This article originally appeared in Volume I, Issue II of StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly in March 2022.
As I stood in the basement at A. Schwab looking over the pallets of cardboard boxes filled with paper, I had two thoughts: “This is going to take forever,” and “job security.”
StoryBoard Memphis, the Memphis Public Library (MPL), and A. Schwab are collaborating to make the store’s incomparable physical archive digitally available to the public. There are ledgers, correspondence, photographs, employment applications, and certainly some surprises. When combined with oral history interviews, outside primary sources, and the work of other historians, we will be able to tell a more complete story about A. Schwab and its role on Beale Street.
This project’s scale is daunting, but the process itself is clear. Taking it page by page, box by box, pallet by pallet, we will create a usable archive.
To begin, I took one of the basement boxes (hereafter referred to as ASC Box 1) to the Memphis & Shelby County Room on the fourth floor of the Benjamin Hooks L. Central Library. This location has high resolution, large format flatbed and book scanners – essential equipment for a digitization project.
Processing archival collections is an exercise in meticulousness and patience. Jamie Corson, MPL’s Digital Projects Manager, created a streamlined process for scanning materials, naming files, and compiling metadata.
The archivist (in this case, me) scans all materials in the same format and resolution before saving the files according to the naming conventions Jamie established. Each part of the file name tells you something about its creation. 20220104_CC_ASC0114 means Caroline Carrico created the file on January 4, 2022, and it is the 114th record in the A. Schwab Collection.
After scanning and saving the file, the archivist enters the metadata onto a form. Each file needs a title (Application for Employment at A. Schwab), the originating physical collection (A. Schwab), the physical location of the document (ASC Box 1), its creator, who digitized it, the date created, type of object, format with dimensions, a description, and subject tags. There is a controlled vocabulary used to tag the file with subjects. A. Schwab, Beale Street businesses, and 1930s are the most frequent tags so far.
Jamie can then upload the digital file with its accompanying metadata to DIGMemphis, MPL’s digital archive, for anyone with an internet connection to search.
Why go through the effort of processing all of this material? Why does it matter?
History is a process of asking questions and using primary sources to search out the answers. As historian Susan O’Donovan put it, “Doing history backwards is bad business.” Historians do not start with an answer and search out proof of our assertions. We start with a query, and we use the historical record, which archivists have organized and preserved, to find the answers.
Not all research questions are created equal. The whos, whats, and whens are easiest to compile from the evidence. The “whos” are the ones sending, receiving, and being discussed in letters, applying for jobs, and listed in ledgers. The “whats” are the subjects of discussion or record. “When” is determined through dates on those same documents or through reasonable inference. Putting events in chronological order follows.
“How” takes more contextualizing. Reading a group of documents with a question in mind, details coalesce into patterns. How did businesspeople solve shipping problems in 1939? They wrote letters back and forth saying that a bill of lading was incorrect and asking the shipper to check their loading dock. What would take hours with email today, took weeks eight decades ago.
However, the most difficult questions—and the ones I find most interesting—are the “whys.” Answering “why?” is where interpretation enters the historian’s work. We evaluate the evidence, consider other historians’ interpretations, use our reason, and draw conclusions. There is more than one way to interpret the whys of past events; that’s why so many books are written about the same subjects. This ongoing interpretation is what historians do. That is why our partnership with MPL is a critical part of this project. We are making the primary materials available, so that others can interpret them.
ASC Box 1 contains four correspondence boxes. Starting with box 1 of 4, my initial questions were: (1) what is in the box? and (2) when was it created?
The first correspondence box was filed in alphabetical order in late 1938 and throughout 1939. To create accurate metadata, I had to read the material I was scanning. In the process, I learned that ordering, fixing shipping errors, and sorting out miscommunications could take multiple letters stretching over several weeks. I found that people were applying for jobs and filing unemployment claims. I also realized that people from far outside Memphis were placing orders through the mail. They saw sale ads in newspapers and sent lists of items and money orders to the store.
From these tantalizing facts, my research questions are blossoming: Why were people over such a large geographic area buying things from Schwab? Who were these job applicants? I want to know more about the people who filed unemployment claims. Why did they lose their jobs? Was it because of the Great Depression?
One research method I am employing is geographically mapping the location of each person who mailed in an order to the store. By creating layers organized by year as I process the materials, I believe that I will be able to see a pattern of how the store’s mail order business grew over time. By matching that data with any documentation of advertising that I might uncover, I may find an answer to my first question.
Similarly, I am mapping the location of job applicants. So far, these applicants have been mostly women, and their forms provide an intimate look at their lives. They self-identify as married or single and as homeowners or boarders. They share their home addresses, and provide past employment history, and report if they financially support anyone other than themselves. I have created a spreadsheet of their demographic data to see if any patterns start emerging.
Analysis, and hopefully answers, will come. But for now, page by page, the process is what matters most.
This project is funded in part by a grant from Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and the NEH Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan (SHARP) initiative.
Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and, as a historian by training, she enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.