Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A bit of Ben's legacy

Well, I'd like to offer my congratulations to Ben as well. He was great to work with, amazingly dedicated, and one of the hardest-working folks I've ever been associated with.

But I'd like to call attention to something he helped do which is also significant to the history business, and that is the saving of the LTV Collection. While it seems so long ago, our story begins in 2000. LTV Steel had entered its second and final bankruptcy, though at the time people didn't know that the company would emerge from bankruptcy. I was working at the Historical Society at the time on the proposed Crawford Museum of Transportation and Industry, and Ben was helping us out as a summer intern doing some basic research. The Historical Society had been working with LTV, arranging oral history interviews of retirees, and helping provide some historic content to their public tours of the Cleveland Works mill. One day, their director of community relations casually asked us if we were interested in some photos that were "lying around in the basement," and we readily agreed. She took us down there, and we came across box after box of negatives (most were 4x5 negatives), boxes of prints, and boxes of slides. Needless to say, we were taken by surprise. Nearly all the negatives were from Republic Steel, LTV's predecessor. There were some photos from LTV, but a huge stack of photos from Cleveland-based Otis Steel, which was a leading independent steel company until it was purchased by Pittsburgh-based Jones and Laughlin in 1942, and eventually became part of LTV. No one else in Cleveland had these photos, and we realized the enormity of our find. Taking advantage of the situation, we raced back to the Historical Society to get a van to pick up the photos before LTV changed its mind. Ben was researching in the library, and I found him and asked him to come with us and provide some muscle to get all the file boxes and cabinets into our van. He didn't even hesitate and joined in.

He didn't hesitate later, when the company finally announced that it was selling off its assets, and liquidating. Then employed in the WRHS library, he helped me when LTV offered up its corporate records. I was at a picnic gathering for the remaining headquarters staff when I got into a conversation with the records management staff, and essentially asked them for "some" of LTV's historical records. They came back with offering ALL of them. All 45,000 boxes.

Clearly this was far too large for the Historical Society. It was also too large for nearly any archive in the country! We asked if we could pick and choose boxes, so we could get the most historic of the files, and they agreed. However, we only had several weeks to pick, because ALL the records were slated for destruction. So a spreadsheet was sent over of the box inventories, and Ben and I started pouring over every line. The spreadsheet, when printed out, was hundreds of pages long, with the smallest type possible. I usually had to use a magnifying lens when working on it. But Ben looked over every single line with me. As an ex-steelworker (US Steel in Gary, Indiana) and a labor historian in his own right, he knew exactly what he was looking for. From my doctoral work on the steel industry, I knew what I was looking for, and between us, we were able to narrow the list to roughly 4,500 boxes. Still an immense amount, but it HAD to be saved. No other collection of steel-related material was like this. For historians of the industry, it would be a goldmine.

Once the decision was made by the leadership of the Historical Society to save what we could, Ben took over the logistics of taking in the collection. He oversaw the shipping from LTV's storage facility to the Historical Society, and then he somehow managed to squeeze every last box into the Historical Society's already cramped storage facilities. The man was like Picasso, only his media was a forklift and pallet jack, as he rearranged boxes and pallets all over the Historical Society. And because of him, we got everything in. In fact, we even got a little more, because at the very end we decided to err on the side of history and take a few extra boxes, more than we were approved to take. But you only get one chance, and whatever we left behind was to be shredded.

Then the decision was made to pursue funding to process this immense collection. While Kelly Falcone of the Historical Society's development office began putting the pieces of an NEH grant together, Mike McCormick from the library began working on the portion of the grant detailing how the collection would be processed, while Ben and I began writing up the historic content portions for the grant, with Ben taking the lead role on detailing the importance of the collection's contents. We also made a crucial decision at that point. Though having the entire collection would have given the Historical Society the most significant collection of steel industry materials in the country, Ben and I agreed that it wouldn't be right. A good portion of the materials were from Pittsburgh-based Jones and Laughlin, with another sizeable chunk coming from Youngstown-based Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company. We felt that people researching those companies would naturally go to where they were headquartered, and where other related collections were. So we both pushed for the collection to be broken up geographically; Cleveland would retain all of the Republic Steel and LTV Steel records; an archive in Pittsburgh would get the Jones and Laughlin materials, and an archive in Youngstown would get the Youngstown Sheet and Tube materials. And this was written into the grant, along with agreements from archives from those areas to partner with us. To be honest, we didn't think we had a chance ... but then the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded us a challenge grant for the processing of the collection. A quarter million dollars to process the collection over two years.

Sadly, soon after we received the grant, both Ben and I were downsized. Money was tight at the Historical Society, and a number of staff members were cut. However, the grant had come in, and was now the responsibility of Steve Doell, the newly-hired Curator of Manuscripts for the library (Mike McCormick had previously moved on from the Historical Society) and Margaret Burzyinski-Bays, who organized the philanthropic archives at WRHS. Margaret had an excellent plan for processing the massive collection in a speedy but efficient manner. She and a small staff of part-time processors worked diligently, dealing with various funding changes and personnel moves, but ultimately got the job done on time, and met the NEH deadline. After some material was purged due to duplication or for being irrelevant to the collection, the final result was 3,800 linear feet of materials. And the collection has been broken up into three geographic collections as described above, while the Historical Society staff works to finalize the register for the collection, which hopefully will be put online in the near future.

It's an amazing collection, with some of the earliest records dating back to the 1850s and contains wonderful records, including some astounding personnel records from Jones and Laughlin that not only will be a boon to historians, but will also be a major boon to genealogists. And ultimately, if the Historical Society had not saved it, it would have gone right to the shredder.

So I'd say that collection, now the cornerstone of the WRHS Steel Archives, owes a great deal to the hard work of Ben Blake.

Hopefully we'll be seeing some results from saving the collection. The Historical Society will be creating the content and exhibitry for a proposed Steel Heritage Center at the Steelyard Commons shopping center, which is being built on the land formerly occupied by Otis Steel, and the WRHS Steel Archives will be providing a great deal of photographs and archival materials. I'm currently finishing up a book of photographs from the collection, which hopefully will be published in 2007 or 2008, and hopefully there will be future books and exhibits to come.

In addition, the NEH has funded a summer workshop on the steel industry for community college faculty in 2005, and apparently it's likely that WRHS will be offering this again in 2007. The Steel Archives is a main part of the workshop, so interested faculty members can get their hands on some of the materials in the collection to integrate it into their classroom work. Hopefully in the near future WRHS will be pursuing a grant to catalog the photograph collection, which is estimated to be over 50,000 images (I had an intern do an inventory of the negatives alone, and she came up with 43,000 different negatives. That doesn't count the boxes of slides or photographs), and is one of the biggest steel-related photo collections in the United States.

In short, the collection should be reaping dividends in the history world. When researchers in Pittsburgh access the J&L stuff, which is going to the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, they'll flip, because of the amazing depth of that portion of the collection.

So hearing that Ben Blake is going to be working at the Hagley Museum is entirely appropriate, given his history in helping to save the LTV Collection.

And the Hagley couldn't be getting a better archivist. Their gain is Cleveland's loss. But helping to save the collection will be one of Ben's finest moments from the Western Reserve Historical Society. And the results are a great collection for researchers and historians across the region and the country.


At 10:04 AM, Blogger David A. Bernatowicz said...

As a participant of the NEH program for community college teachers, I was given the opportunity to view the LTV collection. I was amazed at the amount of records which are available.
Despite the collection, it is necessary to have archivists who have the necessary background to understand the collection. AS a labor historian, I see many collections around the country which deal with labor history in Cleveland. This city has a rich labor heritage from the workers who worked in the mills and garment factories to the over 200 iindividuals who became high ranking union officals within many of the AFL unions. Why does the WRHS value cars over steel workers? Why is there not a full time archivist in labor history at the WRHS?
Does the WRHS value labor history and the contribution of the working class to the history of this town. I am reminded of the song by Jefferson Starship WE Built this City On Rock and Roll. This city is also built on steel, textiles and automobiles. It is time for the contributions of the working class of Cleveland to be given its just place in the history of this city!

At 9:48 AM, Blogger Chris Dawson said...

I can answer that ... WRHS did have a labor archivist. Ben Blake. Among all the things he did, he personally went out on his own to various local unions in Cleveland and began collecting their papers, and working to help them understand that their past was important and needed to be preserved.

The thing is with WRHS, for a specific archives to be created, such as the African-American Archives, the Irish-American Archives, etc., that particularly community has to come together, and raise money to support an archivist in that area. Those archivists at WRHS (most of whom are part-time) get a portion of their salaries from groups who raise money to support those archives.

So for a labor archivist, and a specific labor archives, the labor community in Cleveland would have to get together, approach WRHS, and help provide funding for an archivist.

It sounds kind of mercenary, but the thing is, it's hard for nonprofits to raise money nowadays, so it actually makes sense.

As for the cars, they're there becuase some rich guys support it. That's the first rule of history museums; while we'd like to see everyone represented, it's always been the case that the folks with the bucks call the shots. Most historical societies started as a way of a socially and economically elite group of people sought to preserve THEIR heritage. WRHS was started by bluebloods to preserve their nice New England heritage, not to preserve the heritage of all those folks in Cleveland who had their names ending in vowels.

This isn't a slam against my former employer, but it's just my observation of historical societies in general, which is not dependent on size; nearly every town around has a small historical society ... what do they save? The oldest house or the house owned by the richest person in town. What do they interpret? The romanticized rural/semi-rural past of the town as seen through a collection of the finest furniture and decorative arts that they've been able to get their hands on.

Only nowadays are you starting to see real interpretation of ALL the residents of that city, and acknowledgement of industrial development and ethnic diversity.

I'm still waiting for the day when there's a living history "village" that's not a rural romanticized one like Hale Farm, but something real, like a coal mine company village, or worker housing.

We were working on a plan at WRHS back in the 1990s to acquire a house in Tremont, and open it up as a house museum, interpreting an early 20th century steelworker's house. It was a great idea, but in the end, we just couldn't get the money to do it.

And unfortunately, that's the way it is in the history museum field.

At 12:17 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

What an amazing story, Chris. I hope to be able to share this story with a larger audience sometime soon. I'll contact you to discuss it further.


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