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Getting by giving

Posted: August 1, 2014 11:21 a.m.
Updated: August 4, 2014 5:00 a.m.

While a small child and later, my parents tried to teach me the moral and religious principle, “One gets by giving.” The lesson didn’t “take” until later in life when I came to understand more fully the principle, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Since this column normally addresses historical topics, why this topic? The answer is no researcher knows it all or can ferret out every piece of information on a topic he will need. It is wise to enlist the aid of others or to do what many of us in the field of research call, “networking.”

How networking works and its benefits

While researching and writing my book, Partners with the Sun, South Carolina Photographers, 1840-1940, I knew I would need a way to “tap into” to access the vast amount of subject matter on this topic in the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the National Portrait Gallery plus in museums, libraries, institutions of higher learning, and in the hands of private collectors both in South Carolina and elsewhere. I also knew I would need to access the knowledgeable staffs of the above entities knew about their collections which was not in any catalog. A Google search today will not get you this information either.

How could I do this? While researching in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., I explained my research project to a staff member there. In our discussion of research strategies and approaches, she suggested I should join the Daguerreian Society. She explained this was a relatively new national and international society composed of collectors, dealers, staff members of museums, curators of photographs, etc., who studied, collected, and preserved daguerreotypes.

I joined that organizational, wrote papers for their annual and newsletter, and presented papers at their annual convention. In this process, private collectors, dealers and the staffs from the national and state entities involved with collecting and curating photographs got to know me and what I was about. When I sought information or images from this group to illustrate my book, I was not turned down by anyone. Many charged me no fee for using their image. I had “gotten by giving” and one of my acquisitions was many new friends.

A situation arose at one of the annual conventions of this organization when a fellow society friend I had made and I were discussing the proper place to donate a South Carolina slave trader’s account book and journal she owned. I suggested the South Caroliniana Library and the reasons why. She did as I suggested and became so pleased with the staff of the library and their work until she later donated her entire slavery library to them.

Growing out of my close personal friendship with her that began through the Daguerreian Society, a few years ago she set up an endowed fund at the South Caroliniana Library in excess of $300,000 to support acquiring, cataloging, and conserving photographs there. She also allowed me to use photographs of hers free of charge in my book. You get by giving!

After Partners with the Sun was published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2001, individuals have continued to share photographic information with me and to seek information from me. In almost all cases, I have assisted fellow researchers and authors without charge.

A Kershaw County example of getting by giving

In 2007, the Daniels Family purchased at public auction the Mary Boykin Chesnut Civil War photograph albums which had strayed from family hands several decades earlier. I offered to review the albums and to tell my friend Martha Daniels what I knew about the photographers who had taken the photographs in the albums. She accepted my offer, but her untimely death in 2009 prevented this from happening.

Her daughter, Martha M. Daniels, continued her mother’s work of preparing the albums for publication and asked me to review them and give her information about the photographers who created the photographs in them. Since I am a volunteer field archivist for the South Caroliniana Library, I reviewed the albums as a service to the family and the library since the albums were slated to be donated to the library.

While doing this review, Martha lamented not knowing where the albums had been all these years, who owned them, and who sold them through an auction house. Auction houses will not reveal the ownership of items sold in their auctions. Within about two weeks, much of this information sought by Martha “fell into my lap,” so to speak.

A few weeks before meeting with Martha, a fellow researcher and author, James C. Holland of Shepherdstown, W. Va., sought my assistance. James had copies of two photographs of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson which had been copied by a Charleston, S.C., photographer. Since they were to be included in a book he was writing on Jackson images, he wished to know if they were copied during the Civil War or after.

After receiving copies of them, I easily was able to tell him one had been copied during the war and one copied later. When asked my charge for supplying this information, I indicated there was none. While talking with him, I mentioned the purchase of the Mary Boykin Chesnut albums by the family and their desire to know who sold them, etc., in order to include that information when they published the albums. He commented, “That’s interesting,” but said nothing further on the matter.

About a week after my session with Martha on the albums, James called me again seeking clarification about a matter and while on the phone he casually asked, “You still want to know who sold those Chesnut albums?” I quickly responded in the affirmative. He answered, “My half-brother, retired history professor Dr. John O’brien of Charleston, W. Va. Would you like to talk with him?” Within 30 minutes, Dr. O’Brien called me.

The following week, in a conference call with Martha M. Daniels, researcher and writer Barbara E McCarthy, and me, Dr. O’Brien told us the story of buying the albums from a dealer, purchasing a few photographs which had been sold from the albums prior to his purchase and his caring for and highly prizing the albums for about 25 years. Martha M. Daniels and Barbara E. McCarthy included this information in their book, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Photographic Album, plus information gleaned from subsequent communications with Dr. O’Brien.

This now established connection with Dr. O’Brien led to the South Caroliniana Library subsequently acquiring many desirable South Carolina photographs from him. The Daniels Family has now donated the Mary Boykin Chesnut albums to the South Caroliniana Library.

Do we get by giving? We indeed do! My parents were right some 80 years ago and what they told me then is still valid today. I am more blessed by giving than by receiving in all areas of my life and not just in historical research.


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