Collections Within Collections: Adventures in processing the Perkhorovych papers at the Ukrainian History and Education Center
Michael Andrec, Kathryn Todaro
Kathryn Todaro was an intern at the Ukrainian History and Education Center (UHEC) during the spring semester of 2019, working with archivist Michael Andrec and other UHEC staff on a variety of tasks — from cataloging 78 rpm shellac discs to helping install an exhibition. The major portion of her work, however, was helping Michael to complete the processing of what turned out to be a rather interesting collection of personal papers.
The UHEC has nearly 200 small to micro-collections (ranging in size from one folder to 20 linear feet) that have been donated from the 1960s to today, as well as one of the largest collections of Ukrainian recorded sound and radio programming anywhere in the world. The Perkhorovych papers are among the larger collections at the UHEC, and is distinctive for its large amount of correspondence and research files.
When I was searching for an internship through the Public History Program his semester, interning at the Ukrainian History and Education Center was especially appealing. I am interested in World War Two era Soviet history, so this internship had the most overlap with my area of study.
Kathryn also happened to be familiar with Cyrillic, even though she didn’t actually know any of the languages written in that alphabet. That pretty much sealed the deal, and we were happy to have her on board.
Partway into the semester, I realized that it would be great experience for Kathryn and a great benefit for the UHEC if she assisted me in finishing the processing of the somewhat complex personal papers of Iurii (Yuri) Perkhorovych (1894–1976) and his wife Ol’ha, who were World War II displaced persons from northwest Ukraine who settled in Brooklyn in the early 1950s. Iurii was a university-educated teacher of history and Latin, but because of his weak knowledge of English could only find work as a manual laborer in the United States. However, in his spare time he researched history avocationally, wrote extensively on Ukrainian history and archaeology, and published in Ukrainian diaspora periodicals.
I had begun processing the collection a few years ago, but had put it aside — partly due to more pressing demands on my time and partly out of frustration.
I had never really put much thought into what archivists actually did. I knew it was somewhat like being a librarian, because the two require similar degrees. I only knew that archivists work in archives and deal with documents that someone deemed being worthy of preserving. I had not realized how the collections are organized, or how complicated it was to decide what to keep.
Since I work in a public library, I am very much in the mindset that things should go in alphabetical order by author for fiction or Dewey Decimal call number order for nonfiction. I always just assumed that the organizational system for archives was just like in a library, and I was shocked to find out how drastically different the two were. Keeping things in the original order they were received goes against what I’ve spent the last four and a half years of my life doing. I also learned that processing archival material is a lot more difficult than processing new library books: it requires figuring out what belongs together, how a collection or series should be titled, describing it in a way that a researcher would be able to find what they are looking for, and finding space to store it. These descriptions and finding aids need to be created by the archivist, where in libraries, most such records already exist.
There was only so much I could do to aid in the processing of the collection due to my not knowing the Ukrainian language. I can read the Cyrillic alphabet, so I could decipher some things, but that was pretty limited. At first I helped pull letters out of their envelopes and making sure they were properly put in the folders. Once things were organized in folders, I helped in labeling, numbering, and creating ArchivesSpace records for them, as well as putting them into their final arrangement.
As is often the case with personal papers, the collection was a bit of a mess and had no coherent original order except at the file level (for at least some of the materials). The correspondence was fairly straightforward, as Ol’ha apparently did some major file-level arranging after her husband passed away. But the remainder of the collection consisted of Iurii’s research materials and writings mixed together with personal materials and ephemera. While the former had some original file-level organization and only needed to be described and extracted into a series, the latter had little apparent order and required substantial weeding.
The process of determining what was worth keeping in the collection was also surprising to me. One item that I stumbled upon was a subway map of New York City from the 1950s. My automatic assumption was that it should stay in the collection, but the only real reason that I had for keeping it was that it was really cool to have a nearly 70 year old map of New York City. When discussing with Mike why I though it should be kept, I learned that finding something fascinating was not reason enough to keep it. I’m also a bit of a hoarder, so getting rid of things is not something I’m particularly good at. I have a tendency to keep things because I think they will have a use at a later date, or because they have sentimental value. Having to get rid of things that someone had decided to save was a challenge.
“Coolness” is unfortunately not a value criterion in classical Schellenbergian appraisal theory. The map in question had essentially zero value as a map, though, because it was in very poor condition from heavy use. But it did have an address written in it, so we decided it should be saved as part of a larger address book and business card file.
However, there were parts of the collection that were definitely both “cool” and valuable. Iurii and Ol’ha corresponded with a huge variety of people beyond their immediate circle of family and close friends. Some of the names I recognized, as they were well-known scholars, writers, and Ukrainian Orthodox bishops and clergy. Most were unfamiliar to me. After a bit of Googling, I realized that many of them were significant enough to have articles about them in the Ukrainian and/or English Wikipedias, and included historians, archaeologists, and political activists, as well as diplomats and army veterans of the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic (1917–1921). Among them are some truly colorful characters. For example, Ivan Svit (who anglicized his surname to “Sweet”) was a journalist and community activist among the Ukrainian expatriates living in Vladivostok, Manchuria, and Shanghai before coming to New York City via Alaska.
Even more surprising was discovering what were in effect “collections within the collection.” I was initially baffled by a group of folders that contained hand-copied sheet music (neither Iurii nor Ol’ha was a musician), concert programs and handbills for events in New York City in the 1920s and ’30s (from long before Iurii and Ol’ha arrived in the United States), and a diploma from Hunter College given to someone named Maria Greben. After some research, I realized that these were the personal papers of Maria Hrebinets’ka, an opera singer from Ukraine who came to New York City in the 1920s, where she continued to perform as a singer (often under the name Maria Greben) and where she taught voice and piano in the East Village Ukrainian community. It seems that these materials somehow ended up with Iurii and Ol’ha after the deaths of Maria and her husband in 1972. Based on this inferred provenance, we separated them into a free-standing collection.
The Perkhorovych papers also turned out to have what is almost a miniature sub-collection related to Levko Matsievych, who was a Ukrainian naval engineer in the Russian Imperial military, and is credited as being the first Ukrainian aviator. It includes photographs of Matsievych and his family, as well as Iurii and Ol’ha’s extensive correspondence with Matsievych family members, including his daughter Tetiana Matsievych Porsch, who moved to France along with her mother after the Russian Revolution.
For me, one of the most interesting items was Iurii’s 1917 documents from Warsaw University. The University was initially called the Imperial University of Warsaw because Poland was under the rule of Tsarist Russia. Following the February Revolution, there was no longer an emperor, so the university was now called simply the University of Warsaw. The letterhead, however, still said “Imperial University of Warsaw”, but the word “Imperial” was crossed out.
Working with this collection helped me to see what life was like for this family in the mid to late 20th century. They lived through the Russian Revolution and World War Two in a region where both events drastically impacted their lives, were put in a displaced persons camp, and then immigrated to the United States during the Cold War. The collection shows how they kept in contact with so many compatriots all around the world.
The fact that Iurii and Ol’ha were in a displaced persons camp made a huge impression on me. I have taken a few classes on World War Two, as it is the time period I am most interested in, so it was interesting to look at documents from their time in the camp. It gave me an idea at what was actually going on inside the camps. I got a glimpse into what daily life was like, and the kind of training that they received in the camp to help them get resettled and find work in their new homes.
Interning at UHEC taught me a lot of things that I can carry into my professional life. I have gained a new understanding of what it is like to work in archives and how different it is from a library. I have learned more about the preservation of documents and why it is so important. Saving things like correspondence had never seemed like something that would be of value, but I now see that it can be extremely important. I have learned that archives have more than just business and professional documents. They can have records, cassettes, photo albums, and so many other interesting materials that can be used to gain further understanding about a person or a region.
I learned so much while interning at UHEC, and I’m thankful for having had the opportunity. I have gained a new outlook on the work of archivists and what it’s like to work in archives.
And we’re very thankful for Kathryn. All of the tedious work that she did to complete the physical arrangement of the Perkhorovych papers was critical in finally completing the processing of this important collection. It’s safe to say that without her assistance, this collection would still be in the inaccessible, partially processed state that it was in at the beginning of 2019.
The Perkhorovych papers, Hrebinets’ka papers, and all of the other collections at the Ukrainian History and Education Center Archives are open to the public by appointment. Finding aids can be found at www.UkrHEC.org/archives. Please contact archives@UkrHEC.org to discuss your research needs and to make arrangements.
Michael Andrec is the “lone arranger” archivist at the Ukrainian History and Education Center (Somerset, New Jersey), where he has been working on bringing the Center’s collections accumulated since the 1960s (including Ukrainian American personal papers, organizational records, and recorded sound) to professional standards of preservation, description, and accessibility.
Kathryn Todaro is an intern at the Ukrainian History and Education Center through the Rutgers History Public History Internship Program (New Brunswick, NJ) and a senior undergraduate history major at Rutgers University who plans to pursue a Master’s degree in library science.