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USSC Processing Project: the U.S. Sanitary Commission's Archive Department
As we work towards our goal of providing optimal access to the collection, we encounter, learn about, and engage with the work of our 19th-century predecessors—the staff of the USSC’s Archive Department and their successors.
Although the USSC’s military campaign relief services were essentially completed in the summer of 1865, and many of its offices closed, others carried on, finishing their relief work and distributing remaining supplies to the Freedmen’s Bureau and other organizations. USSC claim agents continued to help soldiers and their families file for government pensions, free of charge.
The executive officers of the USSC (the “Standing Committee”), located in New York City, oversaw this transition to peacetime and looked to the legacy they would leave behind. They initiated an ambitious plan to collect the records of its offices, in cities and in war zones, and its supporting aid societies working on the “home front.” As explained by John S. Blatchford, the USSC’s last General Secretary (a combination of today’s chief executive and chief operating officers), they established an Historical Bureau “to preserve the records of the Sanitary Commission for future reference, and to secure the materials for the preparation of such a history of the Commission’s life and work as is due to the people who have sustained it, and to coming generations who have a right to the benefits of its experience." This was front page news for The New York Times on November 23, 1865, under the headline of “The Sanitary Commission.”
The USSC’s new Archive Department arranged the records at the Historical Bureau and made them available to former staff members working not only on histories of its humanitarian work, but also on statistical studies and compilations of sanitary and medical “best practice,” to advance knowledge through publication. However, as we now know, the Sanitary Commission’s creation, use and organization of their records did not end with the Civil War and the work of the Historical Bureau. Re-arrangements of the collection followed in 1868 and in 1878, just prior to the official donation of the records to the Astor Library, an ancestor of The New York Public Library. Like archaeologists, we must examine and reveal these layers of activity in the records themselves, making it easier to find the rich content we discover in expected and unexpected places.
Thanks to the work that has been done in the intervening years to maintain the collection and to make it more accessible, we have learned that the descriptions and arrangements left to us by the United States Sanitary Commission have their “issues.” As 21st-century archivists, we must look for and understand the patterns we find in the filing and storage systems created in different places over time by the USSC. How did they organize their records to help them do their job, and how can these systems be used today to enhance access to content? The context of the records’ creation and the multiple uses we see in their several “arrangements” have much to tell us about the USSC itself—what they hoped to achieve, what they actually achieved, and how they did it. Underlying all this is the human experience of daily life in wartime.
While respecting original order(s) and evidence of use during the USSC's lifetime, we bring our efforts and skills to bear so that we can provide consistent standards of archival description, storage and access across the collection, continuing The New York Public Library's role of preserving them for posterity and making them more accessible for study and use, as the Sanitary Commission itself intended.