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.


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