Putting Private Papers on Deposit: A Case Study

Jeffrey Mifflin, Consulting Archivist for the Wakefield Estate and Arboretum, Milton, Massachusetts, and Archivist and Curator of Special Collections at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

As the part-time Archivist and Curator of the Massachusetts General Hospital, I am occasionally free to moonlight as a consultant for other organizations in need of advice about what to do with their historical records. For several years I have served as Consulting Archivist for the Wakefield Charitable Trust, an educational foundation that administers the buildings, grounds, and fortune bequeathed by Mary M. B. Wakefield, the heiress of a venerable Brahmin family. Mrs. Wakefield lived on a twenty-one-acre estate (now known as the Wakefield Estate and Arboretum) in a semi-rural part of Milton, a Boston suburb. In younger years she was a talented landscape architect and an advocate for environmental causes. She died at an advanced age in 2004 after years of illness accompanied by mental confusion. Her will stipulated that her property (buildings and grounds, as well as investment income) should be used for some worthwhile educational purpose. The terms were not clearly defined, but it was known that she wanted the estate’s gardens and arboretum maintained for public enjoyment. 

Distinct horticultural areas on the estate include terraces, lawns, meadows, a rose garden, an apple orchard, pastures, a cultivated dogwood grove, and natural woodlands. Song birds frequent the many well-stocked feeders, and wild turkeys nest in the underbrush. Major buildings include the rambling, Federal/Georgian style Isaac Davenport Mansion (1794), a farmhouse (ca. 1735), and a barn (ca. 1866) used over the years for horses, carriages, vintage cars, and, more recently, as storage for books and papers. Smaller structures include an eighteenth-century carpenter’s shop and early-twentieth-century buildings like the “Red Cottage,” the sheep shed, the henhouse, a gazebo, the root cellar, and a mist house. In the winter of 2007, with help from a stalwart archivist-in-training, I completed a survey of manuscripts, books, periodicals, and other paper-based materials scattered throughout the estate’s many buildings. The mansion, which is chockablock with oil paintings and antique furniture, reminded my assistant of the big house behind the Bates Motel in Psycho. My thoughts turned to Miss Havisham from Great Expectations.

The papers were voluminous and thoroughly disorganized. Materials were, for the most part, randomly or idiosyncratically distributed among 309 boxes, baskets, shelves, steamer trunks, suitcases, drawers, cupboards, binders, and loose piles in the mansion, farmhouse, and barn. Each numbered entry on the survey list included the name of the room, attic, or basement in which the materials were found (e.g., “Mansion – Pink Bedroom – Basket 101”) with an estimated quantity. Squirrels and mice seemed much at home in the accumulated clutter, so gloves and dust masks were indispensible accessories. Many materials, including eighteenth- and nineteenth-century family papers, were seriously endangered by poor environmental conditions, and only a small percentage had been kept in ways that hinted at the information they contained. No one beyond a small circle of people associated with the estate knew of the existence of the papers, and the contents were unknown even to them.

The Trust places heavy emphasis on education, and I accordingly integrated Simmons Library School students who were studying to be archivists into as many aspects of the Archives Project as possible. Six different graduate students worked on the project, usually two per semester, and several returned for more than one semester. The Trust paid them a modest wage, using investment income; no outside funding was applied for or received. The students targeted specific types of documents by referring to my survey lists. I transferred batches of materials selected for processing to a de facto processing area in the old farmhouse. After listing and arrangement in acid-neutral folders and boxes, the papers were shelved in temporary storage rooms in the same less-than-fireproof building, subject to violent swings in temperature and humidity and occasional visits by rodents. The students were not inspired with confidence by the rat poison left in strategic locations or the antiquated fire suppression equipment. On one occasion, my fingers groped a dead rat while reaching for potato chips in a bag left in the farmhouse kitchen over night – its remains were unpleasantly cold and wet.

The papers include deeds, correspondence, diaries, and images relating to the Davenport, Hayward, Cunningham, Binney, and Wakefield families. Among the highlights are letters written by a young Civil War doctor, journals describing a mid-nineteenth-century voyage to China, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century land records, and an account of cow pox vaccination from 1790. The Archives Project complemented other educational initiatives on the estate by improving physical and intellectual access to historical plans, maps, blueprints, drawings, photographs, planting schemes, bills, etc., related to the buildings and grounds. It also organized and facilitated use of a wealth of biographical and genealogical documents. People associated with the estate in one way or another made good use of the collections once they had been processed. These on-site researchers included the estate’s Landscape Supervisor and Educational Coordinator, one of whose on-going projects aims to restore gardens, ponds, paths, stone walls, and other overgrown or neglected landscape features to reflect Mrs. Wakefield’s intentions; graduate students from the Preservation Studies Program at Boston University, who study buildings on the estate; material culture scholars from the Winterthur Museum; and high school students supervised by the B.U. Department of Archaeology, which oversees digs on the property. A rare books expert from Simmons Library School catalogued and studied the titles owned by different families in different eras.

I attempted to orient the Trustees to the objectives and protocols of the Archives Project by drafting a mission statement: “The mission,” I wrote, would be “to serve the purposes of the Trust in accordance with the provisions of Mrs.Wakefield’s will [which] aims to preserve the houses and grounds of the Wakefield Estate and Arboretum for the education and appreciation of members of the public…interested in the historical and horticultural significance of the property. A specific goal…will be to document the history of the Estate and the people who were are a part of that history through identifying, collecting, and preserving historically significant papers and records. The Archives will serve and promote the interests of the Trust by appraising, collecting, organizing, preserving, and providing physical and intellectual access to historically significant papers and records in a responsible manner according to established professional standards and guidelines; and promoting the educational purposes of the Trust….” My statement of policies and procedures detailed more specifically what was suitable for inclusion in the archives and special collections: “Photographs, architectural plans, blueprints, deeds, wills, and other materials documenting the physical appearance of the buildings and grounds of the Wakefield Estate throughout its history; [and] photographs, correspondence, diaries, reminiscences, videotapes, sound recordings, and other materials documenting key people and activities associated with the Estate, including family papers….”

I further explained that a well-considered Archives Program should go beyond processing collections to include safe, climate-controlled space; preservation activities to ensure the long-term survival of collections; and a person carefully trained in archival methods to administer policies, answer reference questions, and oversee other essential activities. I prepared a series of reports discussing the key points that such a program should embrace. Eventually, the Trustees asked me to elaborate, and I accordingly drafted a number of alternative proposals about how to plan for safer, long-term storage and how to provide better physical and intellectual access to the papers. I calculated cost estimates for each option. Proposed alternatives included constructing a free-standing, climate-controlled research facility on the grounds or renovating limited-access, climate-controlled space in an existing building. But the nature of old wood-frame buildings begs consideration of how much weight their floors can sustain. Too much weight in the middle of a room can lead to structural damage or collapse, and shelves placed too close to exterior walls expose boxes to unacceptable dampness. Additional options discussed the pros and cons of renting off-site space near Harvard, B.U., or another research university, and placing papers on deposit at a local university or historical society.

After prolonged deliberation, soul-searching, and delay, the Executive Director and Trustees, in consultation with me and others, decided to put the paper-based historical collections on deposit at a repository in the Boston-area where they would be more readily available to a wider spectrum of scholars, but still close enough to be used by the estate’s own educational programs. The result was a deposit agreement between the Trust and the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) in Boston. A processing archivist at the MHS is reorganizing the collections to make them more compatible with the historical society’s preferred finding-aid style. Finding aids are, or will be, available on-line by means of ABIGAIL, the “Automated Bibliographic Information Gateway and Internet Link,” a well-designed catalogue named for the capable wife of President John Adams. The decision was influenced by the fact that the MHS could provide improved environmental conditions; increased safety from fire, flood, and theft; and enhanced intellectual and physical access (via ABIGAIL and a carefully supervised reading room).

It was duly noted that the spirit of Mrs. Wakefield’s will establishing the Trust did not specify that papers or objects needed to be kept on-site. Depositing family papers at a well-appointed historical society and lending artwork to prestigious and well-frequented museums seemed to be in perfect harmony with Mrs. Wakefield’s intentions, and the arrangement is working well for all concerned. A particularly attractive incentive for the Trustees was that the arrangement with the MHS did not cause any additional drain on the limited financial resources of the Trust. Other options, if adopted, would have required construction or renovation, installation of special environmental controls, better fire prevention systems, adequate office and reading room furniture, additional communications equipment, and a permanent (albeit part-time) staff member to administer the archival collections.

The hodgepodge of papers gathered from the Wakefield Estate, now safer and more easily accessed, have much to reveal about the social connections, culture, aspirations, accomplishments, and disappointments of privileged Americans who walked the same acres and inhabited the same buildings over the course of three centuries. State-of-the-art archival practices and the amount of money that trustees or directors are willing to spend can sometimes seem irreconcilable. But difficult circumstances urge creative solutions, affording archivists the opportunity to educate others about what we do and why. Flexible, cost-effective, and responsible solutions can often be found when the fundamental goals of an archival program are understood and appreciated by all concerned.


Jeffrey Mifflin received an A.B. from Harvard University, a J.D. from Northeastern University School of Law, an M.A. in History and Archival Methods from the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and an M.S. in Library and Information Science from Simmons Library School. He has been a consultant on many archival and historical projects and is currently the Consulting Archivist for the Wakefield Estate and Arboretum, Milton, Massachusetts, and the Archivist and Curator of Special Collections at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. His publications related to archival topics as well as the history of anthropology, cinema, jazz, medicine, printing, and visual culture have appeared in a wide variety of books and journals.