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.

One thought on “Inside the Frame

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