Preservation Serendipity: The Gallaudet University Archives and the Veditz Transcription

Article excerpt

THE GALLAUDET UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES contains the world's most comprehensive collection of materials relating to the language, history, and culture of deaf people. Photographs, artifacts, personal correspondence, publications, and institutional records form the core of the repository, but the Archives also contains a Deaf film collection of more than 750 films and 300 videotapes. These provide rare footage that documents deaf history and illustrates the sign language used by deaf Americans long ago. A subgroup within the film archive is the Veditz film collection, a group of films the National Association of the Deaf made specifically to record sign language for posterity. One of these, George Veditz's presentation entitled Preservation of Sign Language, is captioned with a transcription prepared by Carol Padden and others. It was not until 2001, however, some nine decades after Veditz made his impassioned film for deaf audiences, that the Archives acquired Veditz's own transcription of his signed presentation. Finding this important document was due to both good luck and diligence.

The Archives has built its collection in a number of ways, often through donations from members of the deaf community or their relatives. Roy J. Stewart, for example, donated his scrapbooks. After his death, his widow, Ellen Pearson Stewart, gave the Archives more papers and memorabilia related to Stewart's long history of deaf activism, and her niece, Clara Ann Tennis, contributed photographs, artifacts, and awards. Most of the films in the Deaf film collection were acquired in a similar manner-as gifts, often after the Archives staff or other Gallaudet individuals had established a close relationship with the films' owners. Among the most important of these donations were the films of Ernest Marshall. An independent Deaf community filmmaker, Marshall produced movies in sign language for deaf audiences from 1937 through 1963. He eventually gave videotapes of all his films and some of the originals to the Gallaudet Archives.

Yet other donated acquisitions have resulted from direct actions by the Archives staff. One of the most important collections acquired through an aggressive campaign was the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf (PSD) collection. When Archives personnel learned that PSD was going to sell its historic Mt. Airy campus and move into much smaller accommodations, Gallaudet offered to preserve the documents of PSD's history in the university's vaults, where they could be saved for posterity and made available to researchers. This collection contains institutional records from PSD (at one time the largest residential school for deaf children in the United States and perhaps in the world), as well as correspondence among numerous deaf and hearing people, memorabilia, and other valuable materials.

Purchases have been important, too, and a small portion of the Archives' annual budget is earmarked for acquisitions. These may be papers-correspondence, for example-offered by dealers of rare documents, or examples of artwork by deaf people or students at deaf schools. Archives staff peruse auction catalogs looking for deaf representations, even if the university cannot always afford to buy them, as was the case recently when a work by Granville Redmond, a deaf California artist and actor, was offered by a Bethesda, Maryland, gallery. The Internet auction firm eBay provides another source of materials for expanding the Archives. An unusual example of this was the acquisition of a film by means of eBay. The film's rare footage captures a National Fraternal Society of the Deaf picnic in Pennsylvania in 1932. Like many of the Archives' film acquisitions, this one requires extensive restoration before it can be shared with researchers, but it is now preserved, appropriately stored, and ready to be repaired and then cataloged.

Michael Olson, Gallaudet alumnus and Archives technician, is often the person who locates and tries to purchase new items for the Archives. …