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March 17, 2016

“Discovering” Aida Louise Smith: the highs and lows of archival research

Earlier this week I shared some biographical information about Aida Louise Smith, who we believe is the first woman employed by Case School of Applied Science (CSAS). Below is a short description of my search for Aida, along with some insights this small project offers about archival research.

The Power (and Fun) of Serendipity
I didn’t set out to identify the first woman employed by CSAS. We’ve been slowly but surely digitizing our 330-volume collection of student yearbooks. One of the prep tasks is to make sure the volume to be scanned has all its pages. While prepping the Differential 1902, I saw a page devoted to Aida Louis Smith. I was charmed by the tribute and intrigued by the small pieces of her life story it contained. She seemed like a good subject of a blog posting during Women’s History Month, so I decided to see what other details I could find to add to the yearbook information.

Follow the Function
In an archives, there is almost never one source that brings together all information about a person, event, building, or program. Records are by-products of activities carried out by departments, offices, committees, or other units. The way to identify likely sources of information is to think about what activities would have created records about the subject. For example, hiring an employee typically involves applications that contain biographical information. But there’s a catch.

The Way We Do Things Now is Not the Way They’ve Always Been Done
In 2016 there is a structured process to hire employees, an entire Human Resources department that oversees that process, and numerous records are created. In the late 19th century hiring was a simpler matter and records and departments were fewer. Besides the academic departments, CSAS had the President’s Office and two governing bodies, the Trustees and the Faculty. There were no vice presidents, deans, or directors. The Trustees were much more involved in the day to day operation of the school than they are now, and the records reflect that fact. The President submitted periodic detailed operating reports to the Trustees and the Trustee meeting minutes record decisions on such matters as the purchase of library materials, laboratory equipment, and hiring a secretary for the President.

Records Change, Too
During Aida’s time, the annual Catalog of CSAS included a directory of all current students, faculty, trustees, and staff. It wasn’t until 1893 that any staff appeared, male shop assistants. It wasn’t until 1900 that a woman’s name, Aida Louise Smith, appeared as Assistant Librarian. Her name last appeared in the directories in 1905 and the following year Lida Miller Marshall was listed as Secretary to the President.

Be Patient, Persistent, and Skeptical
The annual directories are pretty reliable But if you’re going to claim that someone was the first woman hired at CSAS, confirmation in multiple sources would be beneficial. In the January 1907 President’s report announcing Miss Smith’s departure the previous November, he wrote that she had been his secretary for twelve years. That would mean she was hired in 1894 or 1895, which contradicted the directories. Unfortunately, there are gaps in the President’s reports in the 1890s. Since a new position required ongoing expenditures for salary and given that Trustees acted on relatively modest one-time expenditures, it seemed likely the Trustees would have approved Miss Smith’s hiring. Minutes from 1893 through 1895 were silent, however. While I wasn’t enthusiastic about reading more handwritten meeting minutes, persistence paid off. In the meeting of October 15, 1896 Miss Smith’s hiring was reported and approved. A useful reminder to be skeptical of assertions that happen several years after the fact.

Start with the Short Path, but be Prepared for Dead Ends
Because I hoped to find more pictures of Miss Smith and more information about her life and interactions with students, I skimmed student yearbooks between 1896 and 1907 I found what seems to be a picture of Miss Smith in 1904, but no more details of her life.

One Hundred Percent Certainty is Rare
Contemporaneous records about her hiring do not state that Miss Smith was the first woman hired by CSAS. However, she was the first secretary hired for the President and she was the first woman to appear in the annual directories. The evidence seems persuasive that Aida Louise Smith was CSAS’s first woman employee. But I’m cautious about claiming firsts, so will qualify the assertion by describing Miss Smith as the first documented woman employee at CSAS.

“Discovery,” Documentation, and Researcher Hubris
I found myself crowing to my colleagues that I had discovered the first CSAS woman. Of course, I did nothing of the kind. Miss Smith’s association with CSAS had been documented in the Archives for over one hundred years. At best, I became aware of Miss Smith. To claim I discovered a lost piece of the school’s history diminishes the work of generations of librarians and archivists who labored to protect the documentation of her place in our story. But the next time I hear a researcher describing CWRU’s history as “lost” in the Archives, I’ll try to remember how exciting re-discovery is. And I’ll happily share the best part of being an archivist: to remember and to remind.

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March 15, 2016

Aida Louise Smith: Case School of Applied Science’s First Woman?

Case School of Applied Science (CSAS) was incorporated in 1880, with an all-male Board of Trustees, faculty, and student body. The first graduate degree was awarded to a woman in 1928. The first woman joined the faculty in 1938. Women were admitted to the regular undergraduate program in 1960.

But women were engaged in the work of CSAS before these milestones. Aida Louise Smith has recently been identified as the first (documented) woman employed by CSAS.

In the minutes of the October 5, 1896 meeting of the Board of Trustees, President Staley reported, “that he had engaged Miss Louise Smith as Secretary to himself and Faculty at a salary of $8.00 per week as authorized at the last meeting and upon motion President Staley’s action was approved.” Miss Smith remained at CSAS until November 1906. In the annual directories, Miss Smith is variously listed as Assistant Librarian, Secretary to the President, and Secretary of the Faculty.

Smith-Aida-Louise.jpg
Aida Louise Smith in CSAS Differential 1902

The Differential 1902, the student yearbook for the 1900/1901 academic year, devoted an entire page to Miss Smith, including the following tribute:

“Case is not a coeducational institution, and naturally there are no ladies on the faculty; but there is one lady at Case without whom the wheels would cease to revolve, and we can think of no one whose withdrawal would occasion such serious interruptions to the established order of things.”

“Miss Aida L. Smith was graduated from Lake Erie College at Painesville, and afterwards traveled extensively in Europe and the East, spending quite a long period at Smyrna. Since her return to America Miss Smith has been engaged more or less in college work. In 1896 she accepted her present position at Case, and since that time there have been devolved upon her, one by one, the duties of librarian, cashier, mail-clerk, telephone-central, secretary, and general advisory committee. A notion of Miss Smith’s wide field of action may be gained by reading the bulletin board at any time:”

‘Found: a bunch of keys; owner may have them from Miss Smith.’ ‘For Case Library cards apply to Miss Smith.’ ‘Freshmen will hand their short stories to Miss Smith.’ ‘Tuition for second term is now due; Miss Smith will receive payment.’

“In the social entertainments at Case, Miss Smith has always been ready with advice and help, and in her every day relations with the school has shown a personal interest in the students which we heartily appreciate.”

I am indebted to Chris Bennett of the Lake Erie College Library for additional information about Aida Louise Smith. She graduated from Lake Erie in 1889. From 1890 to 1892 Miss Smith was a teacher at the American Institute for Girls, in Smyrna, Turkey. After leaving Case Miss Smith served as superintendent of The Sybil Carter Indian Mission. Lake Erie College alumnae directories list her residence in 1928 as Brooklyn New York.

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