This post celebrates the Society of American Archivist’s Archive Month. As it is also Information Literacy Month, if you haven’t checked out my posts on Information Literacy from when this blog began, please do! They are “Modern Reference = Information Literacy” and “Why We Need Information Literacy“. Finally, last week was Open Access Week; I didn’t mention it in the last post as to not deter from the topic. If you haven’t heard of the Open Access movement, it is an effort to make knowledge freely available online for “use and re-use” by having authors help pay for publication costs. I hope to address in a future post.
When processing or working intimately with an archival collection, the archivist doing to job becomes a valuable tool in the collection. They can become a finding aid.
For those of you who do not process or conduct research with collections, a finding aid is a tool to understanding what an archival collection holds. A typical aid includes the collection name and size, a historical sketch of the contents, a scope and content note, a folder list, and index terms. From this, a researcher should be able to determine if a collection may have items they need to examine. For those who work at the archive, the collection and folder numbers tell them where to locate a needed item on the shelf.
The collection’s processing archivist or transcriber also becomes a finding aid of sorts. Why? They have to read through the whole collection to gather the knowledge to create the written finding aid and it’s index terms. That archivist will be the one who can best determine if something may exist that is not listed on the written aid. That archivist will be the one who is best capable of recognizing a particular handwriting or the subject of an unknown photograph in the collection. They also learn to recognize the patterns in letters, whether it be tone or content, to determine which person included in the collection wrote an unsigned letter.
Looking back at the collections I have worked with, I know this is the case for me. With the Rawlings-Cornine Family Papers at The State Historical Society of Missouri (SHS), I processed the 1980-2008 correspondence (the collection’s correspondence began in the 1900s) and the entire photograph sub-collection. I was able to easily determine which letters were written by Elizabeth Cornine based on her writing. After a couple dozen photos, I could pick out Owen Rawlings and Vesta Morton Rawlings without referring to notes on the back of the photos or the donor’s index of the photos. This was why I was picked to conduct the preliminary inventory for the collection. For another example, I am transcribing the Woods-Holman Family Papers, 1805-1906 from SHS for Southeast Missouri State University’s Special Collection and Archives’ Confluence and Crossroads: The Civil War in the American Heartland digitization project*. I have learned to recognize the letters of Justina Woods not only by her distinctive handwriting, but also by her gossipy content. She always focuses on providing news about her family and their neighbors.
And this familiarity doesn’t apply to just manuscript collections (or records)**. It also proves true with oral history collections. With SHS’s USS Schley Oral History Project, Records, 1997-1998, I read the transcriptions and listened to the recordings. While I only listened to each recording once, after multiple readings of the included transcriptions, I was able to determine who was whom in the recordings based on the transcriptions. For example, Joe Kenton frequently discussed his role as an officer and its struggles. Martin Unger focused a great deal on the specifics of his post in the Schely‘s boiler room, including it’s unyielding heat; his descriptions were so vivid that I felt I completely understood him. Unger’s descriptions also helped me to understand my own father’s role as an engineering division officer in a carrier boiler room during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Through Ray Bohnenkamp’s descriptions of the carpentry work it took to keep the ship repaired and his time stationed at Guadalcanal, I could gain an insider’s perspective to one of the most well-known Pacific battles. This type of intimate understanding of a collection could only come from processing it, transcribing it, or using it for research since the processes requires many readings or listenings of the interviews. Not even conducting the interviews would have led to such an understanding as the focus is on obtaining original historical content.
Keep in mind, it is not just with archival collections that a person can have this familiarity. A librarian who works with a small collection (small public or school library), works with a specific sub-collection (academic subject specialist or a special collections librarian), or has been their library for a very long time will know their collections very well. The librarian might not even need the catalog to locate a title or know which book on a subject best fits a patrons’ needs. Likewise, a reader of a series will get to know the characters and be able to predict what the characters may or may not do and/or become very familiar with the books’ setting(s). The same goes for historians, as they specialize in knowing everything they can about a specific historical period for a specific location or can serve as an individual’s biographer.
Anytime someone conducts detailed work with a collection, they become a source of knowledge for that collection. Through this role, they can serve as a “human finding aid” to help others.
Have you ever experienced this level of familiarity with a collection? If so, how did it feel? Were you able to use the knowledge to help others?
*The Confluence and Crossroads project is expected to be completed in July, 2013. New content is regularly added. The collection I am transcribing is not yet available.
**Keep in mind that in archives manuscript collections refer to personal or family papers while records collections refer to documents from a business or organization.
On a separate note, you may have noticed some changes to the blog template since my last post. I’ve finally decided to give Twitter a try as myself (I’ve tweeted in the past as one of many for @MULibraries and @MizzouLISGSA). My handle is @amycnickless. Follow along if you like; I’m posting interesting and relevant articles that fit with the blog’s theme and tags/categories.