As archivist-researchers, we have constructed an archive that acknowledges our limited perspective on the value of these cards as historical artifacts of ephemeral everyday writing. Long before these cards entered our collection, they began accruing value as commercial wares, as means of writing loved ones, as family treasures passed through generations, or even as lucky finds at yard sales. With this in mind, we have structured the archive to allow for what Neal Lerner (1998) referred to as the social practice of archival research. Engaging this social practice, the archive seeks to make both browsers and researchers aware of the ways that multiple communities have valued these cards over time and continue to coexist as collaborators in the valuation of these cards within our collection. Expressing these "values of collaboration and our belief in social-epistemic knowing," we have built an archive in which the current meaning ascribed to the cards is not divorced from the meanings that they have held for previous communities of users and owners of the cards (Lerner, 1998, p. 208). In doing so, we acknowledge our roles as latecomers to the community that has gathered around and given value to these cards. This acknowledgement underscores our position as archivist-researchers located within the university and the ways that this creates a border between us and the previous communities that have shaped this card, a border that is also apparent in the meaning negotiated by visitors to the archive. We highlight and seek to account for these interrelations between ourselves as archivist-researchers and these communities. We also explore the ways in which this relationship shapes the meaning that visitors make within the archive through our development of metadata categories that reflect the community of users continually gathering around the cards.
Let’s look at archive entry DS-11, “The Portland,” where we can see how the metadata for this card contributes to an emerging meaning that foregrounds our collaborative relationship as archivist-researchers within a broader community of users that has repeatedly gathered around this one card.
This card is postmarked 1905 and addressed to Miss Orletta Kraus in Aurora, Oregon. Posted well before current postcard writing conventions developed, the writing on the front of the card bears witness to several of the overlapping communities that we see forming around the card: the receivers of the card, Miss Orletta and Georgette, and the original senders of the card, Lura and Mabel. Another community that has come together around the card is that of collectors. One of these collectors has left his or her trace through the $9.00 price that's penciled on the back of this card. The collector who sold this card to the Rhetoric and Composition program at Florida State University is also included in this community. A final community that we know of extends from our program's faculty; the webtext authors, Michael Neal, Stephen McElroy, and Katie Bridgman; our undergraduate interns; and the researchers who access this archive for their own projects.
Although this is a reductive view of what are surely more than three or four communities to have formed around these cards, the example of "The Portland" illustrates the ways that multiple communities gather around material artifacts and contribute to their value over time. As researchers and browsers come to and move through this archive, they become acquainted with these communities through the markers of value that they have left on the cards in our collection. For example, we are acquainted with the personal value of the card to Georgette, Orletta, Mabel, and Lura through the inscriptions of Mabel and Lura. We are also acquainted with the value of the card to the US Postal Service—whose employees delivered the card to Aurora, Oregon, in 1905—through the one-cent stamp affixed to the back of the card. Decades later, we are acquainted with the value of the card to collectors through the lightly penciled price of $9.00 on the back of the card. Finally, as archivists, we add our own new layer of value to the card through its integration with the FSU Card Archive.
Along with documenting the values that have accrued over the lifetime of cards such as “The Portland,” the FSU Card Archive draws special attention to the new values that it is adding to each card. One marker of this value is that the archive is hosted by the university on university webspace with an FSU domain. Putting each postcard in a curated collection with hundreds of other cards also underscores the values that we are both highlighting and building on. As we reconstruct the material artifacts through the information that we enter into metadata categories, we clearly articulate what about these cards is of value.
For example, we acknowledge the authorship of Lura and Mabel through our transcription of "User-Added Text (Front)." We acknowledge the card's first recorded recipient, Miss Orletta Kraus, in the "Address" metadata category. We also acknowledge the role of collectors in the emergent meaning of the material artifact as "9.00" appears in the metadata category "User-Added Text (back)." Here, in “User-Added Text” we find the writing of an anonymous collector alongside that of Lura and Mabel. The role of the collector is further acknowledged in the metadata "Collector Category." This category is unique in that it is designed to reflect the hands of previous collectors in the cards' circulation. From this category, researchers learn that this card was received by the FSU Card Archive in a pack of several cards held together with an old rubber band and labeled "hold-to-light" by the collector, Mr. Smith. With this note, Smith singles out the modality of these cards—and thus a key element of its value to other collectors—a value that is reified by the $9.00 price tag given to this card by an earlier collector. Approaching the cards this way, we acknowledge our role as archivist-researchers in giving the cards new layers of meaning and value at the same time that we acknowledge their meaningful histories as ephemera long before they reached our hands.