Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Reflective writing is always interesting because it forces me to confront how quickly life passes by. If I don’t keep up, one day becomes two, then a week, and in the wink of an eye, a month. Thank goodness that this blog factors into the grading of my internship and forces me to record my thoughts on the experience at somewhat regular intervals (The alternative, otherwise, would be bleak. I still hope to write in my study abroad journal about trips to Kakadu National Park and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, but those were in June 2005 and the pages remain untouched). It is therefore, with surprise and not a little apprehension at the speedy passage of time, that I pick up the metaphoric quill and compose a final entry to this blog.


I wish I could report an astounding breakthrough within the past few months, but the reality is far less exciting. Week 13 (Nov. 11-12), I began pulling the newspapers folded up in the Series III folders and crosschecking them with the inventory of newspapers in Series I (Boxes 1-4). The goal was to remove duplicates and consolidate the number of boxes in Series III. I created a table to cross-reference the entire collection that listed all the newspapers along the left margin and put each Series in a column across the top. This table will be helpful when it is complete because an archivist interested in a particular newspaper article can instantaneously identify the location of related materials in each series. For the purposes of this micro-project, I used the cross-reference table to tell me where and how many copies of each newspaper article there were in the collection. With each newspaper in Series III, I followed this process:

If 2 copies in Series I, than DISCARD (note in table, marker sheet in the Series III folder)

If 1 copy in Series I, than retain ONE copy in Box 7 (note in table, marker sheet in the Series III folder)

If 0 copies in Series I, than retain TWO copies in Box 7 (note in table, marker sheet in the Series III folder)

The results (as noted in Blog #12) were surprising. There was not a second copy for most of the newspapers in Series I and Wells overlooked including at least 30 or 40 of her articles. I made approximately 210 marker sheets and completely filled Box 7 with newspapers. The net result of this work was to cut the size of the series down by three archival boxes. Unfortunately, this was incredibly time consuming, taking nearly the entire month of November (minus Week 15 – Thanksgiving) to accomplish.
It is only now, at the very end, which I return to minimally processing. Today I finished Series IV, the Slides. I am ambitiously hoping to finish minimally processing Series V, the Negatives, and start on Series VI, the Photographs over the course of my final day. This will be the absolute bare bones minimal processing, listing just the title of the folders. Although Series IV, V, and VI need a lot of work, the important thing is that at least something about their contents be accessible to researchers. Depending on my progress tomorrow, I might also swing in for a few hours on Friday to reach a satisfactory ending point.

Collection Status

Series INewspapers - (Boxes 1-4) - Processed and incorporated into the cross-referencing table.

Series IIOversize Photographs - (Boxes 5-6) - Processed and incorporated into the cross-referencing table.

Series IIISubject Files - (Boxes 7-22) - About 50% Processed. This Series is incorporated into the cross-referencing table, but the next archivist still needs to replace and label each of the folders with its archival equivalent, photocopy and remove all acidic materials.

Series IVSlides - (Boxes 23-29) - About 25% Processed. Compared to Series III, this one is smaller and lower maintenance, so minimal processing accomplished a lot more. The next archivist needs to more completely describe the contents of each folder in the finding aid, replace and label each of the folders with its archival equivalent, replace old slide sleeves, and incorporate the Series into the cross-referencing table. There are also a number of slides in the 2 boxes labeled “Slides and Negatives” that still require processing.

Series VNegatives (Boxes 29 - ??) - About 25% Processed. The next archivist needs to describe the contents of each folder in the finding aid, replace old negative sleeves, and incorporate the Series into the cross-referencing table. There are a number of negatives in the 2 boxes labeled “Slides and Negatives” that still require processing. Avoid replacing and labeling each of the folders with its archival equivalent until completion of the adjustments to Series IV.

Series VI - Photographs - About 10% Processed. The photographs are labor intensive. Minimal processing does very little to help the next archivist. They must describe the contents of each folder in the finding aid, add each photograph to the photograph log, write the number and short title of the photograph on its verso, and incorporate the Series into the cross-referencing table. Avoid replacing and labeling each of the folders with its archival equivalent until completion of the adjustments to Series IV and V.

Series VIILater Accessions – 0% Processed. Series I-VI is from accessions AM 90-50 and AM 90-52. I did not get to AM 97-57, AM 98-9, or AM 08-14. These include more newspapers, photographs, slides and negatives, as well as all her books and their associated the research materials.

Photograph Log – Minimally processed 321 photographs and contact sheets from Series I-III. The next archivist must complete the description of each photograph in the log.


It may be trite to repeat the same old platitudes that this experience was fulfilling and that I learned a lot, but such was the case. I came to graduate school with the ambition of becoming an archivist, even though I really didn’t know what duties the profession entailed. Everyday archival work, for most archivists, does not entail handling priceless correspondence between John and Abigail Adams, Robert E. Lee and his generals, or other notable historical persons. The reality, comparatively, is much more mundane. One thing I discovered this semester, however, is that mundane does not equal boring. To the archivist’s mind, which I think I have, every collection has a little magic. There is the joy of discovery; learning the intricacies about times, places, events, and people that were once relevant. I think I take a special delight in this aspect as a new social historian. This also might explain why the photojournalism of Mary Ann Wells enmeshed my imagination. Like her, I revel in the stories and experiences of everyday people. While it was nice to read features on Nicaragua and the Iranian Revolution, Wells’ profiles of Southern Mississippians in her “americans” column really struck a chord. Here were the eccentrics, the artists and bourgeois. Wells contrasted the sage recollections of elders with the raw optimism and hope of immigrants and young people. These vignettes, snippets of life in South Mississippi circa 1900-1980, were the gems I looked forward to processing everyday.

Thank you.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Weeks 12, 13 (November 4, 5, 6, 11, 12)

Get to know me and you realize I have a penchant for sticking my foot in my mouth with bold predictions and actions. About a month ago (Week 8) I brazenly wrote: “I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to revise my goals and aim to minimally process the whole collection by semester’s end.” Now, five weeks further along, I’ve learned a couple of immutable lessons:

1. Processing is Unpredictable - Processing is like the weather in the sense that beyond a week (and often even less) the future is unpredictable. Like a meteorologist, I forecast sun for October and November and came away with an overcast sky. This is not to imply that the experience has not been a positive one. Rather, I use the metaphor of clouds to allude to the fact that despite my best intentions, unexpected complications and details slowed me down far short of the once lofty goal. I can state with far greater certainty today (with six processing days left) that I will not finish even minimal processing of the Mary Ann Wells Papers.

2. Every Archivist has Their Own Style – I don’t have to look far to identify where I tripped up between early October and right now. Minimal processing is an accepted technique for processing archival collections, but it is not for me. This may not make me the best future archivist, but I think the realization is an important one nevertheless.

I finished Series III (Subject Files) the week I wrote the ill-considered words mentioned above. Had I followed the minimal processing procedure, perhaps I’d feel differently and consider the sentence prophetic. Right now I’d be somewhere nearer completion, having worked my way through the photographic and negative files and be getting ready to process the slides.

Instead, I invested the last six weeks entirely in full processing of the oversize newspapers in Series I (October) and in further processing Series III (November). This time was not ill-spent and may well be invaluable to users, but it does not reflect well on my processing method. I think what inhibits my ability to minimally process is that I hate repeated effort. I don’t think the newspapers would be much use without full processing. Caption and article titles (when there is one) often don’t reflect the anything about the content of the subject. Furthermore, not only are the newspapers important to the users, but their cumbersome size and acidity makes them a headache that I wouldn’t want anyone else to endure. I cannot bear the idea of minimally process the Mary Ann Wells Papers, labeling 40-50 boxes physically and electronically, and then leaving it to someone else to have to re-label everything when they go back and pull 4-5 archival boxes worth of folded newspapers from the Series III folders and process them into an oversize box.

3. Incomplete can still be Invaluable - I’ve been doing this the last two weeks (and for at least another week) and it is incredibly complicated. So far, I’ve pulled newspapers from 96 Series III folders, and in the process added 146 photographs or series of contact sheets to the Photographic Index. To track the shifting locations of the newspapers and make sure to keep the archival standard of two copies, I maintain four Microsoft Word documents concurrently to keep everything straight. I use my finding aid to pull the right files from the boxes. The master list shows how many copies I’ve already processed and whether I need to save the pulled newspapers (and deposit them in Box 7, Folder 1) or discard them. There is also a document of marker sheet templates and a list of the newspapers in Box 7, Folder 1. So far I’ve weeded out one box and expect to do two or three more before it is all said and done. I think that another archivist would be hard-pressed to undertake this process were they to start cold.

All told, there is still so much work to do even on the more fully processed Series III. The newspapers and photographs will be in good shape, but there are still 547 file folders in Series III that need to be moved to archival folders, have the remaining acidic materials removed from them, and relabeled. There are also hundreds of photographs that need more description beyond a number.

Note on Weekend Hours: I spent 10.50 hours entering information into the computer from August and September. When I first started on Series III, I made all my notes longhand, including listing the contents of the first 309 folders.

Note on Scope: Right now the finding aid is approximately 75 pages (portrait) and the master list is 50 pages (landscape). I expect the finding aid to continue to expand as I add more information.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Weeks 10, 11 (October 21, 22, 28, 29)

This post combines two weeks because week 10 was just a continuation of the work began on the oversize newspaper archives at the beginning of the month. I spent the majority of time working on Box 1, Miscellaneous Newspapers and Magazines, 1977-1983. This box consisted of eleven folders with stories and photographs from the The Petal Journal, MFC News, Grit, The Winners BNC, The Weekend Review (Hattiesburg American), The Union Appeal, The Clarion-Ledger, The Richton Dispatch, and The Pearl Press. October 21st I processed 79 entries (folders 1 and 2) and the following day, 85 more (folders 3 through half of 8). The next week, I finished the Miscellaneous Folder on Wednesday, processing 72 entries from folders 8 through 10. One insight I collected from processing this box was how Wells enjoyed writing profiles of Southern Mississippians. For some reason, after processing the Hattiesburg American and seeing her feature “americans,” I didn’t think I would see any more biographical sketches. Instead, Wells continued to excel with character profiles between 1981 and 1983 in The Union Appeal and The Richton Dispatch. If anything, these articles are better than her previous work for the Hattiesburg American because the newspapers featured the stories weekly and focused on a much tighter geographical region and demographic (the memories and stories of senior citizens). For a researcher interested in the early 20th century history (1900-1945) of either Perry (Richton) or Union Counties, these pieces should be considered essential reading.

October 29th was probably my most productive day so far in the internship. It is a great feeling when you can take an idea, conceptualize it, and then bring it to life. For some reason, everything today went as planned when I finished up on Wednesday. I was able to work with a sense of urgency, and did not make any mistakes. The results were:

1. Series Reorganization –
Series I – Newspapers
Series II – Oversize Photos
Series III - Subjects
Series IV - Negatives
Series V - Slides
Series VI – Photos
Series VII – Books

Cindy made a great comment today about how odd it is during processing about how often series organization comes full circle. At various points through this internship, the first series was negatives, subjects, and now newspapers. This time, however, I am confident that this is the final organization. I knew subconsciously all month that it was the newspapers that tied together all the rest of the series, but it was not until today that it became clear.

What got everything in motion was hard thinking about minimal processing. When a future archivist finishes processing this collection, they will replace all the acidic materials that I’m currently leaving in the boxes. This should slim down the number of boxes, and create a relabeling headache. As I thought about what a pain this would, the light bulb went off in my head. The contents of the oversize boxes are not going to change and they contain the most important materials. The newspapers are my Series I and the oversize photographs my Series II.

2. Finding Aid Clarity – It is really easy to lose perspective when you become so intertwined in the details of a project. Minimal processing of the subject files was great. It was quick and efficient and I think the finding aid reflected that. Starting the newspapers, however, was like opening Pandora’s Box. Not only did I start to fully process these four boxes, but I realized that are the fabric which ties the whole collection together. Articles from the newspaper index have corresponding negatives, slides, photographs and drafts from all the other series. Before I started Series I, all this information was a just a jumble. I minimally processed and that was it. Now, although it’s still a jumble, I recognize all the connections. For instance, articles that Wells published in the Hattiesburg American (Box 1, Folder 1) she often republished in the Union Appeal (Box 4, Folder 8). These are connections that would be beneficial for a researcher to know. What I couldn’t get my hands around was a way to make all these links in organized fashion. I found as I worked on the different boxes that I was merging the boxes and folders of my finding aid together into a master table. It occurred to me that I could not just keep adding columns to the newspaper indexes to show more and more connections to materials in other series. Not only would it be too complex, but there was not enough space on a webpage to hold all the information.

3. Finding Aid and Archivist Master Table – To fix this, today I decided to create two tables—one for the finding aid and one as a reference guide to the archivist. First I copied the finding aid into a new Word document. Then I simplified the finding aid, deleting a few columns of information that I thought was better placed in the master table for the archivist. Let me be clear that I don’t expect to finish the archivist’s master table. This will be a working document that the next processor can use to keep making connections between series. The one weakness of this table is its lack of redundancy. Because the matrix is chronological and not subject-organized, a user must have a ballpark date to use it to maximum potential.

4. An unintended consequence of reorganization was that I was able to more or less finish processing boxes 1-4 of Series I. Everything is correctly labeled and re-shelved. To complete this series, I just need to process Box 5, which will contain second copies of newspaper articles pulled from the subject files (Series III). To keep things straight, I also relabeled all of Series III to adjust for the series shift.

4. To top it all off, I also processed 54 oversize photos and almost finished Box 6 from Series II (Oversized Photos).

It was a good day.

Week 9 (October 14, 15)

Let me preface this blog entry with a description of the tables I created last week to process the newspapers in the oversize boxes of the Mary Ann Wells Papers. To reiterate the importance of Series V, in its original order the series is a chronological newspaper collection of nearly every article and photo Wells published between 1977 and 1983. At their current level or organization, they are in the four oversize boxes listed below.

Box 1 (11 Folders) - Miscellaneous Newspapers and Magazines, 1977-1983
Box 2 (1 Folder) - Hattiesburg American, October 20, 1977 – December 30, 1979
Box 3 – (1 Folder) - Hattiesburg American, January 6, 1980 – September 27, 1981
Box 4 – (2 Folders) - Newspaper Layouts

The table for each box had the following fields:
Date: Date of publication.
Title: When Wells has a photo-feature or picture accompanying an article by a separate writer, this column lists the caption title (if there is one) in brackets. If Wells wrote the article and did the photography, then I listed the article title here.
Page: The page and newspaper section.
Subject: This is the field that was the most time consuming. Titles, especially captions, are often a deceiving play on words that would not help a researcher figure out what an article is really about. Although the goal was minimal processing, with Series V I decided that a subject field would be invaluable and was therefore worth the delay, even if it meant that I couldn’t finish minimal processing of the whole collection as I so optimistically stated last week. The subject field will be the best way for a researcher to make connections between the newspaper articles in Series V and the other series mediums (slides, negatives, photographs, subject files).
Article - Mary Ann Wells: The author of the article is Mary Ann Wells.
Article - Other: The author accompanying a Mary Ann Wells photograph is another staff writer.
Photograph - Mary Ann Wells: A photograph taken by Mary Ann Wells
(I include all the articles and photographs that appear on one page, front and back, for each row.)
First Copy: Box and folder location of the first newspaper copy.
Second Copy: Box and folder location of the second newspaper copy.

Last week, I processed Box 2 (263 entries) and a little more than half of Box 3 (140 entries). This week was more of the same. October 14th I processed 80 separate articles and photographs and on October 15th I finished Box 3 (28 entries) in short order. With more than 4 hours left in the day, I went to work on the newspaper layouts in Box 4 (51 entries). Folder 1 consisted of amazing newspaper-page glossy prints of photo- and photojournalistic-features Wells’ composed for the Hattiesburg American. I added a column to the table above to reflect articles from Oversize Boxes 2 and 3 which have a layout copy. Folder 2 provides insights into the copy-editing process. There is one oversize photograph of a young woman that has layers of negative transparencies which filter different aspects of the image. The folder also has a large page that helped Wells figure out how to crop one of her photo-features. This was a productive week and I got a lot accomplished.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Week 8 (Oct. 7, 8 and 9)

This was a significant week because I began work on another series of the Mary Ann Wells Papers. On Wednesday, I finished up the six boxes of subject case files constituting Series I. This was a tremendous confidence boost because when I was not minimally processing at the beginning of the semester, finishing just these six boxes were my ambition for the whole internship. With this accomplished, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to revise my goals and aim to minimally process the whole collection by semester’s end. Series II, III, and IV are already in temporary archival folders and labeled, and therefore, besides entering the folder titles into my finding aid, more or less already minimally processed.

The process of completing Series I got the gears in my head turning for my next step. As I worked on Wednesday, it occurred to me that a fair percentage of the subject case files were newspaper articles. I estimate that their bulked added at least 3 to 4 boxes to the first series (remember I am minimally processing, so there are not marker sheets for the newspapers yet). I realized it would be a wasted effort to proceed with the labeling of archival boxes for Series II, III and IV when someday, in the future; the next archivist would insert markers and photocopies and have to renumber the entire collection to offset the sudden availability of space at the front end of Mary Ann Wells’ papers.

The solution, I decided, was to tackle her chronological archives of photographs and articles published in the Hattiesburg American and other newspapers. These were in four oversize boxes and looked to contain hundreds of pages of newspaper. The reason to tackle this set of documents, which I will from hereto forth call Series V, was that I realized a complete inventory of the newspapers could kill two birds with one stone.

1. A list of all of all Mary Ann Wells’ published photojournalistic endeavors was a rare opportunity for me to get to know the subject of my finding aid. Compiling this inventory would give me a sense of her as a journalist and a writer. Over the course of this week I found recurring exposes on small South Mississippi towns and a column written about all the interesting people that call Southern Mississippi their home. Wells was really interested in the hardships of everyday people. Repeatedly she wrote exposes on education, the arts, and the impacts of flooding on Hattiesburg. As often, however, her photojournalism showed a softer side, whether it be a mother and a daughter out for a walk at Lake Sehoy or kids at Hattiesburg parks playing. Wells also sought to connect Hattiesburg to greater international events. She succeeded particularly with an award-winning feature on Nicaragua and her interviews with Iranian-Americans following the Islamic Revolution. In summary, even scanning this list will show a research Wells’ diverse interests and professional excellence.

2. One of my tasks on the back burner is to create indexes for oversize newspapers and photographs I’ve already pulled from Series I. I think Series V can double for the newspaper index. It is chronological and I would guess about 98% complete. The archival standard for duplicates is two and Series V mostly consists of a single copy. I think all I need to do for the time being is add a column to the right of the table I created for Series V denoting the location of a second copy.

I understood that indexing hundreds of newspaper articles was going to be a tedious task. This was the perfect week I figured, however, to get started. It took me the rest of Wednesday to fiddle with how I wanted the Series V table to look and what I wanted it to include. The first two boxes I tackled were the most intense because they contained her archive of publications from 4 years of daily work with the Hattiesburg American. It took me approximately 10 hours to finish 1978 and 1979 (all of Thursday and the first 3 hours of Friday). I got started on the second box from the Hattiesburg American Friday and finished about half.

Looking forward, I am excited that Series V is going so well. There is a lot of grunt work in the near future, but tracing the chronology is great. I recognize a lot of the articles from the subject case files of Series I and know that I can take the collection one step further along than I thought was possible even a few weeks ago.

(This was the week of Fall Break and presented me with the opportunity to catch up a little. With full days on Thursday and Friday, I made up 10 hours of time, effectively covering my conference trip to Memphis September 9th and the sum of quarter hours missed here and there.)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Week 6 & 7 (Sep. 23, Sep. 24, Sep. 30, Oct. 1)

I decided to combine these two weeks because the experiences in each were similar and I didn’t think I could write enough in separate blog entries without sounding repetitive.

The biggest problem I encountered during weeks 6 and 7 were the shredding negative pages. Usually negatives are the easiest to process because all I need to record is the title, the date, and whether they’re color or plain. These, however, are a gift from the archives devil. Not only do they bog you down (and I can’t remember the manufacturer – it’s on the tip of my tongue), but the shredding negative pages literally disintegrate in your hands. The pages remind me of packing peanuts because they have that same static electricity connection that means once a little piece is on your hand, it is a pain in the butt to remove. I probably replaced more than 50-75 negative pages with new pages, taking the slides out from one and into the other, all the while trying not to make a mess. A fair number of pages also appear to be secreting something that makes slides stick to the page, but I decided that this was not an issue I would concern myself with right now.

The other big development during this time frame was that I switched back to direct computer imputation of the information for Week 7. There are a couple of reasons for this.

1. The longhand information records during Weeks 3-5 is still not in my draft finding aid on the computer. As Week 7 began, the weight of this backlog and being a couple of weeks behind in the blog started to hit me. I decided that I needed to use the computer again otherwise I might continue to put the work off until the hole was too big to recover from. Three weeks of information is manageable and I can input all that over this weekend.

2. The computer is faster. I am an immeasurably slow writer. Once I knew there was a plug near my processing station, it was just a matter of bringing my laptop to school. Microsoft Word is legible and I can save my work with the program. Also, just the act of typing up folder records helped me visualize how I want the finding aid to look.

Sept. 23 – 3 new boxes, 108 file folders
Sept. 34 – 2 new boxes, 58 file folders*
Sept. 30 – 3 new boxes, 54 file folders*
Oct. 1 – 3 new boxes, 96 file folders
*The influence on processing of the disintegrating folders

One final note is that none of the box assignments for the folders is permanent. There is a lot of folded up newspaper articles in the archival boxes. The next processer will replace all these with either photocopies or inserts directing the researcher to the newspaper’s location in an oversize box. I think this process will reduce the volume in the legal-size archival boxes by at least a box, if not two.

Week 5 (September 16 and September 17)

Wednesday was another short day, but everything worked out great. I finally finished processing the first box for Series 1 of the Mary Ann Wells papers. It took much longer than I expected, but as I’m beginning to realize, that is just how archival work is. I started this internship with the ambitious intention to process the entire collection. While I would still like to accomplish this goal, I now have an appreciation for just what “processing” really entails. At the rate I was going for Weeks 1-4, I would need the spring semester to finish this group of accessions completely. Even with minimal processing, I’m not confident I’ll be able to get the finding aid and the collection as meticulously organized as I like.

Another concern that Wednesday brought into focus was whether I was working enough to finish the internship within the allotted time. Short days the first week, an absence for the history conference in Memphis, today, and the 10 hours for Thanksgiving (plus whatever else comes up) and I’m down a significant 20-25 hours. I plan to take care of this deficit with three strategies:

1. I did all my work for Weeks three through six in longhand with pencil and paper. When I was medium processing, it was too disruptive to be going back and forth to the computer. Also, I didn’t realize until this week that there was an accessible plug in the archival room. Cindy agreed that I can use the time spent transcribing my notes into the computer against the time that I owe for the internship. I also think that as the due date for the finding aid approaches, I am going to be spending a good chunk of time writing the biography and standardizing the series/folder listing.

2. I am supposed to be getting a key for the Oral History Center. Once I get this, I’ll have the ability to work after-hours and on the weekends. The key will also give me the flexibility to change my hours up if I anticipate a shortfall at the archives and perhaps work an extra day or two at the end of the month.

3. I plan to come in for 3-5 hours on the Friday of Fall Break. This should balance out some of my half-days and give me a sustained 12-15 hours in the archives for Week 8.

Between about an hour on Wednesday and five hours on Thursday, I got a lot accomplished minimally processing this week. After plodding through 42 folders in about two and a half days, it was nice to feel (even if it was fleeting) that I made a little bit of progress. Wednesday, I processed 34 folders into Box 2 of Series 1. Thursday I worked through 70 folders and filled Boxes 3 and 4 of Series 1. The majority of folders in Boxes 2-4 contained negatives, which helps to explain how the average number of files in each box could be about 35 and why the day seemed to fly right by. I didn’t have any problems or questions (a great respite for Cindy). I did encounter my first signs of pestilence (long dead baby cockroaches), but sweeping them into the trash proved not to be a problem.

Thursday was an encouraging day. While minimal processing means someone else will probably have to finish off what I started (log photographs and oversize materials, do all the labeling of folders), the real prospect of getting through a significant portion of the collection is a nice feeling. Also, having a day where I did have to ask Cindy 100 questions was nice because it suggests that I’m starting to get my sea legs (confidence) to make small executive decisions about how to process the Mary Ann Wells Papers.