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.

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