Playing Detective: Reconstructing the Beecher Manuscript Collection

Untitled design 30 min
Alexandra Katich
January 11, 2021

In late 2019, the archive of the Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (CAS/PNNM) received a donation of Dr. William J. Beecher’s (1914-2002) large manuscript collection. In addition to being Director of the Academy from 1958-1983, Beecher was an environmental activist, respected ornithologist, inventor of the Beecher Mirage binoculars, prolific writer, photographer, and amateur artist. His manuscript collection is an interesting array of unpublished manuscripts, original scientific illustrations, photographs, and design specifications for his inventions. As a graduate student in library and information science at the University of Illinois, I am grateful to CAS/PNNM for giving me the opportunity to process this fascinating collection, first as a volunteer, and most recently as the Archives Intern, thanks to a grant from the Illinois State Historical Records Advisory Board.

Beecher Blog Full collection in car min scaled
Beecher Blog Disorganized materials in bin min scaled

One of the basic principles of archival science is to respect the original order of a collection as organized by its creator. In the case of Beecher’s collection, it was received by the archive in complete disarray. We received 20 linear feet of paper materials and thousands of photographs tossed haphazardly into storage boxes. Our first step was to sort the materials into broad categories like “correspondence” or “writings,” and although this provided a basic understanding of what was contained in the boxes, the papers within each category remained extremely disorganized. One of the biggest challenges I faced was that because Beecher was a prolific writer, I was confronted with about 5 linear feet of typed and handwritten pages that were in no order and needed to be reconstructed into manuscripts. To complicate the situation further, Beecher was a devoted conservationist and recycled the reverse-sides of old manuscripts for his new manuscripts, which meant that it was often unclear which side of the paper should be prioritized. Fortunately, Beecher left clues to help with the reconstruction. These clues included the types of paper used, where on the page the page number is located, and most tellingly, minor variations to his page numbering system. After careful analysis and considerable patience, most of the writings have now been reconstructed into 46 different manuscripts, which include most notably a few unpublished scientific texts and a three-volume memoir.

Beecher Blog Alex processing papers 2020 10 24 min 2048x1536

During the reconstruction of Beecher’s manuscripts, I discovered a kinship with his writing process. After typing a manuscript on paper, one of his editing techniques was to cut out a paragraph or half a page and tape a new version back onto it. I used a similar construction method in college where I would print a rough draft of a paper, cut out paragraphs, rearrange them on my floor, and then return to edit them on the computer. Somehow, viewing the ideas as puzzle pieces that I could physically rearrange made it easier to construct a better argument. Beecher’s process with drawings for his manuscripts was even more complicated. He took photocopies of drawings either original or from books, edited them with white-out or by covering parts of them with blank paper, drew over them to achieve the desired effect, photocopied these edited drawings at multiple sizes until he found the right size, and then cut out and taped or glued the final version of the drawing into the manuscript. Included among the papers in his manuscript collection are all the different stages of this construction process. Although I suspect this process was not uncommon for laying out a manuscript in an age before computers, I was surprised to discover his construction process extended well beyond the manuscripts and drawings. For example, Beecher kept one-page handwritten accounting ledgers, and instead of crossing out mistakes or using white-out, he would cut out small pieces of paper and affix them over the mistakes. Which again is akin to my own process of correcting errors in my paper-based day planner by covering them with stickers. Uncovering an unexpected affinity with the creator of the collection is one the joys of working as an archivist.

Beecher Blog South Pacific memoir illustration 1 min 2048x1536
Beecher Blog South Pacific memoir illustration 2 adj 2048x1536

On the other hand, one of the biggest challenges of working as an archivist is resisting the temptation to read more than is necessary for performing the task of arranging and describing a collection. This temptation has been particularly difficult with Beecher’s unpublished three-volume memoir, the second of which recounts his time during WWII when he was stationed in the South Pacific from 1942-1945. In addition to recounting his war experiences, the memoir is illustrated with his original drawings. What has fascinated me the most, however, is that Beecher used any spare time he had to study and sketch birds of the South Pacific, which included sending 288 specimens back to the Field Museum from the Solomon Islands. I love the way he was able to take the difficult circumstances of being at war and still seize an opportunity to advance his ornithological studies. In another point of commonality between Beecher and myself, I have been transcribing my grandfather’s letters from England and France during WWII and was struck by how my grandfather used his spare time to explore the architecture of the new places he encountered, describing the churches, castles, and Roman ruins he visited. I am inspired by the way both men made the most of their opportunities and continued to engage in activities they were passionate about despite the challenging circumstances they found themselves in.

Now that Beecher’s papers have been reconstructed into comprehensible manuscripts, the next steps will be to finalize the arrangement of the papers, implement preservation interventions because many of the papers are suffering from acid deterioration, and create a finding aid to make the collection publicly accessible. When this is finished, I hope to turn my attention to arranging and describing his thousands of unorganized photographs, negatives, and slides. The photographic collection includes both personal and ornithological photographs, and I anticipate that processing this collection will prove equally challenging and fascinating as his paper collection has been.

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