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SCRC Behind the Scenes
Welcome to the employee blog for the Special Collections Research Center and Belfer Audio Archive at Syracuse University Libraries. This is a place for us to share our experiences while working in the collections and to highlight interesting and exciting things we find. Please visit the main SCRC and Belfer websites for more information about our collections and services.


August 7th, 2013 by Nicole Dittrich

I’ve always considered myself to be a reasonably polite person. I say “Please” and “Thank you” and “You’re welcome,” I hold doors open for others, I pick up things for others when they’ve dropped them, &c. But then I came across a little gem of a booklet in our American Book Company Records:

Cover of Politeness: A Little Book Prepared for the Children taught by The Sisters of St. Joseph

Politeness: A Little Book Prepared for the Children taught by The Sisters of St. Joseph by Frank A. O’Brien, 1912

This book taught me a lot about all the things I’ve been doing wrong in terms of being properly polite. The first problem is that I’ve been picking up dropped things for people:

"When some one drops a handkerchief, it is better to call his attention to it, unless he be an elderly person, when you may pick it up and hand it to him" (page 6)

I’ve also made the mistake of addressing my friends–by any name, at any time, ever: 

"In public, avoid making gestures, loud talking, or call your friends by their names." (page 5)

"When in company never call others by their surnames or pet names." (page 14)

My professional behavior is hopeless:

"Whenever you receive or hand something to a superior, always make a slight bow." (page 6)

And of course, the whopper for somebody who works in a special collections department:

"Never read another's letters or manuscripts." (page 3)

So I am most certainly doomed to perpetual impoliteness. Sigh…well, at least I’m doing one thing right:

 "Always say 'Please' and 'Thank you.'" (page 9)

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Hey! Is that Syroco?

June 21st, 2013 by Nicole Dittrich

by Bonnie Foster, Reference Assistant

“Hey! Is that Syroco?”

“What? What’s Syroco?”

“I think it is. It’s totally Syroco. Oh, Syracuse Ornamental Company. We’ve got some of their catalogs at Special Collections. It’s wicked cool…”

In recent months, the above conversation has occurred at least three times. I’ve said it in a movie theater, to my roommate while watching a hit AMC show about ad men in the ‘60s, and even to myself while watching reruns of a TV show, set in 1980. More and more, I am seeing the evidence of how popular items manufactured by the Syracuse Ornamental Company really were. You see, Syroco was popular because they mass-produced decorative accessories that they knew people would love to have in their homes.

“Since 1890, Syroco has been America’s foremost manufacturer of decorative accessories.

What is meant by ‘decorative accessory’? Simply, any interior accent that catches the eye, enhances the general décor, and stimulates the imagination. It can be a painting, or it can be a clock, plaque, planter, sconce, or mirror. It can be a grouping of these. It can complement your furniture and fabrics, or contrast with them.

There’s a Syroco accessory to suit every setting, every taste.”

(1966 Wall-to-Wall Decorating handbook)

They appeared in national advertisements, including magazines and newspapers, and featured Syroco Showrooms from New York City to San Francisco.

Their business began with your run-of-the-mill hand carved woodwork, crafting the decorative adornments that were common on coffins. Yes, coffins. One of the earliest catalogues in the Syroco collection is a catalogue of the Syracuse Ornamental Company’s “Cloth Covered Casket Decorations”, from 1908. Their unique method of working with material that resembled wood, but wasn’t actually wood was able to fill a niche market because of its flexibility and ability to be molded and painted to resemble the real thing.

Adolf Holstein, the company’s founder, was a master carver and the demand for recreations of his unique hand-carved designs soon led him to hire more carvers, and eventually create a unique method of compression molding, in order to mass-produce Syroco items. The artisan would hand-carve an original piece, out of the wood they were trying to match, and then a mold would be cast from the carving. The mold would then be filled with a mixture of wood, wax, and resins, and compressed. It would then be sanded and either received a multi-color decoration, or a natural wood stain[1]. Needless to say, in the 1920s, this was an unheard of way to manufacture items, and Syroco’s popularity just continued to grow.

Their more popular items included clocks, wall plaques and sconces, bookends, bathroom accessories, and even corkscrews and brush sets!

I, myself, enjoy the craftsmanship so much, that I own a set of bookends from the 1950s, which I found for sale online. They’re well-designed, and intricate, right down to the decorative vase sitting amongst the books on the shelf. You can find many Syroco items for sale online these days, from third-party sellers.

In the 1980s, Syroco began to focus on their plastic moldings, becoming a popular manufacturer of patio furniture and other outdoor accessories. The catalogues available for view in our collection boast “The Chair” and “The Shelf” – versatile, durable and decorative. My personal favorite is “Clip-Up” – a 15” x 4 ¼” giant plastic paperclip – “The Clip-Up holds magazines, file folders, scarves, mittens, lunch bags, notebooks, drawing pads…you name it. And it looks great in the home or office…” (1982 Syroco Housewares). By the early 2000s, Syroco had begun to re-introduce some of their original designs, like their Sunburst clock, as “retro” items.

Sadly, the Syracuse Ornamental Company officially closed its doors in 2007, after a few buy outs from other companies, resulting in turnovers and downsizing of their factory locations. By June of 2007, the company had decided to close its remaining four warehouses and lay off their remaining workers, without warning[2].

The most action Syroco items see nowadays is collecting dust in attics and basements. Some of the more popular requests for information from researchers generally begin with “I found this wall plaque in my mom’s house…” but there are still a few collectors of Syroco accessories out there. They could be interior designers for hit TV shows and movies, or they could be just like you, and me. I know I’ll always be on the lookout for Syroco when I go antiquing.

[1] Johnson, Donald-Brian (2005). “Syroco: A Cut Above”. Antiques and Collecting Magazine; 110, 7, p. 34-39.

[2] Hannagan, C. and Knauss, T. (2007). “Plastic-chair Maker Syroco Shuts Down – Employees at Van Buren Plant Get Short Notice of Grim News”. The Post Standard, Syracuse, NY; June 19, 2007.

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e-phemerally yours

May 10th, 2013 by Michele Combs

The ubiquitous “e-” (as in e-mail, e-commerce, e-business) has crept into every aspect of our lives, so recently I’ve been thinking about “e-phemera.” Not about the ephemeral nature of all digital files (we all know they can vanish with the click of a button, the sudden death of a hard drive, or the Blue Screen of Death), but rather how our definition of ephemera should be adjusted to accommodate the digital world.  Not ephemera, but e-phemera.

Wikipedia defines ephemera as “any transitory written or printed matter not meant to be retained or preserved.” It then goes on to point out that many forms of ephemera are in fact collectible. There are two important points here. The first is that “ephemera” does not mean “worthless” — ephemera can be of great value to scholars of social and cultural history as well as to collectors. The second is that the classification of something as “ephemera” is not determined by the value placed on a thing by others (e.g., collectors or researchers) but rather by the nature of the material itself, whether it was intended for long-term existence.

At first glance, the necessary update to the definition seems clear: “any transitory written, printed or digital matter not meant to be retained or preserved.” But is it that simple?

Beyond the formal definition, we all have a working definition of what’s classed as ephemera in paper terms: receipts, ticket stubs, menus, bills, stamps, etc. Many of these things now exist in digital form, which doesn’t change the fact that they are still classed as ephemera. How should this working definition be expanded to accommodate items that never existed in a physical form?

When I send an email I can tick the little box that says “Send read receipt.” In a little while (assuming my recipient doesn’t foil my plan by refusing to send it), I’ll get an automated email that says “Your email was read at xxxx.” That’s pretty clearly e-phemera — it’s not meant to be kept, it’s just a quick notification. It could just as easily be a pop-up dialog box that vanishes when you click on it, rather than an actual email.

Here’s a more complicated example, however, which demonstrates that people think about digital things in a fundamentally different way than physical things. My husband and I went to the zoo last weekend, and in two hours he took over 250 digital photos. When we got home I quizzed him about this vast number, and he said, “Oh, I plan to throw most of them away.”  Based on my conversations with family, friends and colleagues who have digital cameras, this attitude seems to be pretty universally shared.  A physical photo would never be considered ephemera, but if most creators of digital photos intend 99% of them for the trash — as “not meant to be retained or preserved” — does that make digital photos by their nature “ephemera”?

Further complicating the question is that the determination of whether something is “meant to be retained” is increasingly being made by software algorithms and service providers rather than by its creator. If anything ought to qualify as “e-phemera” it would seem to be Tweets, and yet Twitter keeps them around for years (though their default search only hits the past seven days). Whose intention should be considered here: Twitter’s or the tweeter’s?

With e-phemera we don’t have the traditional paper option of simply foldering them, putting them in a box, and forgetting about them shelving them in an environmentally controlled facility. We have to move e-phemera to a server, maybe create a PDF use copy so researchers can see it, attach metadata to it, migrate and monitor the original file — not just once, but indefinitely.

Consider these two situations:

  • You’re given the papers of Joe Johnson, small business owner. It includes two CDs with read receipts for every invoice he’s sent out via email and e-cards sent to/received from clients (“Thanks for your great service, Joe!”), and ten DVDs with hours of footage recorded by the surveillance camera installed above and behind his front counter.
  • You’re given the papers of Mary Smith, noted veterinarian and cat specialist. It includes 500 CD-ROMs, 300 of which contain funny cat videos captured off YouTube and 200 of which contain hundreds of unidentified photos of random cats, many of which are blurry, out of focus, and/or nearly identical.

Which of these are ephemera, and how do you deal with them? Should you spend valuable resources storing these digital files on your server, migrating them to new formats, running checksums to make sure they haven’t decayed? Should you deem them ephemera — never meant to be retained — and simply let the CDs and DVDs decay over time? Do you simply weed them and make a note that the collection originally contained them? In case B, do you weed the photos that are of obviously poor quality, on the assumption that (like most people) Ms Smith would eventually have deleted them?

These situations will arise more and more frequently, and given the enormous glut of digital data being created it’s important that we consider them.  So what do you think about e-phemera?

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Zine Fest!

February 22nd, 2013 by Lucy Mulroney

This semester Jason Luther brought his WRT 200 class on “DIY Publishing” into Special Collections to inspire them to create their own independently-published magazines and chapbooks. First, the students researched the rare book and manuscript holdings to find items that would serve as springboards for the creation of their own publications. Last week, the students met in our Lemke Room and presented their findings, which ranged from William Lord Garrison’s Liberator to a handmade book of poetry to the San Francisco punk zine Search and Destroy


The students then made their own zines based off of these findings, and yesterday they held a “Zine Fest” up here on the sixth floor, during which they displayed, swapped, sold, and read from their own publications.

Setting up shop…

The Zine Fest begins


Inspired by “2-5YM”

Inspired by “The United States of America vs. Hip Hop”


Inspired by Diane Di Prima’s “The Floating Bear”

Inspired by “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again”

“The Bearderator” inspired by “The Liberator”

Inspired by “Mokba”


Inpired by Lucy Phillips’ handmade poetry book

Zine Fest

Reading from Zines!

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Exhibiting Latin America with Regis Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution?

February 21st, 2013 by Nicole Dittrich

by Susan Kline, Grove Project Archivist

The non-fiction books published by Grove Press often discussed, exposed, and debated social and  political movements and revolutions across the globe, including in Latin America. Grove gave voice to revolutionary writers, including French philosophy professor Regis Debray.

Debray was arrested in Bolivia and convicted of rebellion, murder, and armed robbery in connection with guerilla leader Che Guevara in 1967. Although sentenced to thirty years in prison, Debray gained release three years later and returned to France.  Critics described Debray’s book, Revolution in the Revolution? (Grove Press, 1967) as a “primer for Latin revolt” and a “guerilla blueprint.” Grove also published Debray’s letter “A Message to My Friends” in the February 1968 issue of the Evergreen Review, the issue featuring Paul Davis’ iconic portrait of Che Guevara on the cover. According to Grove editor Fred Jordon, Debray’s letter was smuggled out of Bolivia by a French journalist.

When Grove’s edition of Revolution in the Revolution? appeared, Debray was still awaiting sentencing. Grove mentioned this fact on the book’s back cover by pointing out in large, reddish-orange type that Debray could face death by firing squad. The blurb on the back cover also compared Revolution in the Revolution? to another work published by Grove, Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth.  

 Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution? is on display as part of the exhibition, Strange Victories: Grove Press 1951-1985.

Photo posted with permission of Grove/Atlantic.

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