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Monday, October 8, 2012

Processing the Unprocessable: The William C. Sturtevant Papers

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

The National Anthropological Archives recently acquired the papers of William C.Sturtevant (1926-2007), preeminent North American ethnologist best known for his contributions to Seminole ethnology, as curator of North American Ethnology in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, and for his work as the general editor of the Handbook of North American Indians

Sturtevant’s interest in Native American culture began at an early age; 
note the Northwest Coast art above his childhood bed.

In 1965, Sturtevant became curator of North American Ethnology, a position he held for the next forty-two years. During his tenure at NMNH Sturtevant oversaw all the North American ethnology collections, planned exhibitions, served on committees, and sponsored interns and fellows. Additionally, he participated actively in the field of anthropology; he was a member of several professional associations; served as a consultant for exhibits, grants, and publications; gave talks and lectures around the world; and researched extensively. Because he was so prolific, Sturtevant’s papers contained an incredible amount of material. Sturtevant was the type of person to write everything down and save all of it. Every notebook, receipt, postcard, envelope, letter, email, draft, flyer, brochure, meeting minutes, and article was kept. Processing his papers was neither a simple nor straightforward task.

Sturtevant’s papers were processed by two of the NAA’s contractors, Christy Fic and Jeanine Nault. This is their story.

Jeanine’s Story
I am not an archivist by training; my educational background is in Museum Studies, though I do have experience in libraries and archives. Nevertheless, I was anxious about processing an archival collection. I began processing the Sturtevant papers in September 2011; it was my second processing job. My first processing job I was merely a student assistant where I had very little input into the description and arrangement of the collection. It was basically a series of two simple tasks: re-labeling folders and entering data into a database.

Sturtevant has been a different story. With some basic instructions to start, I was basically given “free reign” (with dutiful oversight by my supervisor and a processing manual in tow) to proceed as I saw fit. When I began, I was given instructions to re-house the material to start; it was easy at first, the material was in folders, labeled, and made some sense. Then it started to make less and less sense—large cardboard boxes with papers without folders, illegibly labeled folders, oversized accordion folders just labeled “Southeast” or “Still useful” with no other discernible information. It became harder and harder to divide the materials into the appropriate, pre-determined series.  But at the same time, I became more and more familiar with the collection. I began to understand the idiosyncrasies of Sturtevant; I knew acronyms (HNAI was the Handbook of North American Indians) and initials (HCC was Harold C. Conklin, a colleague at Yale) as well as projects and publications (“Morgan” was a project on the research and collection of Lewis Henry Morgan at the Rochester Museum; “Salamander” referred to a consulting project with Salamander Publishing).  This familiarity made the “hard stuff” (loose papers, unlabeled folders) much easier to work through.  But even familiarity was not helpful with folders titled “Misc. around 7 & the phone.” Seven what? Which phone? Tackling such an extensive collection started to overwhelm me; was I in over my head?

And then I wasn’t alone. A fellow contract processing archivist (with a reputation for speed and accuracy) was assigned to help me with the Sturtevant papers. The addition of Christy to the Sturtevant journey was a lifesaver for me. Having a partner formally trained in the art of archiving gave the project new life. We were able to ask each other questions, and our individual talents provided for a helpful mix; Christy had all the answers about the correct way to do things, which gave me confidence to work more efficiently. I had a head start on getting acquainted with the collection, so I knew more contextually. Being able to collaborate (and commiserate) made the impossible task seem possible. 

Sturtevant at his desk, 1980. Which of these piles may have originally been “Misc. around 7 & the phone”?

Christy’s Story
Of all the collections I’ve processed, none have been as challenging as the William C. Sturtevant papers. The first time our supervisor showed me the eight large storage cabinets where 200 boxes of the collection were temporarily stored, I said, “These are all Sturtevant?” and she replied, “Yes, and there are 50 more boxes and his map drawers at the museum.” This was going to take awhile. Nine months to be exact.

After recovering from the sight of all those boxes, I began to survey the contents of the collection. The materials in the first 90 record boxes I opened, for the most part, accurately reflected the notes Sturtevant had written on the side of each box. By the time I got to those last 50 boxes from the museum I had ventured into unknown territory—large cardboard boxes with labels like “Miscellaneous etc” that hadn’t been touched since Sturtevant put them in storage in the 1980s. I spent weeks opening these mystery boxes, looking at each piece of paper to decide which series it belonged in. Part of me felt like this went against all of my archival training, but it was the only option. Opening each box was almost like opening one of Andy Warhol’s time capsules. There were photos under memos from the Handbook office, beneath drafts of a lecture, next to Seminole field notes, maybe a botanical specimen wrapped in newspaper or an envelope filled with what used to be beef jerky. Ah, the process of discovery.

The best part about this project was working with Jeanine! I’ve never processed a collection with a partner before, but it was a great experience. Processing can be a lonely endeavor, so it was nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of and be able to compare notes. Between the two of us we were able to solve most conundrums, but when true mystery items appeared, we were fortunate to be able to consult Jason Jackson, one of Sturtevant’s colleagues, who spent a week this summer conducting research in the NAA. Having worked closely with Sturtevant on the Handbook, he was very knowledgeable about Sturtevant’s different projects and was able to help us fill in gaps we weren’t able to fill in on our own. Jason even told us that the state of Bill’s papers had got him thinking he should go home and organize his own filing system (every archivist’s dream come true).

Moving the Sturtevant boxes for the final time, into the cabinets where they will hopefully spend the rest of their days, took us a day and a half. Two people, two book carts, 25 boxes at a time. In the end, all that was left to do was write the finding aid. All 550 pages of it. See the catalog record here.

But with painstaking attention to detail, teamwork, collaboration, as well as some hand wringing, head banging, and shouts of “Whyyyyy?!” we have fully processed the enormous, multimedia archival collection of one of the most productive and scrupulous curators in the Department of Anthropology. 482 manuscript boxes, 4 record boxes, 42 card file boxes, 85 oversize folders, 9 rolled items, 18 binder boxes, 3 oversize boxes , and over 10,000 legal sized folders later….we present to you, the completed Sturtevant papers!

Jeanine (left) and Christy with an oversized portrait of Sturtevant

Christy Fic and Jeanine Nault
National Anthropological Archives


  1. Christy and Jeanine:
    I thoroughly enjoyed your description of the daunting task of processing my father's papers! I can certainly visualize the office and all the files and am so glad two people with such attention to detail took on the work. I'm beginning to recognize, as I age and move through life, that I - in some part - have inherited his tendency to save/file everything...may have to reconsider that! (love the part about the beef jerky!).

  2. What an amazing amount of work it was. You two must be feeling a great sense of accomplishment, now that it is complete. Congratulations!