Inside the Frame

Since my last blog post, I’ve continued processing the Joe Carithers papers and getting to know more about Joe Carithers the person. When processing a set of personal or professional papers, you begin to feel like you know the creators – as relatives, acquaintances, antagonists.

In 1957, Joe Carithers received a certificate of recognition from Ernest W. McFarland, then Governor of Arizona.

Here’s the certificate in its original gold frame.

The certificate congratulates Carithers on his contributions to Arizona parks and the founding of the Arizona State Parks Association. When Special Collections received the certificate, it was in a standard gold frame. Consumer frames, with their absorptive backing, space for mildew growth, and moisture-trapping glass aren’t ideal archival homes for conservation purposes. So, I knew the document should be re-housed.

Removing the certificate from the frame revealed new information about the object itself. A quick look at the back shows that the framed object is actually comprised of at least four parts: a letter from the governor (complete with seal and ribbons), a backing of blue paper, a piece of letterhead from the AzPA, and an additional bit of letterhead to fill out the bottom left corner.

The back of the document shows many kinds of chemical and physical change – sun bleaching, acidification of the paper, tape stains, and even some water damage. Looking under the ribbons, we can tell that the document was probably exposed to sun over a long period, leaving ‘shadows’ where the ribbons lay.

On the left, we see the join where two pieces of stationary were taped together. In the center, the ribbons have protected the paper from sun bleaching – especially the yellow ribbon.


The governor’s seal, along with the the ribbons and the letter itself, protected the center of the blue paper from sun damage.

For some archivists these are signs of conservation nightmares, but I think this ‘damage’ gives us additional information about the Joe Carithers papers. The frame itself suggest that Carithers prized this certificate and, likely, displayed it in his home. In fact, the glass of the frame has some residue ‘stuck’ to it from the ribbons, and the prop for the frame is bent from wear.


The streaks across the top of the glass and along the right side are actually from the ribbons pressing against it over time.

Overall, the paper document is structurally stable without tears, weak points in the tape, or creasing damage. I doubt it was often, if ever, taken out of the frame. Joe Carithers and his family wanted to protect this document, and clearly wanted to present it in the context of his work (the stationary comes from the association he co-founded!).

Frames give you a particular kind of encounter with an object. You can pick up a frame without too much fear of damaging the contents. Frames hold photos, diplomas, scraps of ephemera – things we cherish. In re-housing the document, I wanted to find a solution that would keep it safe and hold its parts together but still allow the viewer to get close. I also wanted to make apparent Carithers’ ‘matting’ work – to give researchers a sense of how he integrated a government document into his own personal aesthetics.

Serendipitously, I found a sturdy clear sleeve just about exactly the size of the document. It keeps the document from bending, but also shows all sides of the object. It’s a mix between Carithers’ approach to display and my own desire to make apparent how special this document must have been to Carithers.

Non-textual physical ‘clues’ can tell us about the provenance and context of a document, beyond what’s written on the page or implied by the original order of a folder. We can miss this information if we only focus on language-based contents. This certificate was created by the Office of the Governor, but it was transformed by Carithers and his environment into an object of decor and – inadvertently – into a record of how materials change as we keep them.


Planning, Changing, Preserving

Special Collections houses multiple audio visual formats within its collections: compact discs, VHS tapes, audio cassettes, and others are a secret treasure trove (albeit some students may never have had the opportunity to use a VHS at home!). Yet they face a dangerous future if they are not preserved. VHS tapes were high-tech at their time, making it easy for home viewers to pop tapes in and watch their favorite movies at home, and they also allowed us to record our favorite shows.

Video cassette tape isolated on white.

Working with the Southwest Folklore Center collection, which is now housed at Special Collections, it has become clear that people recorded much more than television shows. SWF 010 dedicates itself to VHS recordings of different events–mainly musical performances. One of the tapes that most interested me was a performance by the Gu-Achi Fiddlers. They are locals of Tucson and perform O’odham fiddle music. This is an amazing find and undoubtedly watching this performance could inspire the next generation of O’odham musicians, allow insight to critical musical theory, all while being entertaining.

But we have to make sure that this VHS tape is properly preserved. We’ve all seen VHS tape strung out alongside the road and if you ever recorded VHS tapes at home, you’ve probably re-recorded over something that was meant to be saved. And here is where I come in to start the preservation process!

Step One: Rehouse VHS tapes in clearly labeled boxes. We noticed early on that these VHS tapes had been sitting on shelves, which leaves them open to the elements and the possible danger of falling off a shelf and breaking. At first, we had not accounted for having to rehouse all of these tapes. But the beauty in archives is: You plan, you adjust the plan, you plan again, you preserve, and then you repeat!



Step Two: After getting the VHS tapes into the boxes, I made an inventory. I examined each tape for apparent damage. I then made sure to record which boxes the tapes were now housed in before returning boxes to our new shelving area.


Step Three: To protect each tape from accidentally being recorded over, I popped all of the tabs from the corner. This will insure that someone cannot accidentally hit “record” and erase all of the tapes we’re preserving. Note: This is something you can do at home to save all of your VHS collection from accidental record issues!


So what now? I’m now moving on to work with the cassette collection. Once we finish the survey of all of our audio visual materials, we will be better able to determine:

  1. Which items are most at risk.
  2. Which items are of significant interest.
  3. Options for moving media to new forms. (ie: making digital copies of cassettes that can be accessed online by patrons)
  4. The order in which we will begin further steps in the preservation process.

Architectural Archives

My first substantial assignment this semester has been to take an inventory of our collection of materials by and about Judith Chafee, a very celebrated Tucson-based architect known for her modern desert homes who practiced until her death, due to emphysema, at age 65 in 1998. Chafee was born in Chicago in 1932 but moved with her mother and stepfather to Tucson early on, where she became familiar with the landscape and architectural traditions. Chafee attended the Yale school of architecture in the late 1950s, where she was the only female student in her class. Throughout her career she had to deal with being underestimated, and according to a friend and colleague, she sometimes had to remind clients that she was the head architect at her firm.


Judith Chafee

Having spent the last few weeks going through Chafee’s files, it is clear to me that she was extremely prolific and worked constantly to refine her craft. She entered designs into numerous contests, and won a great deal of awards and certificates. Her designs were also often showcased in architectural and design magazines and books. Among her most famous works was the very sleek and modern Ramada House, which also made heavy use of concrete, or as Chafee called the material, the “adobe brick of our time.” The Ramada house was nestled into the desert landscape and featured a large ramada made of narrow wooden slats that shaded and protected the house from the sun.

While she was a very serious architect, Chafee enjoyed other artistic pursuits, such as painting, drawing, and poetry. Her collection includes a great deal of her artwork, some of which she saved from when she was a child.

chafee blog_5

Judith Chafee’s 11th grade art portfolio

Water Under the Rainbow

Traditionally, archives keep water out of their collections, but for Joe Carithers we’re going to make exception.

Joe Carithers was a conservationist from Tucson and, as a new graduate assistant, my first assignment is to process his papers.

Photos of Joe Carithers from the Joe Carithers Papers at the University of Arizona Special Collections Library.

Within seconds of opening the first box of items I came across a small vial of water.

Water vial from the Joe Carithers Papers at the University of Arizona Special Collections Library.

The water was collected by Carithers in 1960 when he visited Tsé’naa Na’ní’áhí (Rainbow Bridge) on the edge of the Navajo Nation.

Rainbow Bridge. Image courtesy of

The massive stone structure is comprised of two forms of sedimentary rock ‘carved’ by water and is part of a set of locations sacred to the Navajo, Hopi, Paiute, and others. In the late 1950s, the Glen Canyon Dam was constructed, creating Lake Powell and simultaneously submerging many sacred sites. The dam remains a point of contention for Native communities. Carithers collected the water from small pools beneath Tsé’naa Na’ní’áhí a few years prior to completion of the dam.

Cropped image of a Joe Carithers’ manuscript, wherein he describes collecting the vial of water from Rainbow Bridge.

Native communities of the region have asked hikers and park employees not to walk under Tsé’naa Na’ní’áhí, but this request is often ignored. This vial an example of that. Sometimes, archival materials represent these kinds of conflicts and it’s the archivist’s job to carefully maintain and provide context. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to think through these challenges here at Special Collections and hopefully, through processing Carithers’ papers, provide a resource to both conservationists and Native communities who want to understand a difficult period of history for the region.

You can learn more about Tsé’naa Na’ní’áhí through the National Parks Service Rainbow Bridge Oral History Project.