SLIS Alternative Spring Break at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
By Alexandrea Penn, MLIS student
For my Alternate Spring Break project, I went to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum to work on the Condolence Mail Project. The title Condolence Mail Project implies that it is a collection of the letters, cards, and other items received after the death of President Kennedy; however, the collection also includes letters that are unrelated to his death, birthday cards for John Jr. and Caroline, Valentine’s Day cards, St. Patrick’s Day cards, Christmas cards and other items.
After the death of Kennedy, millions of letters poured in. Letters continued to poor in for months afterwards. In January of 1964, Jackie Kennedy made a TV announcement, with Bobby and Teddy Kennedy, regarding the letters. She announced that all letters would be responded to. The link to the video is below.
Within the video, Mrs. Kennedy announces that all letters will be saved and housed at the library being built in her husband’s honor in Boston. She goes on to promise that all the items will be kept at the Kennedy Library as a reminder to future generations of how much her husband meant, and great sadness his death created.
Unfortunately, sometime in the 1970s the collection was sampled. Either by random sampling, or by looking through the entire collection and then determining what was going to be of value in the future. As a result of their sampling efforts, 90% of the original collection was gotten rid of. No record remains as to what the sampling plan was so there is no ability for the current archives staff to determine what was saved and what was not.
By removing random items from the collection, it created an additional strain on not only the processing staff but also the reference staff. What do you do if you no longer have a certain item and a patron knows their family sent in a letter? Further, how do you explain that despite Mrs. Kennedy’s assurances that every item would be kept, every item was not in fact kept?
Overall, the project involved processing, rehousing and a lot of sorting and resorting. We removed letters from storage size boxes to folders arranged in alphabetical order placed in manuscript boxes. The process looked like the two images to the left.
It was a large effort to sort so many letters. I enjoyed being able to read them. As Mrs. Kennedy said, they are a great representation of the love that the country felt for President Kennedy and do a wonderful job of showing that love, even though it is decades afterwards.
Working at the Kennedy Library for the week was a fantastic opportunity. I was able to work with professional archivists on a project that is both interesting and important to American history. As a graduate student in both the MLIS program and the History program, I was taking classroom archival work and my history knowledge to work on a project. Being able to contribute something to a large and prestigious institution as the Kennedy Library helped me as a student realize anything.