Mystery, Murder, and the Macabre in the Archives!



Tombstone Epitaph, Nov. 1921

It was a dark and stormy evening in the small border town of Nogales, Sonora, Mexico; the year was 1921. As the Tombstone Epitaph reported, a letter signed by the “Black Hand” was delivered to a local saloon-keeper, who, rather than follow the instructions of the extortion letter, decided to arm himself and let nature take its course. This is just one of many mystery stories from the Wild West that you can find in archival collections.

There is much to explore in Special Collections, as my graduate assistant colleagues and I have found out lately. If you want to investigate reports of mystery, murder, and the macabre,  you have come to the best place! However, not all of the mysteries are on paper. Some of the objects that are donated to the archives are often more than a little mysterious and sometimes downright creepy!


Boot Hill, Tombstone, AZ


Trick-or-treaters, circa 1920s




The creaking of the shelves and the shimmer of light off the plastic covering the portraits hanging in a far corner can sometimes get your heart racing as you move through silent rows of shelves stacked with boxes with secrets concealed within. Of course, the average citizen doesn’t get to just wander around the basement of the archives. If you truly want to know more about the secrets within Special Collections, come visit us, if you dare.black_hand_print



What’s New? What’s Old

The latest news from my corner of the Special Collections forest involves conspiracies, bullets, and subterfuge.

I received a welcome addition to my responsibilities last week when our rare books archivist, Roger Myers, gave me six boxes of books to look up. Not just any books, these have to do with President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, ranging from a few serious reports to a lot of wild conspiracies. Some books also deal with Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the Chappaquiddick incident. My job has been to find out whether we already own each book or whether it would be a new addition to our collection on items relating to JFK.

img_5138These books were donated to Special Collections from the university’s history department who obtained these materials a few years ago by a JFK enthusiast. Recently, the department decided they did not have the space to keep them, so they passed them on to us. We agreed to look at them to see if there are any potential gems that we want to keep.

Right now I’m a little overwhelmed by all of the contrasting theories. No one is above suspicion, as there are books promising details on how and/or why the CIA, FBI, Mafia, Cubans, Soviets, and various other groups organized this murder. One book includes over twenty different conspiracy theories. I never realized how much literature is out there about JFK and his assassination. Then again, I never realized a lot of things until I began working at Special Collections, where I learn something new every day.

Here’s to all of us learning something new today.



Arizona Archives Alliance Symposium

This past Friday, all three of us graduate assistants hopped into Susan’s car at 7AM to go to the Arizona Archives Alliance annual symposium, which was being hosted at the Tempe History Museum this year. The symposium centered around the question, “What’s my job again?” and learning how to manage changes to archivists’ roles, their job titles, and their duties, especially as their careers progress.

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Posing with a spooky bank teller

The first speaker, Erin O’Meara, is the Head of the Office of Digital Innovation and Stewardship (ODIS) at the University of Arizona Libraries. She emphasized the importance of making time for innovation and new ideas while being considerate of the professional and emotional needs of colleagues and staff members. O’Meara stressed that working with other units on campus to build on each other’s strengths is key to making work manageable and being able to focus on new projects. The second speaker was Chrystal Carpenter, University Archivist at Elon University, who spoke about navigating change management. Carpenter demonstrated that in order to effectively work with change, organizations must involve all members in creating shared values and visions for the organization that everyone can agree on. These values are used to direct the organization, but also to create a sense of community and belonging and to help others stay accountable to those values.

After the presentations, the group broke for lunch, and afterwards, Jonathan Pringle of Northern Arizona University’s Cline Library led an open forum and members were able to speak in a very supportive space about the challenges and successes we had experienced at our institutions. One institution in particular had faced many challenges, which negatively affected morale among those archivists, but due to the open and supportive nature of the forum, they were able to talk their issues and brainstorm ideas for progress with other members of the alliance.

As a student, some of the information presented at the AAA Symposium went right over my head, but much of what I heard I recognized from my classes, which was very exciting and encouraging. The speakers’ comments on redefining yourself and making career changes was inspiring, and I feel like I learned a lot from the other librarians and archivists that attended the meeting. This was only my first library conference, but I can’t wait to attend more and continue getting involved in the field.

The Art of Archiving

img_6407My name is Susan Mergenthal, and I am in my second year as a graduate student in the Master of Library and Information Science program at the University of Arizona.  I moved to Tucson from Anchorage, Alaska after 23 years as a public school librarian.  I originally thought I would pursue my second career in public librarianship; however, during my first semester of graduate school I took Introduction to Archives from Dr. Jennifer Jenkins, and suddenly it became very clear to me that I am an archivist at heart!  I am passionate about preservation of the past for the future, and my love of history, family genealogy, old photos and memorabilia, antiquities–especially rare books has set me on a new path that I am excited to follow wherever it may lead me.

Last year I worked as a volunteer intern at the Tucson Botanical Gardens (TBG) in their library of rare and unusual botanical books. A majority of the book collection was donated by the founder of the first TBG, along with all of his papers. I first came into contact with University of Arizona Libraries Special Collections to ask if they would be interested in archiving the Yocum papers. A few months later, here I am, a graduate assistant at Special Collections!


Riggs family Bible chronicling  family births and deaths


Brannick and Mary Riggs circa 1880 – 1890s






My first assignment has been to process a collection of papers donated by the family of  John C. Riggs, a pioneer rancher from southeastern Arizona, 1874-1942. During the first few weeks of September I worked on surveying the collection, took notes on what the collection contains photos, biographical histories of family members, correspondence, receipts, homestead deeds, leases, etc., and devised a processing plan. I am now arranging the materials in folders and boxes, and hope to be working on the finding aid by next week.  Organizing information is an art form!


Sorting receipts–painful!





The Future of the Past (Heroes and Vaudevillians Edition)

My name is Mark Sandoval, and I’m a first-year Knowledge River scholar with a graduate assistantship at Special Collections. This is my first formal work experience at a library or archives, though I did some informal work for academic libraries in high school and during my undergraduate years at Centre College in Danville, KY. I’m from a small town outside of Nashville, TN, so I am still getting accustomed to the dry heat of the Southwest. (I’m also getting accustomed to a town whose pride lies in its icy sugar water and is unashamedly apologetic about its football team—“Just wait ‘til basketball season” is Tucson’s unofficial motto.)


This is me hard at work on the Joseph E. Howard collection.


A signed photo of Mr. Howard.

Something else I’ve learned in my first month here: The U of A Special Collections Library has one of the country’s largest collections concerning vaudeville. Fortunately, my first job has been to process the Joseph E. Howard collection. Howard (1878-1961) was an American composer and vaudevillian whose most famous songs are “Hello, My Baby,” “Goodbye My Lady Love,” and “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now.”


Howard’s autobiography, “Gay Nineties Troubadour,” published in 1956.

My favorite part of getting to work with the Howard collection has been learning about his life and the history of vaudeville. Howard has a very interesting rags-to-riches (and then to-rags-to-riches again) story, as he started his performing


Mr. Howard, seated, and friends.

career as a runaway orphan on the streets of St. Louis. He had nine different wives throughout his life, some of whom were fellow performers. He was known as an enthusiastic entertainer who loved what he did, and he performed up until the moment he died while giving a curtain call after a show in Chicago at the age of 83.

I’m looking forward to writing a finding aid for this collection soon, and afterwards I will be assisting our Digital Initiatives Librarian, Erika Castaño, on some of her projects. Glad to be here!

New Archivists on the Block


Me, pretending I tell people to be quiet in the library.

My name is Zazil Davis-Vazquez, and I am one of three new graduate assistants here at Special Collections this semester. I am a first year graduate student in the Knowledge River program in School of Information, and I’m already having such an exciting time at the archives. Last summer I worked as a volunteer in an archive in Guatemala, but it was very small and its organizing methodologies are vastly different than the ones we use here, so everything I’ve been learning is brand new to me.

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Mr. Robles at a book signing. His collection includes several manuscripts.

After getting acquainted with the physical layout of Special Collections, my first project has been to process a collection from start to finish. In my interview for the position, I was excited to learn that we have an entire Borderlands Collection, and I was even more thrilled when I found out I would be processing a collection of personal papers belonging to Robert Benitez Robles, a prominent member of the Mexican American community in Arizona.

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Robert Robles posing for his high school basketball team in Miami, AZ in 1926.

As an undergraduate, I took several classes that focused on Arizona history, but I never got the chance to look at primary documents. I feel as though I have a more intimate understanding of history, and going through Mr. Robles treasured letters and documents has given me a new perspective when I look around in Tucson.


A Valentine Robert made for his late wife, Amparo.

From what I’ve seen in the collection, Mr. Robles was a very compassionate man who cared deeply for his family and his community, and he went to great lengths to improve the lives of Mexican Americans in Arizona and the Southwest during his whole life. It’s been a privilege to learn about Arizona through the Mr. Robles’s collection, and I can’t wait to keep processing more collections.





An Archival Au Revoir

The time has come in which I have to say a sad goodbye to the amazing archival adventure I embarked on last Fall. With just a short week away from ending my graduate assistantship with UA Special Collections, I have yet to complete my last and biggest project.  If you follow our blog, then you know that I have been working on digitizing AZSWBPphotographs for the Arizona, Southwestern and Borderlands Collection.  I have just submitted my descriptive metadata to my project supervisor and I am excited to see how I did. This has been the most challenging task I have taken on.

So far, I have encountered various issues in digitizing my Scans for digital projectselection. The first one had to do with image quality last week, which was an easy fix: re-scan.  This week I missed a step in the process of saving the photographs, which set me back a couple of hours.  Policy is to save images under TIFF format for preservation purposes.  This is because TIFF format uses a lossless compression when saving an image that allows an exact, full quality copy of the photograph.  However, we also save the images in a JPEG format to upload onto the web gallery.  This is because it uses a lot less space and is quicker to upload.  Again, it is the format that gets uploaded into the content managing system, since most people cannot tell the quality difference anyway.  This meant that I had to go back and make sure all images were saved under both formats.

Describing images was not an easy task.  I had to make sure that I could identify people, a Mexican revolutionary from a federalist, a soldier from an officer and the different railroads, buildings and cities and U.S. Army units I was looking at.  That entailed plenty of research.  Not only that, but then I had to come up with something short, accurate and clever to write about it (minus the clever part).

After a couple of days, I completed the description part and moved on to access terms. By policy, I had to use the LC TGM (Library of Congress Thesaurus for Graphic Materials I: Subject Terms) I and II as guides for indexing visual materials.  I had never worked with this source before, so I had to browse it before beginning the task at hand.  The thesaurus had great, narrow terms, but there were two issues with it.

The first was that the format was long (United States—Army—Cavalry, 10th–People) and sometimes too narrow, such as having dates that did not match the records I was working with.  Second, it had not been used in the existing digitized photographs which meant they would not look the same and new terms would have to be approved.

We decided that using the terms already approved and associated with the collection would be best practice.  These next couple of days will be dedicated to revising metadata and finally uploading the data to CONTENTdm (our content management system) and the project will be finalized.Content dm

As I wrap up this assistantship and prepare to graduate, I realize I am going to miss working with all the rare books, facsimiles and photographs I love so much. I am thankful to Looking for a jobeveryone at Special Collections who shared their space, time and knowledge with me throughout my learning experience.

I am now ready to face the real world and find an archiving job. Wish me a happy hunting!