A swarm of circumstances

I tend to be a pretty big believer in serendipity. As this week is starting to bear out.

Back to the beginning. Two years ago (about) Tim Miller, an educator out in Bethel, was in town for a workshop we sponsored with the Library of Congress on using primary sources in the classroom, taught by a great friend of mine, Danna Bell-Russel.  Shortly after the workshop, Tim contacted me and said he and his siblings were cleaning out his dad’s house after his dad had died, and were we interested in his dad’s (Fletcher Miller’s) papers? That’s the first nice touch of serendipity: would this have occurred to the family to have these materials preserved and made available for research if Tim hadn’t taken that workshop here at the Consortium Library? Anyway, I said quite possibly we’d like the papers, what are they about? And Tim told me that his dad was one of the first beekeepers in Anchorage and he’d done a lot of work to found and work with local beekeeping associations, get agricultural legislation regarding apiculture passed here in Alaska, and did a lot of educational work both with schoolchildren here in Anchorage and with other Anchorage residents. Well, agriculture in Alaska, a very specific type of agriculture in Alaska, and of course I said yes, the very uniqueness of these materials makes preserving them for research access very important.

So shortly after that, I picked up the papers, brought them into the archives, sorted them and removed various and assorted dead bees and dead bee parts, and got them into new boxes and placed in the vault. And that’s about where I stopped. The papers were relatively orderly but I just wasn’t able to break out the time to do a collection description.

Fast-forward to about two months ago. When an email came across the library listserv from our head of the Alaska Medical Library. The email said: I have a library grad student here who is working on an internship/practicum and she’d like to interview the other department heads here, and oh, if we had a small project for her to do, she might be interested.  Well, I almost never turn down an offer to expand the education of an allied professional (much less get some extra work done) and I waved my hand. And in time, Sigrid Brudie showed up and said “what can I do for you?” And I mentioned the Fletcher Miller papers. 12 cubic feet, rough arrangement, needs a collection-level description and a processing survey.

To give Sigrid credit, she didn’t run away. That’s a pretty good-sized project for a short period of time. And though she gently pointed out that she knew nothing about beekeeping, that didn’t work as an objection because none of the rest of us knew anything about beekeeping either and somebody was going to have to do it. So with a little cajoling from us, she took it on. And did a great job. And managed to learn quite a bit about beekeeping in Alaska in the interim, which is one of the side-effects of archival work: the gathering of knowledge on some occasionally arcane topics. Sigrid went from “beekeeping?” to “you have to see this letter!” quite quickly. And wrote up a spectacular condition report on the collection as well as gathering all of the information we needed to produce our basic collection finding aid. For the moment, it’s a rather short finding aid. The collection will need somebody to go through and do some preservation work. For example, a lot of materials are in Ziploc bags, probably because they were stored in the same shed as all of Fletcher’s beekeeping supplies [cf the dead bee clean-out noted above] and those should be removed. The collection also contains a lot of duplicate copies, partly because Mr. Miller taught a lot of community and school classes so he had a lot of copies of handouts that he’d share. So we might actually be able to reduce the size overall of the collection somewhat as staffing and time allows. And hopefully do some more in-depth description to build on and use some of the information Sigrid synthesized from the collection.

Sigrid Brudie holding queen cage and a portrait of Fletcher Miller with a "bee beard."

Sigrid with the collection

Here’s the serendipity part. Sigrid finished up her portion of the work early last week. And sent me electronic files of the documents she’d produced. I was on leave the last half of last week, but the first thing on my to-do list for this Monday morning was to fill out the standard finding aid form with the information Sigrid had provided. And just as I got started on that task, an email from Sigrid arrived. Our local NPR station runs a weekly call-in show called “Hometown, Alaska.” And apparently this very week, they are doing the show on beekeeping in Alaska! Sigrid wasn’t convinced by my attempts to get her to call in, so since I wasn’t getting anywhere with her, Monday afternoon I emailed the host of the show and told her about the Miller papers and how these were now available. Tuesday afternoon Teeka Ballas, the host of the show, stopped by to take a look at the Miller papers and Wednesday morning, a link to the collection finding aid was up on the KSKA program site. That’s a nice little piece of outreach for us.

It’s about two hours to showtime as I’m writing this and we are planning on listening in. If nothing else, maybe we’ll all walk away with more knowledge about beekeeping in Alaska. And if any future collections come in that pertain to the topic, none of us are going to be able to say we know nothing about it!

One last quick note about the picture of Sigrid. She’s standing in front of the collection in our vault. In her left hand is a portrait of Fletcher Miller in his front yard in Anchorage with a “bee beard.” In her right hand is Fletcher’s queen cage. It’s a small wooden box with a cutout in the center and some screening over the open sides. Beekeepers will put the queen bee in there, tie the box under their chin, and then the bees congregate, thus building the bee beard that you can see in the portrait.

3:30 pm: quick update on the show. The collection was indeed mentioned and in an interesting way: Teeka noted something she’d read in the collection about a treatment for a bee disease and asked her guests if it worked. Turns out it’s out of date, no surprise there with a collection of older materials, but still a nice moment when she acknowledged the tomes of material held here.

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