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Apr 12 / Matthew Fredericks

SLIS Alternative Spring Break – Relevance at the Truman Library

By Hannah Sabal, MLIS Student

For my alternative spring break internship, I spent the week at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri. The project was advertised as description and digitization of a collection I was intrigued by: the efforts of the federal government to fire gay employees in the 1950s. I thought it would be a great project for me—as I wanted experience in description and wanted to view the collection—and it was, though for many more reasons.

My duties during the week effectively fell into one of three categories: digitization, description/cataloging, and education. I worked with three groups of documents while there. The first, as advertised, was a folder titled “Sex perversion [Investigations into federal employees].” I first digitized the collection following the Truman Library’s standards and naming conventions then created catalog descriptions using the National Archives’ Description and Authority Services (DAS). As I was describing on the item level, as opposed to folder or collection level, the bare minimum descriptions were included. I performed the same functions on a series consisting of correspondence regarding immigration cases in World War II. Moreover, I digitized and described a series of color photographic prints from Truman’s funeral in 1972.

The educational task consisted of assisting the archivist with selecting items from a collection regarding an immigration bill that Truman veto but was ultimately passed. The Truman library holds a conference every summer with Kansas and Missouri teachers to provide primary sources that the teachers can add into their lesson plans. This summer’s conference is on immigration, so it was my task to select a sample of constituent mail sent to Truman to gauge public reaction to the bill that will be digitized and cataloged for the teachers.

This experience was important to me on both a personal level and a much broader level. Personally, this internship gave me experience in areas of archives I had not previously received—while also providing a refresher on previous experiences—therefore better preparing me for graduation and my entrance into the professional field.

However, this work is much more important for a much more important reason than my own experiences. Making these items available—specifically the “Sex perversion” folder and the immigration cases—is of the utmost importance because they are incredibly relevant to current events. The persecution of gays in the 1950s was a precursor to the persecution faced by today’s LGBT community, most especially Trans individuals.

The immigration cases focused on Truman’s efforts as Missouri Senator to aid his constituents in their attempts to obtain visas for their European family members who were Jewish refugees. It was heartbreaking to read denial letters and to imagine the family’s grief. I do not know if these people survived World War II or the Nazis, but what is even more heartbreaking is that I can see these same events occurring today with the Syrian Refugee Crisis.

When I was in high school, my ninth-grade world history teacher explained that history is important so you don’t make the same mistake twice, citing Hitler’s failed attempt to invade and take control of Russia as an example. To me, the work I did over spring break is my contribution to history, to prevent some of the terrible events of the past from happening again.