Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Introduction

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.

Processing

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.

Reflection

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.

Processing
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.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Week 4 (September 9)

This was a short week (only 2 hours) because I presented a paper, The Harbinger of White Supremacy: The Clarke Courier, 1869-1877, at the Graduate Association African-American History Conference in Memphis, Tennessee on Thursday, September 10th. In order to get to get to Memphis at a reasonable hour and get a good night’s sleep, I left Hattiesburg at 3pm on Wednesday.

Despite the limited amount of time spent in the archives this week, I think Wednesday was a turning point. Cindy and I decided to shift once again the nature of my processing. The end of last week’s blog notes my frustration with the pace of work. Between photographs, newspapers, and slides, and then writing everything down, each folder took an agonizing amount of time to complete. At that plodding rate, it just didn’t seem like I could possibly describe more than 5 or 6 boxes (roughly 20% of the collection). While this would be useful and well done, such an end result stunk from a personal satisfaction standpoint.

Cindy had a few observations. First, she noted that my minimal processing was actually somewhere between minimal and full. To expedite the work, Cindy suggested, I needed to engage in true minimal processing. She recommended that I process the whole collection first and, if after I was done and had extra time, then go back and refine the details. Cindy observed that a solid framework for the finding aid is important both for the researcher and potential processers in the future. This minimal processing at least allows the user to get a sense of each file folder, if not a more a more absolute assessment of its worth like my earlier processing might provide.

What does this mean? Well, now instead of recording every detail of each folder, I note only as much as is necessary to help the user determine the subject, the period of time, and the mediums enclosed. In this minimal processing, I do the most rudimentary of conservation, taking out staples and paper clips and straightening out folds. The biggest change is that in this new processing I stop labeling photographs, removing newsprint and moving the material of each manila folder into an archival folder.

The take-away point is this: Begin processing activities with a mind to DESCRIBE the collection. What is it, when is it, why is it important and so forth. Preliminary description allows later preservation, conservation, and organization to go quicker. It also makes it possible for the original archivist to leave the project with the confidence that a colleague can pick up where they left off without much trouble.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Week 3 (September 2 and September 3)

At the end of Week 2, I finished my first box! While this was a nice milestone, it also cast a rather ominous pit in my stomach. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to realize that if there are 32 boxes in a collection, and it takes me 2-3 weeks to process each box, I’d need about five more semesters to finish with the Mary Ann Wells Papers (not to mention having to write the finding aid). With the real potential that I might only actually process five or six more boxes, at the beginning of Week 3 I decided to switch my focus to Wells’s subject files. I think that these, more than the slides, negatives or photographs will be what scholars and researchers want the most when they access the collection. It is important that I remember that all my work is for naught if it doesn’t both preserve the Mary Ann Wells papers in perpetuity and improve user accessibility.

If I began working on the first box of the subject case files with hopeful optimism, by the end of Wednesday the collection bestowed upon me “enthusiastic dread.” On the one hand, I continue to enjoy my archives internship, so each day is unremittingly positive and I am ready to work hard. What Day 5 demonstrated to me is that even minimal processing is not necessarily quick and easy. I thought I could get through half the box this week, but only succeeded in processing 31 folders out of maybe 100 in the box.

Content - I knew before I started that each box of Mary Ann Wells’s subject case files contained a mix of negatives, photographs, newspapers, correspondence, and drafts. Until I got started, however, I had no idea what processing each of these mediums really meant and that, in some instances, it might take as much as 20+ minutes to process a folder.

1. Negatives – These are the most straightforward and take no time at all. For the finding aid I include how many pages and how many total images there are and whether the page holding them needs replacement in the future.

2. Photographs – I thought these would be pain-free and quick to process, but I was wrong. Last week Cindy reminded me that for each photograph that I found in the subject case files, I would need to enter it into a separate photo log. Not only did each item in the log need a title [M445-1, M445-2, etc.), but also a short description. This entry needed to be both in the finding aid and in pencil on the back of each photograph. I processed 23 photographs this week.

3. Newspapers - When Linda Matthews did her practicum this summer, the general practice with old newspapers was to photocopy the originals and then recycle them. Newspapers are highly acidic, so their preservation is not always feasible or cost-effective. However, as Cindy noted, because photojournalism in newspapers was Wells’s medium, we decided that it was important to save two copies of all oversize (legal size or above) newspaper articles. Processing newspapers was time consuming because I needed to copy the bibliographic information for each newspaper article into my notes and onto a folder marker.

4. Drafts – Mary Ann Wells typed many of her drafts on acidic continual feed paper. She also glued separate parts together. Where it was necessary, I photocopied the originals and then recycled them so.

I finished Week 3 with even more trepidation than when I began. I didn’t even fill one archival box with ten hours of work product and I was not even 1/3 of the way through the first subject case file. With this in mind, Cindy and I agreed to look next week at what I was doing and see if I needed to make a change in my processing for the remainder of the semester.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Week 2 (August 26 and August 27)

Original Order

The name of the game in week two was original order. At the end of week one, I came up with the following plan for the Mary Ann Wells papers:

Series I Correspondence and Work Product
1. Date - Move all files in the 3 accessions only identified by date here and order them chronologically.
2. Alphabetical – Move all files in the 3 accessions with a title into alphabetical order.
3. Combine all untitled and miscellaneous files.
Series II Oversized Materials
Series III Books and Research Notes

I was pretty confident that this would be the plan when I presented it to Cindy on Wednesday, the 26th of August. Here was something that would be intuitive for researchers, even if it wasn’t perfect. Why have folders in different boxes and series across the collection for different towns in Mississippi, when one subject alphabetical heading could be “Mississippi” with each town Wells mentioned in the state as a subfolder.

Cindy listened patiently as I explained my idea, even though inside she must have been doing somersaults. When I finished, her first question was something to the effect “What about original order?” She reminded me that my job was not to reinvent the wheel and completely dismantle the Mary Ann Wells Collection and build it back up however I thought it should look. How easily I’d forgotten, Cindy lightly reprimanded, that original order is one of the foundational principles in the archives profession. It is up the researcher, utilizing an excellent finding aid, to discern whether the order of documents in a collection mean something. Although my plan turned out to be abysmal, Cindy did an excellent job redirecting my energies. Instead of moving the physical files about, it was my job to do minimal processing and incorporate as much information as possible into the finding aid. She also reminded me not to over-think what I was doing. There were a couple of things working in my favor. The organization of the collection was already largely laid in place. Also, there wasn’t much time to fool around. At this point I still felt I could finish a majority of the collection, but to do so required sound decisions and efficiency every day.

The new plan:
Series I Assignment Case Files
Series II Slides
Series III Photographs
Series IV Negatives
Series V Oversize
Series VI Books (and book research)


This illustrates well where I was going wrong with the first draft. I wanted to integrate Series I-IV instead of acknowledging the power of a finding aid to sufficiently tie them all together.

Processing

Week two I processed 39 folders (2 boxes) of slides. This doesn’t seem like much progress for about 9 hours worth of work, but there were a number of mitigating factors that, at the time, I hoped wouldn’t repeat themselves in subsequent weeks.

1. Where to do the work. I prefer to work in the vault space sequestered away behind the unprocessed boxes. It is quiet and there is no clock, which helps me focus and makes the time fly by. The only problem with this is that I have to take handwritten notes on each folder I process and then transcribe it into the computer. This effectively cuts my processing time in half as I copy and edit my notes. For example, Day 4 processing ended at about 2pm because I need the next 3 hours to process the last box. I tried bringing my laptop in, but it does not have sufficient battery power to last five hours in the vault. I think that in the future I will transcribe the notes at home, but keep a log in case I run a little short with my internship hours for the semester.

2. One folder does not equal five minutes of work. I did not realize how time consuming processing would be. Perhaps I am too slow a writer, but copying the information longhand, assessing the preservation needs, and labeling the new archival folder took a long time. And, I kept making mistakes. I realized after about 20 folders that I was labeling each folder with the accession number, not the “M” number.

3. How true to Wells’s folder description and provenance should the archival folder and finding aid be? I think I asked Cindy about 100 different variations on each of these questions for the first 20 folders I processed. I wish I could tap her well of infinite patience, because I had a difficult time understanding how to deal with each contingency. I think that after my initial foibles, I lost my nerve to take a little initiative and be confident in my decision-making. The result was some serious micromanaging. On the other hand, I think the rapid-fire question and answer was helpful and I got a much better sense of what I was supposed to be doing.

4. I began with the slides (Series II) because I thought they’d be better for getting my feet wet than Series I. Unfortunately, it is all relative and I had just as many difficulties processing this first box of material. By starting with Series II, I soon realized I could not label the archival folders with any box number. I had to make a note to backtrack and add that information at the end of the internship. Wells also organized her slides by the serial number of the role developed. This created invariable headaches as I tried to decide just how to describe the available information.

A Little More Reflection on the First Week

I apologize for falling behind (it’s only Week 2!!!) and not establishing a regular schedule of blog posting.

There was more to the second day of my internship than looking at Mary Ann Wells’s case file and taking in the scope of the collection. It was also the day that I moved the collection from its place in the shelving to the processing desk. This may seem a pithy event in the grand scheme of the archival experience, but actually, upon reflection, it was a significant moment. Picking up each box conveyed a wealth of information. In my effort to be careful I came to appreciate the size of each box, its weigh, the texture of the cardboard, the physical space the collection took up on the processing table (I couldn’t even fit it all on the table), and even the strain on my muscles. Moving the boxes made the Mary Ann Wells Collection my project. It was easy to gloss over the size of the collection on day one when they were all on the shelves, but now I knew these were not mere labeled boxes on a box, but full to the brim. Without this transitional experience, I don’t think I would have had the right sense of urgency to get started. That said the second week really began in the waning moments of the first.

As you may recollect from last week’s posting, the most daunting part of officially selecting the Mary Ann Wells papers for me was just getting started. I took the first baby steps with about half an hour left on Day 2 (Thursday, August 20). After pondering the assembled boxes for a good 15 minutes, perplexed as to how I could combine 3, I opened the boxes to see the existing organization. There were two boxes of slides, 3 boxes of negatives, and 3 boxes of photographs (all ordered by subject alphabetically) in the first accession. Four oversize boxes contained a chronological record of all Wells’s photojournalism for the Hattiesburg American. There were also 6 boxes of her assignment case folders arranged alphabetically by subject.

For some reason, when I started thinking about how to organize the collection, I forgot original order completely. I think the reason for that is that I momentarily forgot that I was at an archive, not in my room organizing old schoolwork. As I wrapped my mind around trying to grasp just what it was I was dealing, I really thought hard about the most logical way, not the archival method, of organizing the collection. My idea was to integrate everything into the organization Wells created for the assignment case folders. The fact that Wells and the last archivist chose to organize the boxes alphabetically pretty much made the choice for me that my processing would follow suit. Despite the fact that the preexisting organization shouted out “I’m fine,” I could not get my head around what each series of the collection would be. My first thought was that the organization of each series of the collection would be by medium, but the fact that the assignment case folders contained a mix of negatives, photographs, newspapers, and documents tossed an intellectual wrench in that idea. Below is my first plan

Series I Correspondence and Work Product
1. Date - Move all files in the 3 accessions only identified by date here and order them chronologically.
2. Alphabetical – Move all files in the 3 accessions with a title into alphabetical order.
3. Combine all untitled and miscellaneous files.
Series II Oversized Materials
Series III Books and Research Notes

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Week One (August 19 and August 20)

Day 1

Though there is some advantage to reflecting on things as they happen, I think there is also value in digesting the experience and waiting a little while to put it in a better context. For example, now that I’m actually in the second week of my internship and doing some minimal processing of a collection, the idea of minimal processing is not as abstract as it was when all I had for reference was my textbook and preconceptions. What I’m trying to say is that perhaps my blogs for this practicum will not be raw like the stream of consciousness one might see in a journal, but hopefully a bit more measured, organized, and thoughtful.

The first day of the internship was like the first day in any new environment: lots of information, too many names, and decisions about the future that seem far too important to make with a just a few hours of experience under the belt. The internship began with a tour of the building, which mainly meant getting acquainted with the various professional spaces on the third and fourth floors. I am also doing an internship for Dr. Kyriakoudes at the Center for Oral History this semester, so I have a decent grasp of that area in the bowels of McCain. Professor Ross introduced me to all the staff members and then returned me Cindy to go over the basic rules and procedures of the institution. I spent an hour reading through the manual to reinforce some of the basic principles. I wish I could say I have the guide down pat, but that is never completely the case, so I’m happy that Cindy made me a copy to refer to when I’m in a pinch.

The concluding activity of day one was to select the collection I wanted to process for the semester. Cindy gave me the case files of 4 collections of personal papers and 2 collections that required transcription. I love transcribing old journals and letters because it is challenging and you get to read the contents at the same time. However, I’ve had some experience doing this, so I decided, all else being equal, that my internship would be best spent working on physically processing a collection. Cindy did an excellent job selecting a variety of potential projects, allowing me the option to work on either the papers of a musician, educator, photo-journalist, or family business. I looked at the case files for each one of these subjects and decided that it was the collection of the photo-journalist, Mary Ann Wells, which best suited my interests. With a mix of slides, negatives, photographs, correspondence and newspapers, this was a collection that could provide me with the greatest range of processing and maintain my interest for an entire semester.

Day 2

At the end of day one, I selected the Mary Ann Wells collection to process. Consequently, I spent my second afternoon at the Archives trying to figure out just what I’d gotten myself into. I began by reviewing the case file again. I think (purely speculative) that an archivist, almost like a character actor in Hollywood, can do their best work when they immerse themselves in the details of their subject. I’ll qualify this by saying the archivist, also like the actor, must keep the rules and the objectives of the project foremost in their mind – it just helps to have an idea of with whom or what you must deal. The case file on Mary Ann Wells was definitely not a complete biography, but it did help me begin to get a sense of the woman that I used as I began processing and which I plan to borrow from as I write the finding aid biography.

I think it takes a unique type of person to recognize the body of their work as having an innate value worthy of preservation. Mary Ann Wells’ three gifts to the Archives speak to the importance of her photojournalism and Wells’ dedication to its preservation. One testament of the esteem with which people in Hattiesburg held Wells is evident in an 8 January 1991 letter, where University archivist Terry S. Latour wrote Roger Brinegar that "[Wells’s] articles and photographs provide us with many insights into the culture and history of Southern Mississippi. In particular, her features for the Hattiesburg American highlighted people, often not widely known, who contributed significantly to making the area culturally unique." This was a woman who not only had the pulse of the community in the palm of her hand between 1977 and 1981, but had the foresight and vision to save these records and donate them to the archive almost a decade after the fact. Afforded accolades and acknowledgements by many others, I hope to capture my own glimmer of Mary Ann Wells as I process her collection.

This collection will be a challenge. The most difficult aspect of day two was mapping the scope of the collection and then deciding where to go from there. Wells’s three accessions (1990, 1990, 1997) totaled 32 boxes. On the plus side, the collection was already roughly alphabetical organized by Wells and a previous archivist by medium (there were separate boxes and folders for slides, negatives and prints). However, where to go from there? I was unsure just how much minimal processing entailed. Would I have to identify each slide and photograph individually? Could I change the original order to integrate the three accessions together? I like to complete projects, but at this juncture I also started to realize that perhaps I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I finished day two pondering befuddled, but not disheartened. One of my favorite clich├ęs is that everyone starts somewhere. The first few weeks will be two steps forward, one back, but eventually everything will work itself out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How I Got Here

I graduated from William & Mary in May 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in history. In October of that year I got a break and landed a position as assistant registrar for a small historical trust in Berryville, Virginia. I worked full-time for The Clermont Charitable Trust until April 2007, processing their collection of objects for storage in an off-site storage facility. It really was a wonderful opportunity and helped me develop an acute sense of the precision and patience necessary to describe, photograph, and ultimately build a collection profile from the ground up. These six months demonstrated to both the executive director and ultimately me that I could work a 40 hour week without supervision and minimal direction, setting goals for myself and taking initiative where prudent. Starting in May 2007 I split my time between Clermont and The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (www.shenandoahmuseum.com) in Winchester, Virginia. I think it was the experiences in these last 18 months that set me on my course to Southern Miss.

Beginning in the fall of 2007, both the executive directors of The Clermont Trust and the Museum because to inquire of me if I was thinking about graduate school. I was through a year at Clermont and four months at the MSV and they thought it was time I start considering longer term professional development. This made sense. The history business, like academia, is an education-driven field where people without master’s or doctorate degrees can only rise so far. I took their point that I should aspire to something greater, push myself, and better control my own destiny. Even though deep down I knew graduate school was necessary, at that point I don’t think I was ready to go. I finally had some friends, set up my apartment and was comfortable in my first bachelor pad. It was only a chance meeting with Dr. Douglas Chambers of the USM History Department that really got the graduate school wheels spinning.

Doctor Chambers came to Clermont that fall to consult the executive director on how to start a community oral history project. The Clermont estate has an intriguing architectural and family history surrounding it, so when Dr. Chambers came to the property before his meeting, I gave him a brief tour. I remember that he peppered me with questions, to the point that I somewhat sheepishly felt like I was doing a poor job as the registrar of the trust (I was promoted in April 2007). Still, we established a good rapport and I didn’t think much of the encounter after he left. Well, the boss must have talked to Dr. Chambers about his efforts to convince me to consider graduate school and given me one hell of a recommendation because not a week or so later the professor first floated the idea of me coming to Southern Miss as the graduate assistant for The Southern Quarterly.

I was shocked, but also cautious. What did I want and was Southern Miss the right choice? Experience at Clermont and the Museum meant I could potentially enter master’s programs in historic preservation, museum management, history, archives, and library science, to name a few. I was also concerned, justly or not, about the pedigree of Southern Miss. This turned out to be less of an issue when I really considered what was really important to me, but in the beginning, not having heard of Southern Miss and coming from a top-notch Virginia school, I was more than a little dubious of this opportunity thrust into my lap.

Though the decision to come to Southern Miss was mine, luckily I had my supervisors at Clermont and the Museum to put things in the right perspective. One reminded me that graduate school would only be two years of my life and not only hone my resume and skill sets, but help me further mature and come into my own. He noted that a master’s degree was not an anchor into one profession, but rather proof to employers of a certain proficiency and competence that I could apply in any number of fields. The executive director at the Museum helped me figure out what type of master’s degree I wanted. She asked me a simple question: “What do you enjoy about your responsibilities at Clermont and the Museum?” It took a while to flesh out an answer, but eventually I was able to pronounce that I enjoyed working with archival materials. I have some experience handling artwork, furniture, and other objects, but realized that I could never completely appreciate the beauty of a Monet or the woodworking craftsmanship that distinguishes a Queen Anne chair from its Chippendale counterpart. However, whether it was transcribing 18th century letters for the Museum or processing and researching Clermont’s collection of photographs, I found books and manuscripts more interesting. Each (individually or as a collection) has a story and often a unique narrative.

This helped tremendously. From the beginning, I knew that I wanted a master’s degree that would give me options when I got out of school. I am a generalist and would rather know a little about a lot of things than everything about one subject. Now I had a little more direction. Museum-specific graduate programs were too narrow; especially when I wasn’t 100% museums were where I wanted to be long-term. The combined History/Library Science degree at Southern Miss, in contrast, satisfied my parameters. LIS classes would provide the library training to be qualified for a job in an archive or library while the history degree would accomplish the same if I ever decided to teach high school or go back into the museum business.

One thing remained. I already knew that I could assimilate into the organizational culture of a museum. What about an archive? It seemed a misnomer to state that I was in graduate school to become an archivist when I had no professional work experience to justify my interest. The archives practicum this fall provides that missing piece of the puzzle. I really hope it works out and I am looking forward to a positive experience. I expect the internship to be a useful litmus test as I weigh job opportunities in the spring and decide what post-graduate path I want to follow.