Turning a Roomful of Straw into Gold, or What Archivists Do
When I tell people what I do for a living—I’m an archivist—they inevitably reply something like, “Oh, you are an architect,” or, “Archeology sounds so interesting!” Once I even had someone ask me what I studied in order to become an “anarchist.” At these times I fall back on the old standbys, such as “I read old mail” or “I catalog manuscripts sort of the way librarians catalog books (or would, if they had to write the book first!).” Well, in many ways I’m part architect, part archaeologist, and even part anarchist. Processing an archival collection requires digging into the material, designing and building an organizational structure, and thinking “outside the box” of current historical trends to highlight the collection’s strengths and potential uses.
Currently, the VHS is almost half-way through an NHPRC-funded processing project to deal with our backlog of business records. (By the way, NHPRC stands for National Historical Publications and Records Commission.) These collections are often quite large, and can appear daunting. It is a little like being Rumpelstiltskin, locked in a room to spin straw into gold. Only in this case, you are creating order out of chaos. To ensure that fairy tale ending, we break the process down into a series of manageable tasks.
First, we look for existing order. Are the boxes labeled in any way to reflect how the records were kept? There is an archival principle that records should retain their original order, but what if there isn’t one? Often a collection has passed through many hands on its way from file cabinet to storage box to closet (attic, basement, garage, etc.) and finally to a repository. In all that moving around, any existing order has likely been lost. In these cases, the best way to start is to survey the entire collection, listing box and folder titles as they appear, and thereby getting some idea of the contents and date range of the collection. This allows you to identify groups of materials that can be pulled together to form series.
Having divided up the bulk of the collection, we next focus on those pesky “miscellaneous” materials. “Miscellaneous” is often the catchall series for anything judged too valuable to discard but for which context information is missing. It can take some effort to determine who or what created miscellaneous materials. These can include records of subsidiaries or of organizations in which company officials had a personal interest. Whether these subgroups become stand-alone series often depends on their size and completeness.
Once the order of the series is established, acidic folders are replaced, rusty metal fasteners are removed, newspaper clippings are photocopied, and in some cases the order of the materials within the folder is refined. Boxes are then labeled, folder lists are typed, and the descriptive elements are drafted for the finding aid. A finding aid is a guide to the collection, giving background information about the organization, describing the overall contents of the collection, illustrating the order of series, and describing any restrictions or special use instructions. Finding aids can be produced in paper format and/or published on a website. The more readily available and detailed the finding aid, the easier it is for researchers to locate the exact information they need.
So, processing is a process. It requires the ability to recognize types of documents, anticipate their research potential, and arrange and describe them to facilitate both intellectual and physical access. Unfortunately, as collections keep getting larger, and pressure to make them available more quickly grows, balancing adequate access with quick access makes turning a roomful of straw into gold look like child’s play.
Eileen Parris is the archivist at the Virginia Historical Society.