Birth of a Collection

The Schlesinger Receives Its Largest Collection Ever
The Bill Baird collection documents both sides of the battle over contraception and abortion.The Bill Baird collection documents both sides of the battle over contraception and abortion.
By Kathryn Allamong Jacob, Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator of Manuscripts at the Schlesinger Library

One morning this year, three large trucks and six brawny movers, who had been on the road since before dawn, pulled up in front of a low building in Allston near the Harvard stadium, to the great relief of waiting library staff members. Several hours later, the movers and their empty trucks drove off, leaving behind the largest collection the Schlesinger Library has ever acquired. The Bill Baird collection, all 700+ cartons, crates, and artifacts, was finally here. Its arrival isn’t the end of the story, though; it’s the beginning. We will update you as the next chapters unfold.

For years, rumors had circulated about the large collection of material that Bill Baird, an outspoken activist for women’s reproductive rights since 1963, was amassing. Because the history of women’s health and reproductive lives has long been among the library’s strengths, in 2009, we invited Baird and his wife, Joni—who was then writing his biography—to visit the library. Baird wasn’t yet ready to place his papers in any archive. In January 2015, at 82, he was. Several institutions expressed interest, and he invited their representatives to his home outside Philadelphia to see the collection. It consisted, he said, of “hundreds of boxes,” which we assumed was hyperbole. It wasn’t.

The two staff members who traveled to Pennsylvania in March were staggered by the sight of tilting towers of cartons and milk crates, hundreds and hundreds of them, and a long row of filing cabinets, which together filled the very large basement. In a day and a half, they sampled nearly 300 containers. The bad news? There was almost no order to the collection: boxes and drawers were filled with layer upon layer of loose papers; there were thousands of scattered photocopies and much duplication. The good news? Amid the chaff was the promise of a truly remarkable collection that would not only document one man’s four tumultuous decades of activism but also chronicle in rich detail all sides of the battles over contraception and abortion, from the 1960s to the present.

Material from antiabortion groups has been especially difficult for libraries to acquire, but Baird doggedly attended right-to-life conferences, from which he came away with newsletters, manuals for demonstrators, films, and cassettes that he added to his collection. It also contains, sometimes in the same boxes, materials documenting the run-up to the 1972 Supreme Court decision in Eisenstadt v. Baird, which established the right of unmarried people to possess contraception, and soot-covered books from Baird’s firebombed women’s health clinic.

We were thrilled when Baird chose the Schlesinger Library as the home for his collection, but we also recognized the challenges involved. First up: where to put it? We rented a large office space in Allston from Harvard for June, July, and August to conduct an initial rough sort. With the clock ticking, a team of seven manuscript, book, and audiovisual staff members set to work weeding and reboxing the collection, container by container. Gems were unearthed, privacy issues surfaced, recycling bins filled and emptied, and the initial assessment made in March was confirmed; the Bill Baird collection, whittled down to about 300 books and 300+ cartons containing much material available nowhere else, will indeed be a unique resource for scholars pursuing a wide array of topics. The next chapter? Processing. To be continued. . .

Photos by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff Photographer

 

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2015