Years in the Making, the NPM Archives


By Mitch Toda, Head Archivist

National Postal Museum Archives Mission Statement

NPM Archives collects materials that strengthen and support the Museum's goal to be a global leader and advocate for the research, study, and exhibition of postal operations history, philately, and the mail. To this end the Archives appraises, acquires, describes, preserves, and makes accessible archival collections that document postal operations history, philately, the mail, and their roles in the United States and internationally.

The archival collection aims to represent the diversity of the lived American experience and be inclusive of its scope in terms of creators, collectors, subject matter, geography, time periods and media.

Design drawing with notations of the Indianapolis 500 stamp featuring a vintage race car
Design drawing of the Forever (44c) Indianapolis 500 stamp celebrating the centennial of the first running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 30, 1911. Includes design notations by Phil Jordan, Stamp Art Director on artwork by John Mattos. (Scott Catalogue USA 4530) (Phil Jordan Collection, NPMA.2023.2, image no. NPM_2023_2_B03_F05_01)

In the fall of 2023, I found myself embarking on a new journey at the National Postal Museum (NPM) to start their Archives! In this new role as the Founding Archivist, I was presented with the wonderful opportunity and privilege to build an Archives from the very beginning. It was to my great benefit that others had laid the important groundwork to call for and justify having an archive at the Museum.

While the Museum has held archival materials in its collections since its beginnings as the National Philatelic Collection at the National Museum of American History, the first proposal for the establishment of a NPM Archives was written on June 16, 2008 by Diane DeBlois and Robert Dalton Harris who were at the time members of the Museum Advisory Council. Also in 2008, a supporting archives assessment report was written by Nicole Osier, under the supervision of NPM Curator Daniel Piazza, as part of a practicum project for a graduate course on the Administration of Archives and Manuscripts at George Mason University.

From there a decade would pass until a 2018 grant application by Susan Smith, Winton M. Blount Research Chair, secured funding from the Smithsonian Institution Women's Committee for a survey and analysis of archival materials. The work for this was carried out by Allison Marsh, PhD, from 2020 to 2021 and provided the survey and narrative description, as well as a framework and recommendations for the creation of the archive at the Museum. Additional support for an archives came from the 2019 Smithsonian Organization and Audience Research report conducted at the request of Elliot Gruber, Director, "Collections and Preservation Department at the National Postal Museum: Assessment of Its Operations and Structure Benchmarked with Other Organizations" which specifically recommended that the Museum hire an archivist to manage its archival materials.

refer to caption
Portrait photograph of Catherine L. Manning holding the 2nd American Philatelic Congress silver award bowl (NPM Accession 2007.2003.5) presented to her in Recognition of Her Services to Philately. It was presented to her in 1936 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Catherine L. Manning Collection, NPMA.2023.1)
refer to caption
Holiday Card from Josephine McDevitt to Catherine L. Manning. Features a figure holding an umbrella partially composed of a collage of stamps. (Catherine L. Manning Collection, NPMA.2023.1)

One of my first activities to start the NPM Archives was to determine how its collections and what it collects complements the Museum's existing collections. Marsh's survey and report provided great background information about the archival material at the Museum and was extremely helpful in beginning the work of creating a Collections Stewardship Plan for the Archives. The Plan provides a framework for what the Archives is, what it collects, and how it functions within the Museum. Elements of the Archives' Plan include identifying the types of programs supported by the collections, determining its audience, ascertaining the Museum collection strengths and weaknesses, ascertaining the subject areas collected, developing the collecting scope of the Archives, formulating the acquisitions process, explaining how collections may be accessed by public, outlining the deaccessioning process of collection materials, and laying out an implementation strategy.

refer to caption
Design drawing of the Forever (44c) Owney the Postal Dog. Owney was the canine mascot of the Railway Mail Service and was beloved of clerks on mail-sorting trains at the end of the 19th century and was considered a symbol of good luck. Includes design notations by Phil Jordan, Stamp Art Director on artwork by Bill Bond. (Scott Catalogue USA 4530) (Phil Jordan Collection, NPMA.2023.2)

The work to write the Collections Stewardship Plan was very much a collaborative effort between myself and the staff of the Curatorial and Collections Departments. It was also very much informed through meetings with various archival colleagues within the Smithsonian at the Anacostia Community Museum, the Archives of American Gardens, the National Museum of African Art, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Asian Art, and the National Museum of the American Indian. What I learned from my colleagues' experiences, their workflows, and their best practices influenced my formulation of the Archives Collections Stewardship Plan. After many months of edits, comments, and feedback the Archives Collections Stewardship Plan was approved in February 2024. With the plan in place, it was now time to start the process of implementing the plan.

refer to caption
Stamps, 1912, H. F. Colman, H. F. Colman, Second National Bank Building, 509 Seventh Street N.W., Washington D.C. Includes handwritten name at top: Mrs. W. T. Manning. (Catherine L. Manning Collection, NPMA.2023.1)
refer to caption
Booklet entitled, Indian Hill, 1915-1965 by letter carrier Edward S. Hirsch is a memoir marking his retirement from the United States Post Office Department and describes his twenty-five years of service in the Indian Hill section of Madeira, Cincinnati, Hamilton County, Ohio. (Indian Hill, 1915-1965 booklet, NPMA.2023.3)

When opening the storage cabinets in my space for the first time, lo and behold there were already archival collections waiting for me to work on! The materials are a legacy of past transfers of records from the Post Office Department to the Smithsonian. In learning more about the collections at the Museum and how the Museum functions, it was clear to me that the primary avenues of growth of collections in the Archives will come through a survey and appraisal of existing "archival" items as identified in the Museum's collections management system as well as through the ongoing offers of donations of items from folks to the Museum.

As with the majority of the archives at the Smithsonian I chose to manage and process the Archives' collections in the archival information management application, ArchivesSpace. With the application I can manage provenance and administrative collection information, collection locations, create finding aids, and can link to digital objects.

Currently there are three finding aids to collections available in the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives and the Smithsonian Collections Search Center. The NPM Archives webpage went live in April and we are ready to begin welcoming people to come do research with us!


Mitch Toda

About the Author
Mitch Toda joined the National Postal Museum in the Fall of 2023. He graduated with a Master's in Library and Information Science with a concentration in Archival Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles and received his B.A. in Art History from the University of California, Irvine. Prior to working at the museum, Mitch held positions at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, The Huntington Library, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He has the privilege of starting the Archives at the Museum and works to acquire, catalog, preserve, and make accessible archival collections that document postal operations history, philately, and the mail.