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Tamiment/Wagner Button Collection Rehousing Project

Today’s entry is written by Ariana Dunning, a graduate student in Museum Studies at New York University, working in the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation and Conservation Department.
The Tamiment Library and Wagner Labor Archive holds an extensive collection of political, labor, and protest buttons that have been donated over the years, usually as part of larger collections of material. For preservation and security purposes, all the buttons were gathered together from these disparate collections to make one large Tamiment/Wagner Button Collection. The buttons in this collection represent a cross-section of the concentrations of the Tamiment Library and Wagner Labor Archive.
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The buttons in this collection show the public face of the labor unions, leftist political parties, civil rights organizations and other social and political groups active in the twentieth century. They were meant to advertise the presence, activities, and obligations of organizations, such as the Communist Party and various labor unions. Not only do they represent specific organizations, but they also voice opinions on social and political issues of the day, including civil rights, unemployment, and nuclear power. The decades best represented in this collection are the 1930s and 1960s. Buttons have been a very important part of politics, propaganda, and public organization since their introduction into the United States in the mid to late nineteenth century. They continue to be effective today as a way of signaling allegiance to a particular organization and voicing opinions on current issues. The buttons in this collection provide a window into the diversity of perspectives that emerged in response to significant events and issues of the twentieth century.
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Currently the button collection comprises approximately 5000 buttons, not including a number of pins, ribbons, lapel pins, and related objects. Prior to this project, they have been housed in boxes varying in size and archival quality. Over half the collection was stored in non-archival bags, often containing as many as 20 buttons, and stacked on top of each other. Not only were these buttons essentially inaccessible to researchers due to poor housing and incomplete box level inventory lists, but they were taking up much more space on the shelves than they needed too, preventing better utilization of precious archive space. Building on work completed on the collection in the spring of 2012, I set about in the fall of 2013 to rehouse this collection in an archivally sound way, balancing the needs of preservation and access. For this project I worked with 10 flat storage boxes filled with approximately 2000 buttons pinned to computer paper, collected in plastic bags and contained within paper envelopes. They were in various stages of processing most to the sub-series level.
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The end goal of the project was to have all the buttons mounted onto custom made boards and placed 12-15 boards high in Paige boxes. I created the boards using 11” x 14” acid free, B-flute corrugated board and 1/8 inch soft volara (polyethylene) foam. The corrugated board was ordered to size, but the volara foam came in a long roll from which I cut sheets to size. Two sheets of volara were paired with one piece of corrugated board, one on the front and one on the back. I then sewed the volara to the board, using linen thread. Once all the boards were sewn together, I cut two of the corners off each board using the large board shear in the conservation lab. By cutting two of the corners off, it makes it easier for researchers to lift them out of the Paige boxes.
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Once I had all my boards sewn together and their corners trimmed, it was time to pin the buttons on. The buttons were to be affixed to one side of the volara padding, while the volara on the other side of the board would be used as a buffer between the buttons when they were stacked in the boxes. I sifted through what seemed like mountains of bags of buttons, some containing only a few small buttons and some containing at least 30. If the sub-series contained 10 or more buttons I would give the sub-series its own board, though sometimes a sub-series had so many buttons that it required multiple boards. For the smaller sub-series, I combined them on a single board, leaving room for possible future growth of the collection.
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Sometimes it was very difficult to pin the buttons to the boards. The metal backings were often rusty, stiff, and sometimes broken or lost. I had to use a fine spatula to close most of the pins. For the buttons without pins on the back I placed them in small zip lock bags, and utilizing an electronic bag sealer, sealed them to size. Then, with the assistance of a curved needle, I sewed the bags onto the boards. Now all the buttons are pinned or sewn to the custom boards, labeled with the appropriate series and sub-series, placed into Paige boxes, and a box level inventory has been created. They will be sent back to the Tamiment/Wagner Archive, where the staff there will create a detailed and accurate finding aid to assist researchers using the collection, which is now more accessible and better preserved.

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