By Katie Maura Burke
As a Public History student pursuing an archives certificate, I have spent countless hours in various archival repositories. The cardboard cartons, steel shelves, and chilly temperatures can give off a utilitarian feel that contradicts the richness of the records they contain.
Today, digitization projects have drastically changed the way researchers can access archival documents, enabling them to receive images of requested items via a website, zip drive, or email attachment. Thanks to technology, many researchers no longer have to travel to archives, such as the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, where I started working as an intern in February. However, the beauty and history of the location of this archive infuses the records stored here with a context that informs their meaning in ways I did not anticipate before I began working here.
Who knew an archive could be so beautiful? Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., who designed the site which now houses the archive, is widely recognized as America’s premier landscape architect. His accomplishments in park design, town planning, landscape architecture, and conservation have earned international acclaim.
In 1883, he purchased a home in Brookline, Massachusetts, for both his family residence and professional office. He deemed the property “Fairsted.” Over the next decade, he designed the building and grounds to match his aesthetic vision, creating a space to celebrate nature and offer an oasis amidst an increasingly urban setting.
Fairsted continued to be a hub of landscape design far past Olmsted’s retirement in 1895. His son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and stepson, John Charles Olmsted, continued the business as the “Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects.” During the first three decades of the twentieth century, the work volume and staff of the firm increased significantly.
By the 1940s, the volume of work had begun to decline; however, during the 1960s and 1970s, scholars, landscape architects, environmentalists and historic preservationists showed interest in the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. This academic and practical interest in Olmsted’s landscape architecture prompted individuals to collect and begin to preserve materials related to the firm’s history.
In 1979, when the firm’s landscape design activity formally ceased, Fairsted was acquired by the National Park Service (NPS) as a National Historic Site. The NPS became responsible for preserving and cataloging the documents, plans, and artifacts left behind by the firm and interpreting Fairsted’s history for the public.
The Olmsted archives contain more than 1 million original documents related to landscape design projects the firm took on between 1857 and 1979. The repository contains approximately 139,000 plans and drawings, as well as photographic negatives and prints, planting lists, lithographs, employee records, and office correspondence. Today, the majority of research requests the archives receives relate to the firms’ plans and drawings, which have been used for landscape restorations, academic publications, and historical exhibits.
In the early stages, the archives staff focused on preserving the plans, which were often brittle, dirty, and damaged. Next, the items were cataloged and made available to researchers, who, at that point needed to visit the site to view them physically. In recent years, reflecting archival trends and practices, a massive digitization project focusing on the plans and drawings began.
Initially, the plans and drawings were scanned into black and white tiff files. But the Olmsted National Historic Site is currently undertaking a four-year project to re-scan plans and drawings into high resolution color images that meet current industry standards and research expectations.
Working, as many archives do, without an in-house platform and hoping to provide widespread public access to the materials, the archives staff have been uploading the items to Flickr. The availability of scanned images has been extremely popular, so much so that it has greatly diminished onsite research visits. Staff members are currently working out a system to include visitors to the Flickr page to meet the annual visitation expectations of the site.
The shift, along with an option of offsite storage, has brought up discussions on the necessity of archival storage at the Olmsted site in general. Fairsted is made of wood and highly susceptible to fire and other environmental factors. The plans are stored in a protected vault, but many other items remain in the open. For that reason, storage of the Olmsted firms’ archival items is split between the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site and the Springfield Armory National Historic Site.
For now, the items at the Olmsted site will remain there, due primarily to a consensus that their presence adds visceral meaning to the site as a whole. The visitors on public tours experience, that intangible feeling familiar to historians who physically interact with meaningful historical records. This feeling is even stronger at the production site, in this case a beautiful home among gardens and wildlife. The researchers looking at files on their laptops will miss this experience.
Is it really worth researchers travelling miles and miles for a feeling?That depends on myriad factors. But, after working at the Olmsted site over the past six months it is clear to me that seeing, touching, and interpreting the plans while in the historic office delivers a powerful impact. If Olmsted researchers are in Boston, I hope they will make a stop at Fairsted.