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!


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.


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…