A Mix of Filing, Fun, and Reminiscing

By Troy Eller English, SWE Archivist

“The two file cabinets don’t have room for a cockroach to take up residence, so some provision for future archives will eventually have to be made,” lamented archives committee chair Georgine Poultney in a 1977 letter. Established in 1953, the committee had done such a good job documenting the Society’s business that the headquarters office in the United Engineering Center was nearly overflowing with paper and history. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the committee engaged in the Sisyphean task of sorting through the backlog of older documents while newer ones were added to the pile every year. In 1990, the committee debuted “archives parties” — a mix of filing, fun, and reminiscing — to sort through the growing mass of boxes and cabinets in the office and “The Cage” in the UEC basement.

“I believe there has been sufficient hands-on sorting and filing by the committee to have a thorough understanding of the magnitude of effort required to maintain the archives,” declared committee chair Amy Spear, P.E., F.SWE, in an April 1992 committee report, “and to realize it has been and will continue to be a greater effort than what can reasonably be expected of a group of volunteers, despite their dedication.” As the Society prepared to move to a new office on Wall Street, the committee prepared to transfer the first 39 boxes of SWE’s voluminous and unique archives to the Reuther Library at Wayne State University in May 1993.

esther williams letter

1950s Archives

It wasn’t always easy gathering records from volunteers scattered across the country. In a 1958 letter trying to round up board minutes and committee reports for the archives committee, recording secretary Virginia Tucker wrote, “I have a feeling that Esther Williams may have it in her ‘box’ which apparently is a catchall. She has told me as well as others that I spend too much time on ‘organization’ — It’s quite evident she doesn’t believe in it at all.”

in office archiving going through boxes

1990s Archives

Margaret Pritchard sorts through boxes of archives stacked in acting executive director B.J. Harrod’s office during a March 1990 archives party. In a 1991 letter to Harrod, archives chair Amy Spear requested, “If you beg or borrow a folding table which we could set up in the hall outside the room, I think that would [be the] best solution for the sorting surface, and it would allow one or two to work outside the room, reducing the congestion. Sorting on the floor is possible, but Yvonne, Isabelle and I are of an age where that is hard on the knees, just as sorting out bottom drawers of the files are.”

archive committee 2000 6 women in office

2000s Archives

Jaclyn Spear, Isabelle French, Yvonne Brill, Margaret Pritchard, Pat Brown, and Arminta Harness gather for an archives committee meeting in 2000, the year a professional archivist was hired at the Reuther Library to manage the collection. The committee was sunset in 2007, but because of its industriousness in collecting and saving records over the decades, SWE has a rich archival collection today that explains how it survived in its formative years and why it has thrived since.

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