The Envelope, Please

Posted on Wed, November 11, 2009
  • by: Jordan Ferraro

Lee Ya-Ching, Stinson SR-9B Reliant

Lee Ya-Ching stepping from the cockpit of her Stinson SR-9B Reliant "Spirit of New China", c.1939.

Balancing access and preservation is a continuous problem in every archive. The Museum’s Archives Division’s mandate is two-fold; to make collections accessible for researchers, and to preserve the collections for future generations. These two goals came into conflict while processing the Lee Ya-Ching Collection.

Lee Ya-Ching (1912-1998) was a Chinese aviatrix. During World War II she visited North and South America on a goodwill tour to raise money for the Chinese war effort. After the war, she returned to China. The collection of her papers from her stay in the Americas was buried for safekeeping. Many years later the collection came to light and was eventually donated to the National Air and Space Museum Archives Division. Years of being buried caused numerous conservation issues.

As a processor and the archives conservator, it was my job to determine how these materials are handled. As an archivist, I want the researcher to have access to as much of the collection as possible. As a conservator, I want to protect the materials. When moldy items were found, they were immediately removed from the collection, as mold is a known health hazard to staff and researchers, as well as being detrimental to the collection itself.

Other issues were not as easy to handle. One of these was a large number of sealed envelopes in the collection. Some of these were opened by Lee Ya-Ching and had become resealed by years of storage in damp conditions. The dilemma came when deciding what to do with envelopes that appeared to have never been opened. Should these letters be opened so that researchers can read the contents, or should they be left sealed? Arguments on both sides of the debate had me conflicted as to what to do. Sealed envelopes speak to the character of the individual. Information not received can influence decisions as much as information received. We as processors are obligated to process without influencing the story. Opening these letters alter the interpretation of this woman’s experiences.

Conversely, opening these envelopes gives the researchers access to more information. If these envelopes aren’t opened, researchers would have to be cautioned to leave them intact. Without opening the envelopes, we don’t know what types of materials are inside. Photographs, film, even certain inks and papers could be harmful to the collections.

After much discussion with colleagues, both in and outside the Museum, a final decision has yet to be made. The majority of archivists polled feel the envelopes should be opened, but that they should be segregated and marked as being sealed envelopes opened by the archivist. This would allow access by archivists for conservation and by scholars for research; however, they will know that Lee Ya-Ching did not have the information contained in these envelopes during her lifetime.  Please let us know what you think by posting a comment below.

Here’s more on Lee Ya-Ching – an article from Air & Space/Smithsonian Magazine, a blog post that includes a scene from a Hollywood film, Disputed Passage (1939) featuring Lee Ya-Ching, and a comic book (PDF format) on her wartime adventures.


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