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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Cleaning Up Freer’s Attic

Collections change over time. Collections often come from chaos. Archival collections are often a rushed boxing up after someone passes. The collector is no longer there to ask questions of. This inherently leads to questions. What was this ledger for? Who were these letters to? How did they want their art displayed?

Archivists, museum staff, and researchers grapple with these questions every day. It is often where interesting exhibits come from.

Head Archivist, David Hogge, puzzling out how to organize various photographs.
The Freer | Sackler Archives made the decision a year ago to overhaul the Charles Lang Freer Papers. Please click here for a link to his new and improved finding aid! Freer was the founder of our museum. Opened in 1923, it was the first topic-focused museum at the Smithsonian and its first art museum. Freer did not live to see his museum completed, but the museum did receive, on top of all of his art collection, his vast collection of papers.

Freer was a meticulous man when it came to his correspondence, his purchasing, and, well, everything. This has left a rich collection of papers for museum staff and researchers to use when studying a Freer art object or the man himself.

Not all paper is of equal size.

The finding aid (guide to any collection) for Freer’s papers, like so many other “legacy” archival collections, was created before modern archival standards were established. F|S Archives staff made the decision to overhaul the Freer papers after having many problems in recent years, both finding items for researchers and dealing with how to organize their digital surrogates. You must have a firm handle on the physical side of any archival collection before you can even contemplate digitizing it.

Working in an archives means using your hands and handling physical objects from paper to film canisters.
Physical collection? What is that you ask? It must be hard to imagine in this age of digital smorgasbord that there are still items in the world that are only available in the physical format. Well, a large part of what archivists do is make available in a digital environment what was once only sitting on a shelf in a box and only a few passionate researchers even tried to look for. Everything in an archives is unique, one a kind, the only one in the world.

Archivists are working hard around the world to make unique pieces of human history available and accessible to all, please see this great blog post about putting more of human history online. So
digitizing archival materials is crucial to both outreach (anyone in the world can look at the digital surrogates from the various Smithsonian Archives) and to the long term life of the materials. Paper lasts a long time, but it does not exist forever.

How does one organize a physical collection? How does one re-think it? A collection is always organized to preserve any original organization of the creator, in this case Freer. There are times where it becomes obvious there was no organization to begin with. This is often the main mystery that archivists struggle with on a daily basis: did so and so want these papers this way? Were these postcards meant to go together? Was this part of their research patterns? Their collecting patterns?

Organizing ones thoughts the old fashioned way, on paper.

When archivists make decisions about organization, we are not copy-pasting some files to a new folder in a computer drive. We are weeding through boxes and boxes of materials and attempting to form them into a unit of thought or creator's process. Think of it this way, what if you had to organize Bob Dylan’s writing process. There would be tons of paper or scraps of papers and you have to figure out if he had an order to begin with or was it all chaos? Is imposing some sort of order, potentially where none exists, harming the integrity of Dylan’s creative process or are you creating just enough access points so that a researcher writing the next bestselling Dylan biography can find what he/she needs to do their job?

Basically, does taking a mountain of paper and creating an access pathway (e.g. putting the materials in folders and boxes with labels), a way of thinking about them, looking at them, destroy intrinsically what they are?

The slow task of properly identifying and labeling boxes.  Lots of glue gets on your fingers.
There were many sections of Freer’s papers like this; piles of paper all next to one another and yet had nothing in common. F|S Archives Staff had to separate out these papers into neat pathways that would lead researchers to access points of useful information. For example, what now constitutes Series One in the Freer Papers, was once a few boxes that were just near one another. If you look at the finding aid now, you can see clear pathways/access points (e.g. Memberships and Honorary Awards, Freer Residences, Genealogical Materials, etc.). These pathways are called Series and Subseries in the archival world. Neat piles of paper that all have their own theme and purpose. This makes it much easier for researchers to find what they need; whether that is physically handling the materials or doing a Google word search. We have made these important documents that much more accessible to the citizens of the world.

This aspect of creating finding aids is the complex intellectual part. There are other aspects to cleaning up a collection that are much more hands on.

One of the biggest decisions the F|S Archives made was to completely re-number the boxes and materials in the Freer papers. This may seem like a small thing. Well, the Freer papers hold over 300 boxes and this would not just be re-numbering the boxes in a digital document (the Freer finding aid), it would entail physically pasting new labels on all of the over 300 boxes. You are probably thinking, why would you do that?!
A wall of a job of well done.
Well, most of the Freer papers are not digitized. The only way to track and monitor the small physical components of the collection is to have solid and accurate box numbers. In addition, the archives has to have strong control of the physical space our materials reside in. We have a space matrix documenting where the materials of all of our, over 100, collections are shelved.

So, yes, having accurate labels on the physical materials in an archive is essential. The long term goal – archives often have to think in the long term, collections are too large to allow for instantaneous work – is to enable much of Freer's papers to be digitized, so that more scholars around the world can examine his materials and learn more about Charles Lang Freer, his art collecting, and the art pieces themselves.

Lara Amrod, Archivist

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