interests. I began the curatorial process by honing in on content in the Roebling collection that conveyed the life story of Washington Roebling in keeping with how Erica organized her biography. Spread throughout four exhibit cases, content was chosen to tell the story of the student, the son, the chief engineer, and the sick man. Another key component to the exhibit was “Erica’s Desk” where users could handle reproduced objects that were significant to Erica’s research journey in the archives. These objects were enhanced with audio – excerpts from Roebling’s memoir and recorded Skype videos of Erica discussing various aspects of her research in conjunction with documents from the collection.

Exhibit visitor at “Finding Roebling,” using the Microsoft HoloLens.
Photograph by Noah Zucker (Class of 2019)

19th Century Documents through the Lens of 21st Century Technology: Noah, our student in Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences got curious once Rebecca and I started providing him content from the Roebling Collection. He wanted to see how creative he could be by using the Microsoft HoloLens device to show another aspect of the exhibit with augmented reality. Noah was interested in the HoloLens because it represents a newer generation of head mounted displays for AR. The attraction is a hands-free AR experience for the user, with the possibility for a wider field of view (as opposed to looking through the frame of your phone.) The HoloLens uses a video projection and mirror refraction system to create the illusion that the AR overlays exist in the plane of space in front of you, outside the headset. Noah was able to choreograph the user to stand back, at a distance from the AR media overlay, so the narrow field of view was not noticed. This had the trade-off of keeping the user away from the cases, as you see in the photograph above. Noah’s work was ingenious in developing a method to keep users unaware of the HoloLens field of view. The head mounted display based AR, however, is still pretty emergent and more experimental — not to mention more expensive. Nevertheless, the exhibit did a great job of straddling both a mobile AR technology as well as the cutting-edge emergent head mounted display based platform!

Our students are encouraged to pursue creativity and discovery. Noah did just that, and used the library space as a laboratory and pushed the boundaries of our interdisciplinary teamwork! You can read more about Noah’s work here, where he explains his process and highlights the Microsoft HoloLens project in great detail.

Still image from Microsoft HoloLens showing media augmentation above “Finding Roebling” exhibit cases at Folsom Library. Video courtesy of Noah Zucker (Class of 2019). Still image captured by Jenifer Monger

The Finding Roebling Exhibit Today: The exhibit was featured in Folsom Library on the main floor for approximately 10 months (2017-2018). As of today, the reproductions of items in the Roebling collection along with the AR markers used to retrieve the augmentation still exists. The HoloLens portion of the exhibit created by Noah can’t be shown again currently as the software is now outdated. The experience is only available in video capture. This is the reality of a technology heavy exhibit experience. For starters, AR is not yet a “self-sufficient” technology, culturally or technologically, and it’s extremely difficult to preserve AR because the platforms change so rapidly. This is precisely the case for the “Finding Roebling” exhibit. This is why we call it an “exhibit experience,” something to have been experienced at that time! What remains are numerous photographs that now exist as documentary evidence of this wonderful collaborative project for which I am very thankful to have played a key role in.

Rest assured though, all is not lost! We are considering revamping some portions of the exhibit in the year to come. We will certainly keep the community well informed on our plans.

You Should Know: Commensurate with the opening of the Finding Roebling Exhibit, on September 11, 2017 at the Auditorium, in the Center for Biotechnology & Interdisciplinary Studies, the Third Carl A. Westerdahl Forum featured a dialogue between Jenifer Monger and Erica Wagner, moderated by Andrew White. This video captures the event and will give our readers a sense of the collection’s impact, and the relationships that were created in the Archives!

As always, a special thanks!

The Finding Roebling exhibit was made possible by the generosity of the
following: Rensselaer Alumni Association, Friends of Folsom Library, Rensselaer County Historical Society, Husdon Mohawk Gateway, and the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

Our Core Collaborative Team: Andrew White: Director of Rensselaer Libraries (Exhibit Producer); Jenifer Monger: Assistant Institute Archivist (Exhibit Designer); Erica Wagner: Author, Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge; Rebecca Rouse: Assistant Professor of Arts (Experience Designer); Noah Zucker: GSAS ’19 (Lead Developer and Interface Designer); Marc Destefano: Senior Lecturer of Cognitive Science (Voice Actor)

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