26 June 2016

The Value of Historical (and Permanent) Vertical Files

Historical vertical files can sometimes prove to be among the most useful collections of materials in a library or archives. They become especially valuable when viewed in a special local history collection and archives context. Sometimes an historical vertical file is the only place where one can find a ticket stub to a significant performance of a local play, a photograph of a church event, a railroad schedule, deed to a property, or a clue about just how influential an event or person may have been when it came to politics back in the day. We actually have had customers cry out with delight at uncovering a clue that proved key to their research in the process of going through a BDC vertical file!

Merriam Webster defines the term "vertical file" as: "a collection of articles (as pamphlets and clippings) that is maintained (as in a library) to answer brief questions or to provide points of information not easily located." The official Society of American Archivists definition provided in "A Glossary of Archival andRecords Terminology" gives two quite different meanings. The term can apply to the furniture housing the files as well as to what we in the archival world refer to as “an artificial collection of materials, often of an ephemeral nature, collected and arranged for ready reference," which tend to be generally housed in letter or legal sized folders. 

Back when the Research Room was on the first floor of the building, the vertical files were priority #1 for protecting during a hurricane pack up. Why? Because there is absolutely no way that we could ever totally recreate the contents of the over 1100 vertical files we have again if they were to be destroyed. Vertical file contents vary so widely in original source, format, and time acquired that it would be an impossible task. 

When I came aboard in 1999, we have four 36" long drawers full of files. Now we have fourteen 36" long drawers full of files. Some vertical files had a lot of content when I came aboard in 1999. Some I compiled from scratch. Most have been added to in the passage of years. Some content was assembled in the course of guiding research for customers interested (most often) in other topics. As long as the information “fits” the collection development policy and we can properly house the material, we can find a way to organize it so researchers can find it. 

Historical vertical files are never static. We create new artificial collections or add to our holdings from time to time as collection development policy and circumstances merit. Three recent cases in point:  
  • We've recently created a "Manatees" vertical file because a College of Charleston Graduate student was researching the topic and he had some references to articles in the Beaufort Gazette from which to start. While he was doing his newspaper microfilm research in our Research Room, we made a copy of articles he found for him to take back to Charleston and made a second copy of those same articles for our own files. Over the course of the next several weeks, he was kind enough to send us digital copies from the Charleston News and Courier and the State newspapers of manatee sightings here in Beaufort County for us to add to the new BDC "Manatees" vertical file. We helped a customer; the customer helped us provide even more information for future customers to review.
  • We have increased our clippings in the "BASF (Badische Anilin-& Soda-Fabrik A.G.)" vertical file in the past month because the curator of a new exhibit at the Port Royal Sound Maritime Center shared photocopies she collected during her research process with us. She saw materials from our BASF vertical file that she had not uncovered during the course of her investigation and was kind enough to send us digital copies of what she had uncovered. We helped a customer; the customer helped us provide even more information for future customers to review.
  • We recently subdivided the contents of the "Daufuskie Island" vertical file into three files because it had grown so large.
    • Daufuskie Island
    • Daufuskie Island Council
    • Daufuskie Island Front Porch 

None of the vertical files are intended to be the final word on any subject. They are meant to be pointer files to give a researcher context and clues so that the researcher can go deeper into the topic using other resources if s/he wants to go deeper into the topic.

None of the vertical files consist of the same content. I will use the Family Surname files as an example. We currently have over 100 different Family Surname vertical files here in the Research Room cabinets. Some of the vertical files only have genealogical information included in the file along the lines of who begat who. Some of the family vertical files contain reports about crimes perpetrated or endured by specific family members. Some family vertical files have information about the family business. Some of the family vertical files include content that touches on scandal. Some of the family vertical files include content only about how wonderful or talented or rich or significant the family was in the past. Some of the family vertical files have a combination of all the above. 
For example, I was asked about the contents of the Cram Family vertical file several months ago. In this instance, the file has newspaper and magazine clippings with dates ranging from 1936 to 1982: “Mrs. Ruth Cram’s Broad River Place sold to L. M. Cook” (Beaufort Gazette, 1958); “Four More Indicted in Cram Burglary Case,”(Island Packet, 1976) and “More arrested in Cram Robbery”(Beaufort Gazette, 1976); an excerpt from “Slouching towards Bluffton,” by Emma Edmunds from the Atlanta Weekly (1982); and “Mr. Harry Cram and Miss Ruth Vaux Married” (Beaufort Gazette, 1936.)  

The titles of the historical vertical files housed in the BDC and in the Lowcountry Room at the Hilton Head Branch Library are listed in the SCLENDS catalog. You can search on "BDC Vertical Files" as a Keyword in All Formats, limiting the Library to "Beaufort - Beaufort District Collection" to get the full list. If you want an alphabetical listing be sure to Sort by: "Title A-Z.

Or just contact us (gracec@bcgov.net or 843-255-6468) and we'll tell you whether or not we happen to have a vertical file on the topic

Please note: The Library system will be closed Mon., July 4th for Independence Day.

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