Finishing a project in the archives always needs to have the caveat added, “for now.” There is always more to be done. We must tend to the preservation of the physical records entrusted to our care, the maintenance of digitized files, and support for researchers across the country who will use our collections. This work never ends and is part of the care we take on when we receive any collection.
But, projects can have small, but important, endings. All our digitization projects are funded by granting institutions and individual donors, so the time actual scanning materials does have a start and end date dictated by the scope of a grant. In the case of our most recent project — the American Humanist Association Origins — six months of physical processing and digitization have come to a close in December 2022. Funded by a generous grant from the American Humanist Association (AHA) and the American Humanist Foundation, the output of this project has been two-fold: the American Humanist Association Records are now arranged such that they are navigable by researchers, and a collection of 315 digital items are published online. Those 315 digital items are comprised of over 3,000 pages of scanned records and each item has been analyzed and described by our archivist Sarah Levine, Interim Director of Library and Archives. The digital collection can be explored in a host of places online via our many archive partners: our Archives and Special Collections website, JSTOR Collections, Atla Digital Library, CARLI Digital Collections, and soon the Digital Public Library of America.
The American Humanist Association Records were acquired by the Humanist Special Collection at Meadville Lombard in two large donations, occurring in 2014 and 2017. John Leeker, then Director of Library and Archives, traveled to DC and, with the help of AHA staff, gathered records from two storage units and the attic of the new AHA headquarters. These two donations became the American Humanist Association Records.
This collection tells the story of the American Humanist Association (AHA). Officially founded in 1941, the AHA is a member organization that advocates progressive values and equality for humanists, atheists, freethinkers, and the non-religious with members and local chapters across the United States. The AHA ensures a humanist point of view is represented through lobbying and legislative efforts, grassroots activism, programming, and an annual conference to work on issues of concern. The records of the organization held at Meadville Lombard measure 37 linear feet and materials include Board of Directors and annual meeting minutes, organizing documents, conference records, committee and programming documentation, reports, correspondence and memoranda, and records of the Humanist Press Association and The Humanist publication. The records are dated from approximately 1926 to 2005, with the bulk of the material from the 1950s to the 1980s.
The collection’s return to Meadville Lombard’s campus in Chicago was a homecoming of sorts. Much of the early AHA history took place in Chicago and involved Meadville faculty and alums. Once the collection was safe and sound, Meadville Lombard’s archivists and the Humanist Special Collection Steering Committee began looking for funding for this project. Chaired by John Hooper, the Humanist Special Collection Steering Committee began working with both the AHA and Humanist Foundation to fund this project, and each organization provided generous funding to begin this project in 2020. The grant charged the Meadville Lombard Archives with digitizing records from the very beginnings of the AHA in the 1940s to 1960s, emphasizing Board of Directors meeting minutes and records from annual meetings of the AHA.
Before the digitization could get started, though, the records needed to be assessed and arranged in such a way that is both usable by researchers and honors the original order that the records were maintained by the AHA. Given the size of the collection, this involved lining up boxes on long tables in the Wiggin Library to see everything at once and get a sense of their existing organizational structure. Thanks to the fastidious efforts of Edwin H. Wilson (a Meadville Lombard alum) who served 16 years as the editor of The Humanist (1941–1956) and 31 years as the executive director of the American Humanist Association (1949–1970), the records were already quite organized. They had, in fact, the clearest original order of most collections we hold at Meadville Lombard: almost all material were in file folders and labeled with categories such as “Minutes and Meetings,” “Documents and Data,” and “Chronological Files.” These existing groupings became the basis for the arrangement structure the records are now in, which involved some shifting of files to make them manageable both for researchers and for the archivist to begin digitizing. Sarah was also able to consult with Fred Edwords, a current member of the Humanist Special Collection Steering Committee, past executive director of the American Humanist Association (1984–1999), and past editor of The Humanist magazine (1994–2006). His institutional knowledge and expertise were vital in understanding some of the complexities of the AHA’s history and organization that had raised questions while Sarah evaluated and arranged the physical records. Once in good working order, the selections to be digitized were transferred into archival quality folders with labels and chronologically arranged within folders. The digitization process includes the actual scanning of pages, organizing those pages into digital objects, and creating metadata to describe the items — at Meadville Lombard Archives and Special Collections, 35 metadata fields are used for description. This extensive description allows users to navigate the digital collection in various ways, like chronologically or by item type (minutes, reports, financial records, etc.). This provides a solid foundation for the collection that allows more material to be added in the future.
It was during this stage that we really got to dig into the AHA records and start to open up the organization’s history. It’s exciting to locate those documents that represent pivotal moments — in this set of records, we were struck in particular by “A Letter to Interested Humanists,” dated 1933. The letter was drafted in the same year the Humanist Manifesto was signed and sent to recipients who were either a former member of the Humanist Fellowship (Chicago, Illinois), a New Humanist Associate (the membership arm of the New Humanist publication), or a signer of the Humanist Manifesto. It describes the intention that “The Humanist Fellowship, now dormant, shall be reorganized as the Humanist Association” and take over the ownership and control of the New Humanist. This letter marks the transition from a local group to a national organization and offers its potential members the opportunity to approve the reorganization in both philosophy and practicalities of governing. It sets the tone for an association that values the input of its members — evidenced elsewhere in the collection with calls for opinion, polls, and surveys, and discussions at the Annual Meetings of the Association.
But “A Letter to Interested Humanists” is just one digitized item in this sizeable collection. There are so many that could be highlighted here, and even more physical records that have yet to be digitized. Hundreds of folders and thousands of pages later, we have just begun this project. Such important stories — like the creation of the Second Manifesto, the growth of individual humanist chapters, the rise of humanist celebrants, and the conflicts with the religious right of the 1980s — still sit filed away neatly in 34 boxes, awaiting digitation. So the “for now” addendum definitely fits: there’s a lot more fascinating material that will be digitized and put online as the Humanist Special Collection and move the next project forward.