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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Learning patience, one box at a time

Examples of crumbling carbon paper and newspaper clippings:
 just some of the problematic materials that can slow down the
processing of a collection
When I first started my work in January 2009 at the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections here at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, I was a semester away from getting my masters at the Information School at the University of Maryland. I was ecstatic about working at the Center; as someone who decided to pursue a career as an archivist in order to have a hand in the sharing of people's stories, I still get giddy when I think about all the individuals whose words, voices, and images line the stacks.

In addition to being ecstatic, I was idealistic. I was assigned to process the Moses and Frances Asch Collection, one of the most important in our stacks, and man, I felt AWESOME. This was going to be exciting! The things I would get to touch (with white gloves, of course)!  The correspondence I would get to snoop around in! The photos I would discover! Being an archivist was going to be JUST LIKE THE MOVIES!

But as the weeks went by, it became clear that I was completely and utterly overwhelmed. Masters, shmasters--nothing in library school could have prepared me for the odyssey that lay ahead. The boxes I would have to go through seemed to multiply like the lidless Tupperware containers in my kitchen. Paper was crumbling at an alarming rate. I would find materials with no discernible context stuffed in folders with completely unrelated items. Not being psychic, had no idea where they belonged. Sometimes there  would be a lead, and I'd follow it until it took me somewhere that made sense. Other times, into the miscellaneous box it would go.

Just as often, however, I would find treasures. Letters and signed first editions from Langston Hughes, typewriter artwork by Harry Smith, photographs of 1960s Kentucky by Jim Garland, impassioned folk music manifestos by Moe Asch. Months passed, and I finally started to see my progress. Beautifully arranged boxes began to emerge out of the chaos. I was getting somewhere. Slowly but surely, I made my way through the collection, folder by folder, box by box.

Little boxes, all the same: Part of the Moses and
Frances Asch Collection, now manageable for
our beloved researchers
I was able to continue my work as a processing archivist starting in August 2009, and even after more than a year of working on the same collection, I'm still learning how to be okay with chipping away at the collection, despite not having an easy way to measure my progress. The historical importance of the Moses and Frances Asch Collection and its record of being heavily used, combined with the fact that it "looked like someone emptied everything in Moe's office out of an airplane" (this astute observation was provided by our head archivist, Jeff Place), has made it necessary to approach the materials with care and concentration. Being satisfied with a slow job well done will be a constant battle for me, but knowing that there are long-unanswered questions already being illuminated by my work thus far is extremely gratifying. I became an archivist to help tell people's stories, and there's nothing like wading through them like molasses to help me see the many hundreds of them, slowly drifting right through my white-gloved hands.

For more on how archival processing works, see Jennifer O'Neal's earlier post on "The Art of Processing an Archival Collection."

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