Friday, May 29, 2009

In the News

Now and then (but not often) the work I do in my day job makes the news. It happened when our conservation lab treated the Dred Scott documents about a decade ago. It's happened a few times over the past decade. Yesterday, I attended a news conference covered by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a few television stations. I hear it aired on TV yesterday in St. Louis. Here's what the Post Dispatch ran today on page 2 of its front section:

St. Louis opens Civil War era court documents

ST. LOUIS — White-gloved archivists digging through brittle pages inside metal file drawers at the St. Louis circuit clerk's office have unlocked never-before told stories of looting, betrayal and slavery in the years following the Civil War.

Now these rare documents, unearthed during a 10-year preservation project, will be available to anyone who wants to read about how Missourians attempted to bring law and order after the chaos of war.

"This is a treasure trove of information, most of which has never been seen by historians," said Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who oversees the state archives. "These cases are attempting to right the wrongs that people saw in those years."

More than 11,200 court cases, from 1866 to 1868, were preserved and archived with the help of a $330,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Experts with the Missouri State Archives spent the last decade sorting, cleaning and indexing the cases found in the vaults of the city's courts.

Carnahan and St. Louis Circuit Clerk Mariano Favazza showcased several of the cases during a news conference Wednesday. Most of the lawsuits were filed by people who were trying to recover money or property lost during the fighting.

"The second civil war was the one fought in the courts," Favazza said. "It was people looking to get even, to get their money back and get what they had lost."

The suits include a slave owner who sued a steamboat — as if it were a company — that transported his slave from Cape Girardeau to freedom in St. Louis. In another, general store owners sued Confederate officials after their shop in Iron County was looted.

One property owner, whose farm was confiscated by Union troops to use as a camp, also filed a lawsuit, claiming he didn't owe property tax for the four years it was in government hands.

Most of these documents, which were tri-folded and tied with red ribbon (hence the term "red tape"), sat untouched for decades in metal drawers. Many of the fragile papers were washed in a special bath, then dried flat before an archivist could read them, said Lisa Fox, the state's senior conservationist. "Some of these things were filthy," Fox said.

Favazza, who provided space for state archivists and access to the documents, said preserving history from these files is import for future generations. He expects people from around the world to use these documents for research, books and historical studies.

The documents eventually will be scanned and uploaded onto the state's Missouri Digital Heritage Initiative website. They should be available by 2011.

Thousands of historical documents, including the Dred Scott case and Lewis and Clark papers, already are available on the site. The site got 28 million hits last year, officials said.

"It's revolutionizing people's access to our rich history," Carnahan said.

The cases are available for review at the state archives' St. Louis office in the Globe-Democrat building at 710 North Tucker Boulevard, Room 213. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, call 314-588-1746 or visit

Now here's the funny part, from my perspective. The people up front at the press conference were the Secretary of State and Mariano Favazza, the St.Louis Circuit Court Clerk. I've been working with Favazza for a decade now, and I'm quite fond of him; he's clearly thrilled with the work we are doing to make St. Louis (and Missouri) history available through microfilm and now online. For a decade, we have been holding news conferences, as we have reached one milestone or another or find one true gem (like the Dred Scott case) or released marvelous groups of archival documents -- such as a huge treasure trove of slave freedom cases, hitherto-unknown documents from the Lewis & Clark expedition, or so on. As the senior conservator, it was always my job to attend these press conferences - primarily to act as "pit bull" to guard the few original documents that were on display.

I never had a speaking role in those press conferences. My job was to guard and protect the original documents on display. The speaking parts went to the Secretary of State, the St. Louis Court Clerk, and the State Archivist. My silent job was to guard the documents -- armed with white gloves and a snarl ready for anyone who might dare to touch them.

Yesterday was different. The Secretary of State and St. Louis Court Clerk made their very fine speeches, then the floor was thrown open for questions. That's when it got weird. People didn't have many questions for these elected officials. Instead, they wanted to know how the conservation work was accomplished. The Secretary of State tossed the first question to me, as I stood in the back of the room as invisibly as I could. I answered the question. But within seconds, there were more, follow-up questions about the conservation processes, and the assembled press told me to move to the podium. YIKES!!! I am not accustomed to being in front of the cameras in these news conferences.

I don't now how long it went on. Maybe 10 or 15 minutes, as people asked me questions about exactly how we do the conservation treatment on these marvelous documents. I am told that I answered with humor, expertise, and grace. Mostly, I was aware that it was just wrong that media asked me question after question, instead of focusing on the people who had made this whole venture possible: the Secretary of State and the St. Louis Circuit Court Clerk. I'm just the person who handles the conservation and preservation of the documents in our care. I'm quite at ease being "front and center" ... but not in that news conference setting that was designed to focus on other people.

I think I handled the questions ok, even though the St. Louis Post Dispatch seriously dumbed-down my remarks.

One of the exchanges even amused me. Somebody asked me how we deal with documents that have been taped. I explained the process by which we try to remove the tape and try to reduce the stains-- in our fume hood, using organic solvents - and I added, "It's kinda like sin. We do our best to remove the stain, but usually some part of the stain remains, despite our best efforts." God help me! I just could not resist making a theological analogy. ;-)

It was quite the day. I didn't expect to be up in front of the cameras. It's a good thing I wore my Big Girl Clothes instead of my PJs, eh? :-)


Blogger FranIAm said...

Wow- Lisa! That is so cool. I had no idea what your day job was and I am so glad to read of this.

I am sure you did great - and it is very good that your work got noticed and noted!

Thanks for sharing this.

5/29/2009 6:06 AM  
Blogger Mark Harris said...'ve always been a star to me! But glad to know the world knows it too. How cool is this?

5/29/2009 7:51 AM  
Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

I understand your trepidation, especially since you are probably planning to vote for the Sec. of State in her bid for the US are wanting HER to get the "press time."

But it sounds you handled it well. I also think I need to point out the "non-coincidence" that you were dealing with documents from another time when people felt that the Bible gave them justification for slavery, at a time we are watching people play the Bible card on marriage equality.

Let's just say I think there is a reason you were up there having to think thoughtfully and reflectively about the care of those documents!

5/29/2009 8:24 AM  
Blogger Hilary said...

Congratulations Lisa! I'm sure you handled yourself with grace and aplomb. I think it speaks well of Ms. Carnahan as well to defer to the expert, rather than hog the spotlight for herself. By you looking good, it makes her look good!

5/29/2009 9:36 AM  
Blogger Suzer said...

How very cool, Lisa!

I doubt that it will reflect badly in any way. I'm glad the media was actually interested in the process. Seems they moved beyond the shallowness we see in most media reports.

You're famous, now! I can always say I knew you when. :)

5/29/2009 10:28 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thanks for the kind comments, y'all. I must confess, I did have fun.

KirkE, Favazza is a lawyer (or was, before he become Clerk in '99) and is passionate about the role of law in righting wrongs. When he talked about the "second civil war" being the one fought in the courts, it almost sounded to me like he was about to go where you did in your comment. But he stopped short of naming any specific issue. The echo was not lost, though -- at least on me.

5/29/2009 11:16 AM  
Blogger it's margaret said...

So, I bet if you decide not to run for public office, you will still have your job on Monday!

How wonderful to be working with such wonderful documents.

And thank you for doing that!

5/29/2009 12:14 PM  
Blogger Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Fascinating! I trust you did splendidly Lisa!

Good to hear about your day job and the interest there was.


5/29/2009 12:51 PM  
Blogger Cany said...

What an incredibly interesting job! This is just awesome!

5/29/2009 3:37 PM  
Blogger Malcolm+ said...

I'm surprised that your communications people hadn't actually planned for technical questions about the process - either within the format of the news conference or as a seperate technical briefing. "How do you do this" is an obvious hook for the story.

(BTW, I always try to teach my PR clients to say "news conference." A lot of television and radio reporters get annoyed since they produce their product without a press.)

5/30/2009 7:41 AM  
Blogger Malcolm+ said...

Oh, and looks like you did very well, too.

5/30/2009 7:42 AM  
Blogger Ann said...

Wow -- our famous friend! Interesting tho how the documents reflect from then into now - - so many similar themes even it the issues are different.

5/31/2009 5:58 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Ann, it truly is a treasure trove of documents and history. I'm not exaggerating when I say that new books are being written from the cases that we have unearthed.

5/31/2009 7:05 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Good point, Malcolm, re: the terminology. I never thought about that, but I will change my terminology immediately. "News conference" instead of "press conference." Got it! Thanks!

6/02/2009 8:22 PM  

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