Recently, in the course of processing some boxes containing correspondence from the late 1960s through the early 1980s within the Ernest W. Michel papers series, I was faced with a style and consistency dilemma. These files hold letters between high-level UJA-Federation Joint Campaign supporters and Michel, who was Executive Vice President and Campaign Director of UJA and UFJC for many years, and the correspondence mostly concerns the subject of fundraising. The folders were filed by the last name of the correspondent, arranged alphabetically.
The problem arose in the case of married women. Sometimes the labels on these supporters’ files read something such as “Mrs. Harry Etra.” Other times they would be labeled “Mrs. Blanche Etra.” In some cases, the woman’s name was simply listed by her own first name followed by a last name, whether or not she was married. In the specific case of Mrs. Etra, there were actually two separate folders, each labeled differently, each holding similar contents. In another married woman’s file there was a short note from Mr. Michel’s administrative assistant, Libby Peppersberg, summarizing a phone call in which the woman had asked to be called by her own first name followed by her married last name only; no husband’s first name and no “Mrs.” Some subsequent correspondence referred to her, nonetheless, as Mrs. Husband’sFirstName MarriedLastName.
When processing files labeled with people’s names arranged alphabetically, as this group is, our practice on this project has been to list the name as LastName, FirstName on the folder title. This is how it will also appear within the finding aid for the full collection when it is eventually completed. We strive for consistency and occasionally make minor adjustments to file folder titles towards that end.
As a modern person living in the 21st Century, the idea of referring to an adult woman, particularly one who is responsible for her family’s charitable giving, by her husband’s first name, strikes me as a bit odd. It could almost go without saying that men’s names appearing in this subseries were listed on these files without the “Mr.” prefix. I realize, however, that until fairly recently “Mrs. Husband’sFirstName MarriedLastName” was universally considered the most appropriate and, indeed, the most polite form of formal address for a married woman. As archivists, we are often bound to relay language of the time period of the records we are working with, even if it does not completely jibe with modern parlance, since the antiquated terminology itself can convey important information to researchers.
My main problem here was how to handle the variety of forms of married women’s names that cropped up in the Michel papers. I needed to determine one “correct” form – the one that reflected best archival practices and was consistent with how we have previously handled it in the collection – if at all possible. Once I had determined that, I would then record all married women’s names in the same way.
After some discussion with the rest of the UJA-Fed archival team, it became clear that this problem had not previously come up. We sought outside guidance. The first place I looked was Describing Archives, A Content Standard, 2nd Edition, a.k.a. DACS, the official standards document put out by the Society of American Archivists, which addresses how to describe archival materials. Though DACS does address the issue in the context of creators and the biographical outlines that come at the beginnings of finding aids (sections 2.7.13 and 2.7.14), it does not specify how folder titles for married women ought to appear. Next, I consulted AACR2, the preeminent library cataloging standards document in North America. Similar to DACS, AACR2 does not address this precise situation. AACR2’s chapter 22 concerns “headings for persons,” but goes only so far as to say “terms of address” or titles such as “Mrs.” may be used. In Resource Description and Access, a.k.a. RDA, which is widely regarded to be the next wave of library and archives metadata standards, section 126.96.36.199 grants the option for the ”fuller form of the name,” which could include “Mrs.” And again, RDA 188.8.131.52 pertains to authority records rather than folder titles. The trusty old Strunk & White’s Elements of Style has a short section on names of people, but does not specify how a married woman must be called. I was tempted to consult Emily Post or Miss Manners, but these advice purveyors concern themselves much more with party invitations than with historical documents.
In the end, we settled on the moderately liberated and modern form of “MarriedLastName, HerOwnFirstName” with the “Mrs.Husband’sFirst NameMarriedLastName” form following in parentheses, if this form of her name was used at all in the records. In this way, I was able to be consistent throughout all the records, while at the same time, affording the researcher an additional access point.