The Archives — Satisfy your Curiosity

Today’s blog post was authored by Margaret Weber. Margaret is PhD candidate for the Department of History at Iowa State University.

Margaret Weber talking about her experiences in the archives with HIST 195 students in the Special Collections & University Archives classroom in 405 Parks during their class visit to the archives in Spring 2015

Margaret Weber talking about her experiences in the archives with HIST 195 students during their visit to SCUA in Spring 2016 (photograph by Rachel Seale)

Why go to the archives? This is a question that has been asked of me a lot, especially by my students. I have often witnessed many Iowa State students pass the Special Collections & University Archives (SCUA) on the fourth floor of the library.  A few brave souls venture in. Some spare a quick glance at the glass exhibit case and closed door. Most though pass by without another thought. What exactly is behind that closed door? And perhaps more importantly, what can the Iowa State archives offer to its students, faculty, staff, and the public at large? The answer…a place to satisfy your curiosity. For behind that closed door is a gateway to documents and artifacts that magnify our past and help us understand the present.


In a world of digitization and computer screens, what value is there in a stuffy place where old documents exist? Can’t the answer just be found online? Despite many advancements in digital collections in the past several years, those online documents pale in comparison to the type and variation offered at Special Collections across the country, including Iowa State’s. Lots of one of a kind videos, books, pictures, scrapbooks, artifacts, and other archival material can only be found here. There is something special about holding a document in your hands, seeing the text itself. It is a chance to truly get a feel for the quantities of our collective past. To use those documents to create a narrative of your own.


Nowhere else on campus offers such an in-depth look into the university’s history and life. Want to find out what university life was like in the roaring 1920s? Go to the archives to look at dance cards and homecoming pictures. Was there student unrest in the 1960s? Find the answer in the archives by reading through the Daily’s opinion section. Want to locate your grandfather’s or grandmother’s master thesis? It’s here in the archives, along with all of the other theses and dissertations. From the Manhattan Project to Morrill Act, there is lots explore on the fourth floor.

Woman conducting research in the Special Collections & University Archives reading room in the Parks Library.

Margaret Weber conducting research in the SCUA reading room this fall (photograph by Petrina Jackson)

But it is not just Iowa State history documented here. The library’s archives also hold vast collections on technological and scientific advancements, developments in agriculture, political history, and much more. In my own personal research on agriculture in the postwar period, the various non-ISU manuscript collections have proven to be invaluable. Very few other archives cover such a wide range of rural life and the development of America’s food system. All archives, including Iowa State’s, play an important role in preserving pieces of our history.


And finally, while the university is a place to ask questions, its archives represents an opportunity to formulate your own answers. One of the greatest things about academic life is the expansion of the mind, the ability to ask questions, and find possible solutions. Curiosity is the fuel on the fire of learning. And the archives, like its classrooms, computer labs, and scientific laboratories, are just another resource for students to use to satisfy that inquisitiveness.

CyPix: Did you say archives?

October is American Archives Month, when archivists around the country spread the word about how exciting, informative, even life-changing archives can be. The two images today are from past events when the Special Collections Department invited people to get a deeper view of what archives are all about.

This first image shows the Special Collections Open House from 1971, only two years after the department opened. Visitors are viewing archival documents in display cases.

Special Collections Open House, October 31, 1971. University Archives Photograph Collection box 2053.

Special Collections Open House, October 31, 1971. University Archives Photograph Collection Box 2053.

The second photo is a little more recent, the History Day event from 2001, where students came from area schools to get the behind-the-scenes tour of what goes on in Special Collections and learn how to do archival research.

Students examining documents from archival collection during the Special Collections History Day, February 22, 2001. University Archives Photograph Collection, box 2047

Students examining documents from archival collections during the Special Collections History Day, February 22, 2001. University Archives Photograph Collection Box 2047.

Wondering how to do archival research yourself? Please check out the new Archives Overview LibGuide created by our department’s Digital Archivist, Kim Anderson! It answers questions like, What are archives? How do I find archival collections? and, How do I care for my own archives?

As always, we would love to see you in our department. Stop by and see us!

Upcoming: You know you want to #AskAnArchivist

Information desk in Iowa State College library. Ida Robertson, cataloger, helps student look up reference in card file. Kathryn Renfro, cataloger, at information desk looks up some information in a reference book, 1945. University Archives Photograph Collection, box 2046.

Information desk in Iowa State College library, 1945. University Archives Photograph Collection, box 2046.

Have a burning archives question? Always wondered just what it is we do around here, anyway? Want to know how to do your own personal digital archiving or take care of those treasured family documents? Well, you’re in luck because #AskAnArchivist Day is just around the corner!

On October 1, the archivists here at Iowa State University Special Collections and University Archives will be joining our colleagues around the country on Twitter to answer your questions about any and all things archives. This day-long event, sponsored by the Society of American Archivists, will give you the opportunity to connect directly with archivists in your community—and around the country—to ask questions, get information, or just satisfy your curiosity.

To participate, just tweet a question and include the hashtag #AskAnArchivist in your tweet. If you want to reach us, include our Twitter handle (@ISU_Archives).

We hope to see you there! It’s going to be awesome!

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!

Special Collections bids farewell to Stephanie

Stephanie Bennett, ISU Project Archivist.

Stephanie Bennett, ISU Project Archivist.

Here is a special post to announce some exciting news.

A little over a year ago, Stephanie introduced herself and the two other project archivists to our readers. Now, Stephanie will be the first of us to leave ISU as she moves on to a new Collections Archivist position at Wake Forest University Special Collection and Archives. Congratulations, Stephanie!!!

Stephanie’s many contributions to the Special Collections department can be quantified in numerable ways—from processing almost 400 linear feet of archival collections, to greeting and assisting patrons over hundreds of hours at our public services desk, to composing more than 30 interesting and informative blog posts. But there are many other ways that Stephanie has contributed to the department over the last year-and-a-half that will be greatly missed: her quick wit, her enthusiasm, and her insights on all things archival.

Thanks for the laughs and for all the hard work, Stephanie! ISU will miss you *sniff*, but we know you will rock your next job!

Stephanie’s last day is tomorrow, so please join us in wishing Stephanie all the very best in her new endeavors in a warmer climate.

Celebrate American Archives Month

Special Collections staff hard at work, RS 25

Special Collections staff hard at work, date unknown, RS 25

Every October is American Archives Month – a time to celebrate the work of archivists and the physical and digital items that benefit from our care. There are as many ways to celebrate Archives Month (or #archivesmonth, on Twitter) as there are archival repositories. Larger archival institutions have a full range of activities to showcase their work. The National Archives and Records Administration profiles staff members and favorite items throughout the month on social media. Smithsonian Institute Archives covers its work through a number of virtual and in-person opportunities. Here at ISU Special Collections, we celebrate by working: accepting university records and donated materials relating to our collecting areas; working with donors; processing materials; answering questions from the wide variety of folks who enlist our help; educating students through tours and classroom talks; and providing access to our collections through our website and Reading Room.

The Society of American Archivists, our professional organization, is observing Archives Month, of course. The association president, Kathleen Roe, recently wrote a blog post and asked the question “Who have you met on your journey through archival records?” She posed her question in reference to people whom she met through the historical record – such as the faculty and staff, students, and alumni whose collections we hold.

Special Collections Open House

The Special Collections reading room and exhibit space in 1971, RS 25/3

But as I sit in the Reading Room with a researcher hard at work and one of our student workers making preservation reproductions, I think of the meaningful interactions and lessons that I learn from the living people that I interact with in and around the archives. For example:

  • Students of all ages, from middle school on up to retirees who are curious about something and have the time to pop in. And of course academic scholars from ISU as well as other institutions who seek the rare and unique information that we hold. Even the questions that they ask, about the archives or about their interests, teach me lessons about my work all the time!
  • Our student workers, who bring their perspectives and questions to work every week. It’s nice to hear what student life is like in 2014 when I’m used to fielding questions and handling materials that are often older than today’s students.
  • Donors who generously hand their memories, or their loved ones’ memories, over for care-taking. It is a privilege to assess a lifetime’s worth of accumulated materials and process them to allow others to benefit from all the knowledge within.
  • Colleagues who have fielded my questions, encouraged and mentored me, introduced me to other archives colleagues in their network, and so on and so forth through the six degrees of separation between me and Kevin Bacon. No, wait, between me and famed archivist Theodore Roosevelt Schellenberg.
  • Archivists of the wider world who I meet through graduate school, or at regional conferences, or at the SAA Annual Meeting – which was held with two other records-centric organizations this year. There is an unending supply of new people to meet, share stories with, and learn from.

Much appreciation goes out to all those who make our work as archivists possible – especially the archivists ourselves. You can celebrate American Archives Month by coming by to see our new exhibit on Homecoming, doing research, or checking out all the resources we have available through our [newly updated] website!

A New Staff Member in Special Collections

Hi! I’m Kim and I’m the newest member of the Special Collections team.

Kim standing amongst collections

Me with some of our collections

I started in August as a new Archivist. I’ll be serving as the archives lead on digital materials as well as doing general “archivist stuff.” It’s an exciting time – we’re preparing to get a formal digital records program established. It will take some time to get everything in place so keep an eye out in our blog to see the latest developments. Digital records (sometimes used interchangeably with “e-records,” “electronic records,” or “born-digital”) are things with archival value that are originally in some digital form – e.g. e-mail, databases, web sites, Word documents, etc. The Library of Congress has some tips on how to maintain your own digital records:

I’m a California transplant. I grew up in the Central Valley and foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. I’m personally familiar with agriculture and rural life – so I’m seeing some familiar sights around Central Iowa. My high school was surrounded by orchards and berry fields. When I was little we had goats, ducks, and chickens and I ordered my school clothes out of a Sears Catalog at the general store/post office in Coarsegold. My mom grew up in Lee County, Iowa where my grandpa had a farm and raised corn, soybeans, and hogs. Even though I’m a Californian I grew up hearing all about Iowa and now I live here! I recently inherited my aunt’s recipes – six recipe boxes crammed full of hand-written recipe cards many of which she collected from the Donnellson (Iowa) newspaper. So, I’m bringing a little bit of Iowa back to Iowa with me. (Speaking of which, did you know we have a fabulous Iowa cook book collection?)

I’ve been around archives and libraries for a while now. I got my first library job in 1995 as a student worker in a curriculum library at Northern Arizona University (NAU) but switched to NAU’s Special Collections and Archives (SCA) two years later. At SCA I got to do a little bit of everything – processing manuscript and photograph collections, conservation (and preservation work (phase boxes, rebacking books, and more!), exhibit design and construction, and working with people – learning from donors, assisting researchers, and supervising students and volunteers. I’ve mostly stayed in Special Collections or University Archives except for a few brief stints at law libraries and police records.

I earned my B.A. in Humanities (minor in Anthropology) from NAU and my MLIS from University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA). I love university life and campus histories and I’m happiest being part of the rhythm of college campuses. While at UCLA I worked as historical researcher for a book project on UCLA’s history and served as author of the history of the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library. I also worked in the UCLA University Archives. I completed my time at UCLA when I earned my doctorate in Information Studies in 2011. My dissertation “Appraisal Learning Networks: How University Archivists Learn to Appraise through Social Interaction” received the ALISE/Eugene Garfield Doctoral Dissertation award in 2013. I also spent six weeks in Australia last summer as a visiting scholar at Monash University and study abroad instructor learning about e-records and the Australian records continuum. My doctoral focus was archival studies and my sub-specialization was in the History of Science and Technology so working at the Special Collections at Iowa State is a perfect match for my interests!

Kim with Rosella

Me with a crimson rosella along the Great Ocean Road

For the past few years I’ve been serving as Archives Program Director and teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the archival studies area within the MLIS program. I’ve made the decision to return to practice and am very enthusiastic about the possibilities of this position. It’s a great team here. I hope you will visit us and see what we’re up to.

CyPix: Anniversaries

It is official – the three Project Archivists who arrived last summer will all be celebrating a one-year work anniversary at Special Collections in the next month or so. To celebrate the occasion, I give you a photo from this March 1948 luncheon celebrating the 90th anniversary of Iowa State College (University)’s founding. For more information on the 90th Anniversary collection, see its finding aid.

The University celebrates its 90th anniversary in 1948

The University celebrates its 90th anniversary in 1948  (RS 0/11/5, University Photographs Collection)

Our one-year anniversary is not quite as noteworthy as the University’s 90th; we will probably commemorate ours with high-fives. But we have been hard at work here and would like to share some of our accomplishments.

The Project Archivists’ primary duty is processing collections, which is to say, arranging, describing, and housing collections and creating finding aids and other outputs that allow people to find items in our collections more easily. In the past year, we have worked with 28 collections and have processed approximately 960 linear feet of materials. To imagine this more clearly: a banker’s box sized carton equals 1.3 linear feet. So we have handled roughly 740 cartons of materials this year. Whew!

When processing, we frequently rehouse materials to condense them or weed items that are present in duplicate or have minimal research value in order to free up space for new collections. So far, we have “found” 150 linear feet through processing; 115 record cartons can now fill that space. And more “found” room is on its way as we continue our work! Archivists get very excited about shelf space, so this is a coup for Special Collections.

Bennett, Bishop, Olthoff - the Project Archivists

Stephanie Bennett, Amy Bishop, and Whitney Olthoff in the Special Collections Reading Room


In addition to our processing duties, the Project Archivists have also published nearly 75 posts on this blog; tallied around 600 hours on the reference desk helping patrons; attended a Midwest Archives Conference meeting together; and presented at an ISU librarian meeting.

Now on to year two! Since we are acclimated to the administrative processes involved in our work and have become more conversant in Iowa State’s subject areas and institutional history, it promises to be another banner year. Watch this space for more posts about the wonders that our collections contain and the work we’re doing to make them more accessible to the university community, Iowa, and the world.

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…