Archives in Five Words

The President of the Society of American Archivists, Kathleen Roe, recently called for archivists to come up with a 5 word phrase for engaging people in conversations about archives and archivists. Here at Iowa State University, we’ve decided to focus our five word phrases on why archives are important and what the ISU Special Collections Department can do for you.

Here are the options – vote for your favorites and/or add your own!


Aspects of the Archives Profession: Conferences

In the last few months, I have been trying to provide some flavor as to what exactly we archivists and Special Collections staff do here at Iowa State in our pursuit of making primary documents available to researchers and other interested people. (Like you, web reader!) I introduced the concept of “processing” collections and described the Digital Repository @ Iowa State University and its many features.

Consider this another spice to the flavor profile of Archivist: we attend a variety of professional meetings, which can vary from a lunchtime webinar that is organized by a professional group such as the Society of American Archivists (SAA) or the American Library Association (ALA) all the way to a professional association’s week-long annual meeting that encompasses continuing education courses, sub-group and business meetings, learning lunches – activities that are familiar in professional associations of all kinds. Laura wrote in 2011 about the Consortium of Iowa Archivists meeting (yep, the CIA) that she and department head Tanya Zanish-Belcher attended at the Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.

Conferences come in many forms: there are state- and sometimes city-based groups to join – the Boston Librarians hold a monthly get-together, for example; regional groups such as the Midwest Archives Conference (MAC) or New England Archivists (NEA), which are frequently more formal than local groups but have more flexibility than larger ones; national groups, such as SAA or ALA; and even international groups and events, like the International Council on Archives or the annual Open Repositories conference.

Our hotel room had a lovely view of the Kansas City, though we spent most of our time in conference rooms

Our hotel room had a lovely view of the Kansas City, though we spent most of our time in conference rooms

This past week, our regional organization, the Midwest Archives Conference (MAC), held its annual meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, and a number of Iowa State staff traveled down. Our Head of Preservation Hilary Seo and Conservator Melissa Tedone held a half-day seminar entitled “Soot, Mud, and Mold: Beyond the Basics of Salvaging Archives Collections,” to help archivists plan for and respond to disasters. Collections Archivist Laura Sullivan and Project Archivist Amy Bishop both had duties as members of the Education Committee, which provides a variety of learning opportunities for Midwestern archivists. I presented as part of a panel under the title “Part Theory, Part Therapy: Archival Management Lessons from the Trenches,” examining the tools and techniques that archivists use to manage the collections and employees under their care.

So that’s what conferences are like – but what do we do there? Why are they meaningful? I asked Amy and Whitney these questions.

Amy writes: I enjoy professional archives conferences because I love to hear about all the innovative things that my colleagues at other institutions are involved in – and get inspired by them! At MAC, I was inspired by the ways that archivists are using digital humanities to engage users with archival materials. Digital humanities (DH), broadly defined, refers to the intersections between computers and the humanities discipline. In an archival context, DH projects can be anything from digital exhibits to visualizations of historical data. For example, speakers from Concordia College in Minnesota described a collaboration between the archivist and a history faculty member that engaged students in historical research in order to create projects to share with the whole community. Students ran a “history harvest,” in which alumni brought in artifacts that the students digitized, researched, and presented online as the Concordia Memory Project. What a great way to engage students with the historical materials in our collections in a meaningful and exciting way!

Whitney says: For me, MAC is about meeting other archivists at different experience levels and with different backgrounds; catching up with archivists I already know; and attending sessions, of course. Two were of particular interest to me: “Improvisations of Processing: Confronting the Unforeseen in Large Processing Collections” and “Managing the Syncopations of Socially Connected Collections.” The session on large processing collections was particularly relevant as that is precisely what ISU’s project archivists primarily work with. The presenters detailed their experiences with mold, water, fire, and controversial items in their collections (i.e., guns) and how they handled such unexpected challenges. The social outreach session got me excited about possibilities for future projects, such as rephotography. Between the opening reception, held at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and American Jazz Museum, and a restaurant tour – I opted for delicious Jack Stack Barbecue – I had plenty of opportunities to meet fellow archivists and learn about their experiences. MAC was a great way to connect (or reconnect) with others and the profession in general, to learn, and to get excited about archiving – both its present developments and its future.

MAC meeting in Kansas City

I devote one notebook to each conference I’ve attended – they always end up full!

My answer? Conferences within the discipline allow me to learn from fellow archivists in order to better understand the tasks and concerns that I face in my daily work, as well as long-term issues. Sessions cover topics like effective and efficient use of social media by archives; dealing with unforeseen issues common to large processing projects; establishing and managing oral history projects; and addressing electronic records workflows. Quite a one-stop education, all covered in three days! As archivists, we are responsible for the day-to-day operations of our repositories; maintaining care for the collections that are already under our care; and preparing to care for records people create today: emails, websites, Instagram accounts, etc. Conferences allow me to not only work better now, but to learn how to work better moving forward. I can’t think of a better way to spend a few days bi-annually.


So what would you say you do here?

As I mentioned last week, we project archivists are doing a whole lot of “processing” – a word that refers generally to a method of organizing and handling records. Archivists are familiar with its collections-centric meaning, but it doesn’t mean much to people who don’t interact frequently with archival materials. So, to answer that age-old question posed in Office Space, what would we say we do here?

In general, archives’ use of the term processing covers the following steps:

1. Arrangement: Tidy and organize collections. Fact of life: in order to find something, we have to know where it is. To this end, we organize papers – just like students might have a notebook for each class, or a Google calendar for class assignments and one for sports and social events, we try to divine an order in someone’s desk folders or calendars or letters over the years. We have to write good titles too, that convey a folder’s contents – even when they seem a bit random. When possible, archivists respect des fonds as the French say, meaning ensures that a collection reflects the creator’s use and organization of the items. If that creator purposefully put a bunch of things together, our job is to describe the things with a title (“Military science memorandums”) and leave it for the researchers to debate the contents.

Processed materials

Materials are providing to researchers like this: folders with titles in a discernible order.

Accessioned materials

… but they generally arrive with less sense of organization and in containers that will cause harm to the materials over time.

2. Preservation: Ensure materials are clean and protected. Unlike library books, which can generally be replaced if they are lost or otherwise harmed, our collections are unique or very rare. Letters typically only have one copy; Terry Anderson annotated a draft of his book, and other drafts will contain different marginalia, for example. So archivists must care for paper physically to enable a long life – just like we take vitamins every day or try to eat more fruits and vegetables. Paper’s version of “vitamins” includes being stored in acid-free paper, folders, boxes, and cartons. Photographs are more fragile and popular items, so photos are put into enclosures that are made of clear materials without harmful chemicals. You would be surprised at the destruction caused by a paper clip, a few staples, or a rubber band, especially as they rust and melt over time. We remove these to prevent future issues, but if the item(s) have been exposed to mold or need a lot of help, our Preservation department comes to the rescue.

Our materials arrive in much better shape than this, thankfully. Photo of destroyed library from the Beth Israel Congregation in New Orleans, circa 2005. From Jewish Women’s Archive via Wikimedia Commons.

3. Access and Use: Catalog and promote the collections. Archivists don’t have an easy job (I may be biased) but one of the hardest things we do, in my view, is make sure that people can search for and find materials in our holdings. Just like people need to be able to find books on shelves, articles in databases and the digital repository, images on our Flickr site, we need to make sure people can find items and collections. But every book has just one title and an array of headings. On the other hand, by nature, the materials that individuals gather over their lifetime are much less focused than a book. It would take an incomprehensible amount of time to detail every single item in our collections, so instead we create finding aids that inventory the folders, write biographical and historical notes that detail a person or office’s interests and record holdings,

In order to make sure that users can “see” (via the catalog or other virtual tools, since our shelves are not open to cruising around sections) what’s available, we do a few things:

  • Create finding aids and put them online. This inventories all those folders that we put titles on during arrangement. Finding aids provide context for the collection through a biography of the person or history of an organization, an overview of what is present (or not present) in the records, and a listing of the folder titles. This way, visitors can skim a finding aid and see present – or not present – sort of like a book’s table of contents or index.
  • Create searchable catalog records. Just like you can search for circulating books through the Library website, you can search for special collections as well. These link to the finding aid, as well
  • Write blogs. Finding aids stick to the facts, and frequently collections cannot be digitized – again, the time and file space required is not practical. So these posts allow us to showcase images, provide more context, and wax whimsically about our favorite parts of a collection. Since they’re online also, people can use Google to come across the collections at ISU – library catalogs, not so much.
  • Display exhibits. On the fourth floor of Parks, inside and outside of our reading room, we have exhibit cases that allow us to highlight collections. Currently, the cases are dedicated to the papers of Congressman Edward Mezvinsky and contain photos and sports memorabilia from his youth in Ames and artifacts from his political career. Exhibits may also be virtual – Collections Archivist Laura Sullivan’s online exhibit in honor of Homecoming’s 100th anniversary in 2012 gives a comprehensive view of Cyclone pride that is accessible to alumni near and far.
MS-274 exhibit on Congressman Edward Mezvinsky

Exhibits in Parks Library are just one way we provide access to our collections

Whew! So that is what archivists do when they process, in brief. Every researcher who uses materials from Special Collections, at Iowa State or in any repository, has seen processing’s results up close. Archivists do plenty other tasks: materials have to come from somewhere, groups pay us visits, classes come learn how we can improve their work, we have a web presence to maintain, policies are always changing and developing, etc. Melissa Mannon maintains a long list of the variety of tasks that archivists accomplish using a Pinterest board, What does an archivist do? amongst other archives-centric boards. Maybe I should start one for processing archivists…