Sarah Pratt 2017-01-12 12:33:36
Late morning on August 18, 1956, the United States Ambassador to Paraguay, Arthur Ageton, attended the commencement ceremony for the start of construction on the new embassy in Asunción. The president of Paraguay, Alfredo Stroessner, and other distinguished guests were in attendance; Ambassador Ageton delivered a major address on economic policy with a reply from Stroessner’s foreign minister. During the ceremony, which was over before lunch, a time capsule filled “with significant papers” was placed in a pit by the president and the ambassador, then covered with concrete mix and leveled using specially engraved trowels to mark the occasion. Fast forward nearly sixty years. In April 2016, the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University received an email from the current US Ambassador, Leslie Bassett, in Asunción, Paraguay. The embassy was set to begin new construction on the same property where the commencement ceremony took place six decades ago, Ambassador Bassett explained. “Where was the time capsule buried?” she asked. Over the years, documentation on its location had been lost—and the ambassador hoped to find the time capsule before ground was broken. The Hunt Begins This reference question made its way to my desk the first week of April. The Gotlieb Center is home to more than 2,000 collections and, despite nearly five years of working with researchers and cataloging collections, this was my first introduction to the Arthur Ageton collection. The collection, I quickly discovered, is stored in an offsite vault, minimally processed, and not often accessed by researchers. In short, finding evidence of the time capsule seemed improbable. With the help of a colleague, I was able to identify a diary, photographs, and some printed items in the finding aid that we thought were our best chance of answering the question. While I scoured records in Boston, Ambassador Bassett and her team persevered in Asunción. They met with a 95-year-old gentleman who was reported to be present at the 1956 ceremony— maybe he could point them in the direction of the time capsule! However, the landscape in the Paraguayan capital has changed quite a bit in sixty years, and human memory is only so reliable. Bassett and her team took to social media, posting on the embassy’s official Facebook page to crowdsource clues from their followers. Back in Boston, having initially reviewed our records, I was not optimistic about our chances of finding the answer. Then two boxes arrived from our offsite storage. I started to shuffle through envelopes and folders, one of which contained a stack of eighteen black-and-white photographs topped with a short note reading “Ceremony for new building US Embassy.” I excitedly scanned through the images. There was Ambassador Ageton speaking at the podium. In another, President Stroessner and Ageton, trowels in hand, are bent at the waist smoothing out cement. Another showed the stage, lined with streamers, where a gentleman in a suit raised the American flag, onlookers holding their hats to their hearts. Loose journal pages for the year 1956 were found in another envelope. I flipped to the summer months. Many of Ageton’s entries documented his health and his day-to-day activities. Then, in an entry for Saturday, 18 August 1956, I found the following paragraph: Next, Hutch and Barr filled the time tube, a brass tube about three feet long that had once been the cylinder of a water pump, with significant papers. The tube was carried down into the pit below us (lined with brick with a railing around it decorated with red, white and blue streamers and containing a small aperature [sic] of concrete at the bottom. Into this, the President and I put the tube, two mozos sloshed in some concrete mix, and we smoothed them out with silver trowels appro-priately [sic] engraved with data of the occasion and which were recuerdos of the occasion for the President and me. “Time tube”! We now had substantial pieces of the puzzle. I scanned the five-page journal entry for August 18, as well as the black-and white prints documenting the ceremony, and emailed them to Ambassador Bassett on April 13. In July, Ambassador Bassett shared via email that they had narrowed down possible locations for the time capsule on the embassy grounds but still had not found it. With our permission, she posted the scanned photographs on Facebook, again attempting to crowdsource information. Found! On September 18, exactly one month after the 60th anniversary of the ceremony, Ambassador Bassett emailed me to say they had located the time capsule! In one of the photos, the house in the background still stands today and served as a point of reference for their search. Eventually, they used a ground scanner to narrow the search area and dug five feet down to find the brick and concrete pit. A week later the time capsule was extracted and given several days to acclimate to its new environment. The embassy opened the capsule privately, as it was clear that the pipe had been compromised over the decades. Water had seeped into the tube, but luckily, despite some water damage, most of the contents dried out well and were able to be displayed. The capsule contained: a photograph of the newspaper El Pais, which featured a front-page story on General Harrison, one of the guests mentioned in Ageton’s journal entry; a US one dollar “silver certificate”; a Paraguayan 100-guarani note; three newspapers of the day; a copy of Ambassador Ageton’s speech; a personal message from the Papal Nuncio, in attendance at the ceremony; an event program; General Harrison’s visit schedule; and plans for the new embassy, which were unfortunately ruined by water. The contents of the time capsule were informally and temporarily displayed at the embassy entrance and the local newspaper, Ultima Hora, covered the story on its front page. In late October, the Gotlieb Center received a package from Paraguay, which included a thank you note and t-shirt commemorating the 60th anniversary of the time capsule, with the US Embassy’s seal on the front. An Expanding User Base We all know that being thanked publicly is hardly the point of archival work. In fact, sometimes it seems that the more quietly successful our work, the better we are doing our job. As an adjunct faculty member of Simmons College’s School of Library and Information Science, I have talked with my students a great deal about the changes in reference services, the growth in user expectations, and the different ways archives are being used. We are no longer responsible merely to researchers in the humanities, studying history or literature. Our user base has expanded tremendously, helped in part by the growth of Web 2.0 technologies and digital archives initiatives. These, in addition to other institutional web presences, have increased the public’s awareness of archival repositories as a resource for a variety of research needs—from dissertations to documentaries to time capsules. Many of our collections are like time capsules, sometimes left untouched for years only to be opened and explored from new perspectives, under new circumstances, and with new eyes. Our records offer something unique to each user who gains access, one no more important than another. It is this dynamic user base that not only challenges us as professionals to think more broadly about our collections and their uses, but also gives us a nice respite from traditional reference work. Besides, who doesn’t love a treasure hunt every once in a while?
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