Preserving Deaf History

October 01, 2014

Author: Tara Congdon, E-'05

In the cool stacks of the Gallaudet University Library Deaf Collections and Archives, interim director Michael Olson, '79, pulls on white cloth gloves and carefully retrieves a crumbling, rolled-up photograph from a metal shelf.

He carries it to his workspace, a long counter beneath shelves bearing rubber stamps, acid-free tape and folders, and No. 2 pencils - everything he needs for his archival work. Gently, he unrolls the photograph to expose a vertical crack for every half-turn of the roll.

It is a group picture of members of the Silent Social Club, a black deaf organization in Philadelphia. They are gathered at Chris J. Perry Elks' home on February 15, 1947, the hand-scrawled caption along the bottom says, to celebrate the club's first anniversary.

Some of the cracks run jaggedly through faces. The corners are gone, victims of adhesive tape.

Olson gingerly raises one edge of the photograph to reveal paper glued lengthwise across the back. This will be a difficult repair; too difficult for him. He will send it away to a company that specializes in repairing and restoring damaged photographs.

A part of American deaf history, it is worth the added expense. The stacks are full of historical artifacts that have been equally as damaged and received equally as meticulous, tender care.

They are the building blocks of our understanding of the deaf community and its history, and they have come from all corners of the country and around the world - from alumni and their families, schools for the deaf, deaf churches and clubs, and the general public. They have been mailed, dropped off, or hauled away in boxes from residences and buildings.

One thing many of them have in common is damage - often preventable, if their owners had preserved them correctly from the beginning.

The value of artifacts

In early July, Olson stood at the front of a tiered classroom preparing to speak to dozens of 150th Reunion attendees. He hoped to get through to at least a few people, to educate them and reduce the amount and severity of damage he was seeing in artifacts donated to his archives.

He also had an important message for older alumni. Write your wills. Talk to your children. Make plans for your keepsakes.

He had lost too many potential donations to the archives - thrown away, destroyed, otherwise disposed of by adult offspring who didn't understand their historical value.

"I don't want to see deaf history disappear, so I always encourage people to donate things related to deaf history, deaf people and communities, including international communities," Olson said.

"Hearing children of deaf parents frequently throw away these things after their parents die," he said. "Make sure to ask your children if they're interested in keeping your things. If not, donate them to us."
Olson, who began working at the archives as a student in 1976, is full of stories about lost opportunities.

Once, in the early 1990s, he gave a presentation about the archives during a meeting of the Silent Orioles Club, a Baltimore deaf organization, at the Wyndholme Village deaf senior citizen community.
He shared his message of urgency and planning ahead. After his presentation, he met an elderly man with a briefcase. The man opened the case to show Olson a large stack of club meeting minutes dating back to the 1890s.

Olson was horrified by the thought that these valuable, 100-year-old documents were being hauled around in a briefcase. He urged the old man to donate the documents to Gallaudet's archives.
The old man, however, refused.

"To this day, I never got them," Olson said, disappointment etched in his face.

Olson has happier stories, too. Like the time when he was just a processing assistant, and he and then-director Ulf Hedberg drove to Chevy Chase, Maryland, to retrieve 100 boxes of artifacts.
For years, Olson had been trying to convince a grassroots deaf painter and printer, Louis Balfour, to donate his extensive collection of historical items to Gallaudet's archives. Balfour, however, steadily refused.

He would donate them to another organization, he insisted.

Olson tried to explain that the archives had better staffing and resources to process the collection. Again, Balfour refused, and Olson backed off.

Years later, Olson heard through word of mouth that Balfour had changed his mind. He'd asked his hearing daughter if she wanted his things, and she said no.

An intermediary arranged an appointment for Olson and director Ulf Hedberg to drive up to Balfour's house. They walked in to find the dining room packed with documents, the dining table stacked high. Balfour led them down to his basement, full of boxes - as well as a pervasive smell of mold and damp.

Olson was worried. Would the documents and artifacts be ruined?

Over the next two days, Hedberg, Olson, and Drew Budai ferried the boxes back to Gallaudet. Olson opened box by box and processed about 44,000 items. The final tally of items he kept for archiving came to 22,100, in 26 document boxes taking up 13 linear feet, each item meticulously documented in a list available on the archives' website.

He also found 16mm films, which are currently being processed by a specialty laboratory. He has no idea what is on the films, but eagerly anticipates receiving and reviewing them. They might contain examples of ASL conversation, preserving the language for posterity.

Preservation challenges

As Olson settled into the rhythm of his reunion presentation in July, he began detailing the challenges he and his technicians face with the old photographs, documents, and objects they handle.

The deaf archives receives an average of 162 donations per year - 172 last year, 210 in 2012 - and many items arrive damaged.

Olson ticked off the causes: acid, water, paper clips, rubber bands, tape, glue, sunlight, insects, improper storage, and outdated technology.

Photographs and documents, including letters, left out in sunlight turn yellow or fade altogether, making faces unidentifiable and text unreadable.

Newspapers are the most vulnerable, Olson said. Whenever he gets newsprint, he tends to photocopy and discard the originals.

Bugs and mice nibble away at paper, swallowing words and even whole sentences. Paper clips rust, leaving stains and tearing through paper when removed. The acid in tape and certain kinds of glue stain and eat through artifacts.

Flooded basements leave documents wrinkled and warped, their ink blurred by water damage. Sometimes Olson can fix the damage; sometimes he sends the item out for professional repair. But if there is mold, often the only solution is to scan and discard the original item.

People wrap rubber bands around stacks of letters and photos; 50 years later, these bands have crumbled away and left stains stripped across the papers.

Those stains can't be removed or repaired, Olson said.

Video film, especially 16mm, shrinks if not stored properly. Sometimes Olson can send the film out to professionals, who restore the film to its original condition and copy it to a DVD. But that is costly and eats through the archives' budget. Another expense is converting old VHS tapes to modern video technology.

Tips and tricks

If you're not ready to donate your artifacts to Gallaudet's archives just yet, there are many things you can do at home to preserve your historical photographs, letters, documents, pamphlets and program books, and any other items, Olson said.

Avoid exposure to direct sunlight and don't store your things in basements, attics, or garages.

Olson particularly recommends a dark and cool closet somewhere in your house that you keep at about 70 degrees. A first-floor coat closet, for example, is ideal. It is most similar to the archives' vault, which is kept at 70 degrees and 50 percent to 60 percent humidity.

Organize your photos and documents in clear, acid-free plastic envelopes and store them in acid-free containers, such as archival photo boxes. Always wear white cloth gloves when handling to protect the paper from the oils on your hands.

You can order many of these archival items from specialty catalogs.

If you want to label photographs, Olson strongly discourages using pens or markers. Instead, use a No. 2 pencil, place the photograph face-down on a hard surface, and write lightly so the tip of the pencil does not create ridges on the front of the photo.

However, Olson stressed, whether preserved or not, the archives will accept any donations, regardless of condition or type. People should not throw away items even if they appear damaged; Olson can often preserve or copy documents and photos that seem beyond saving.

To donate your artifacts, contact the archives at 202-250-2604 (VP) or 202-651-5209 (TTY), or e-mail archives@gallaudet.edu.