by William A. Harris, Deputy Director
As archivists and historians know all too well, the most surprising documents are often the least obviously important ones. They lurk in plain sight, but they lack that “oh wow” brilliance of a “Day of Infamy” speech draft. The import of these less sexy documents (yes, I used the word “sexy”) grows with every turn of the page and unexpectedly revealed detail. In total, they are less about one specific moment and more about the experience of moments, the natural unfolding of everyday life.
Three such Roosevelt Library administrative documents have recently snagged our attention: the Library Daily Diary (1940-1948); the Visitor to Building Log (1940-1945); and the Workmen in the Building Log (1940-1959). On quick perusal, these dry administrative documents reveal nothing more than the daily routine of operating a Presidential Library. On closer examination, through individual entries alone and in combination, they provide deep insight into multiple aspects on a host of topics, both humorous and tragic, personal and historical.
Who created these documents and what do they contain? We must tip our collective hat to Alma Van Curan (1897-1976), clerk-stenographer, who served as secretary to the first FDR Library director, Fred Shipman. She commenced the primary, typewritten Daily Diary on her second day at work, August 6, 1940. Evidencing her attention to detail and her pride of place, she later inserted her name and start date of August 5th in handwriting. The logs prove once again that the less overtly powerful play a vital role in documenting the unfolding stories of those in charge.
As for Van Curan herself, she was no stranger to the Roosevelts. Her father, Charles Van Curan, spent his career working on the Roosevelt estate, first as a groundsman from 1902 to 1945 and then onsite for seven more years with the National Park Service. Residing with her parents and never marrying, Alma became active in local Democratic politics. When a director’s secretary was needed, she applied. Qualified and trusted, Van Curan was a perfect fit and remained with the Library until her retirement in the mid-1960s.
Let’s explore the main daily diary and the visitor log. They offer a wonderful view of the start-up and initial evolution of a Presidential Library–all the hustling about and delivering and hiring and touring that goes along with a Library in those days, months, and sometimes years between Library occupation and dedication. I’ve been around three similar periods–George H. W. Bush (as a staff archivist) and Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (as Office of Presidential Libraries staff). The similarities are striking with one major difference. The incumbent President wasn’t coming and going on a routine basis, along with his friends and family, looking into every single detail of the place and its people with the weight of the White House behind him.
We often think of the Library as commencing operations on June 30, 1941, the date it was dedicated and opened to the public. However, the Archivist of the United States had accepted the key to the facility in a small ceremony on July 4, 1940. As the diary and logs indicate, the facility was up and running that summer of 1940. The next twelve months form our “forgotten year” when the Library came to life, and the diary and logs transport us there.
The President was deeply involved in every aspect of Library life over those first 12 months. In the director’s office, not his own study, the President discussed Library staffing and collections with Director Shipman. He also picked out furniture, oversaw exhibit case construction, and showed guests through the facility. Though not officially open, the Library bustled with visitors. The President’s mother frequently sent over everyone from titled nobility to her household servants for tours. Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King became the very first head of government to visit the Library. An array of dignitaries, Democrat and Republican, along with local community groups, committees, conferences, and clubs all traipsed through for a preliminary glimpse of the Library.
The more mundane aspects of a Federal operation come into view as well. We see mind-numbing procurement procedures circa 1941–everything purchased through the National Archives in Washington (from pencils to furniture) and often delivered by a National Archives van traveling back and forth between Washington and New York. Potential staff were interviewed and hired. Phones installed. Typewriters repaired.
The exhibits were also being fabricated. Glass cases for ship models and heavy duty benches for visitors were designed, constructed, and installed, usually with the President’s input obviously referenced or clearly implied in the diary and logs. Visitors presented or offered gifts–carriages, busts, manuscripts. The creator of the sphinx, still one of the Library’s most popular objects, delivered the oversize figure and made minor repairs with the help of his wife.
It is all here in the logs, captured with telegraphic efficiency by Van Curan. Each entry seems like trivia at first, but all combined, they provide a rich resource for understanding the Library’s development and the President’s deep involvement in the institution, as well as world events and their impact on local operations. For soon, the war came, and the diary and log pages reveal efforts to safeguard staff and the holdings.
Throughout the war, the Library continued to operate, even with the President onsite. FDR gave specific orders that the Library must remain open (Daily Diary, May 23, 1944). It is a public institution, he notes, and must be available to the everyone. We learn that staff were assigned to save precious items from the President’s home in the event of attack. They were even trained to extinguish incendiary bombs. Van Curan documented rationing, troop entertainments, and the death of Library staffer Gus Siko on active duty.
Unlike the daily diary, the visitor log lacks entries for 1942 and 1943, but Van Curan commenced it again in 1944, documenting only the President’s visits into 1945. Probably without knowledge of its import, she even captured Lucy Mercer Rutherford’s first appearance in Hyde Park on March 26, 1944, a week after her husband’s death. Van Curan records the visit merely as “The President accompanied by a lady.”
Over time, we’ll feature entries from these documents with added details on our various social media platforms. For now, always remember these essential points. History is recorded in many ways, of course. Routine events and activities take on added significance, certainly, when associated with sources of power and world events. But the recorders and stewards of these histories are often unexpected sources, the quiet observers, the public servants simply and efficiently fulfilling their duties, in the background and on the periphery, but essential and invaluable–here at the FDR Library, they were the secretaries, stenographers, archivists, museum technicians, curators, admissions clerks, facilities staff and so many more.
The insights of these individuals, whether dryly or slyly noted, complete a picture from ground level, a picture we usually see only from the heights of History with a capital “h.” Never discount the routine and seemingly mundane. Stories are in the details, and archives are full of them. We owe a debt of gratitude to Alma Van Curan, a true public servant, typing away on her Underwood day after day or writing neatly in little notebooks shipped up from Washington and perfectly preserved. She created something unexpectedly special. She’s much appreciated here, and like her colleagues over the years, she is certainly not forgotten.