Lara Amrod 2016-03-14 16:01:22
Often when people hear that you’re an archivist, their response is one of confusion. They may picture an architect like Frank Lloyd Wright or an archaeologist like Indiana Jones. If the latter, then they look down to see if your fingers are caked with sand and dirt, or they look up, hoping to see that iconic fedora. In other words, archivists are a bit of an enigma—and sometimes so are the collections they manage. Not all archivists get to be in the field or physically processing collections. Many of us work tirelessly to ensure materials are accessible to the public, which often means being parked in front of a computer looking at code or scanning documents to prepare them for online use—no less frustrating than digging through mountains of rock, sand, and dirt, and finding nothing. The effects of our efforts to complete a finding aid or scanning a series of papers can get swallowed up in the vast amount of information online. Add to that the essential concept of “more product, less process,” and the depth of a specific collection can get lost. When Finding Aids Aren’t Helpful Sometimes it takes a dedicated researcher to gaze at a collection and pull out some small or large detail that changes how we view a specific topic or even an entire collection. Two years ago, the Freer Sackler Archives in Washington, D.C., had such a researcher. The researcher had become deeply embedded in our Myron Bement Smith Collection. Smith was a classical archaeologist, architect, and art historian from New York who had a lifelong devotion to West Asia, accumulating some 87,000 items documenting Islamic art and culture from Spain to India, with an emphasis on architecture. Some items, such as Félix Bonfils’ 1860s photographs of Palmyra, one of which is pictured above, have recently become invaluable because they are the only representations of these important sites. This researcher requested something from the finding aid and we went to retrieve it. Then something odd happened: We could not find the materials and we could not reconcile some of the materials in the researcher’s finding aid with our physical holdings for Smith. A few days later, we asked our volunteer who had been organizing the Smith collection for years and was most familiar with it. Though she remembered processing the materials, she could not find them either. Weeks later, while relocating some glass plate negatives, we discovered some papers under a set of shelving. We pulled them out and—Eureka!—we had found the “missing” Smith materials. The Excavation Process We then began combing through the Smith finding aid and the materials in the collection. We wanted to ensure that everything was accounted for down to the location of various photographs and maps. The process led to many discussions about how the collection was organized and where it needed to be changed and, in some cases, overhauled. It was a lengthy process that involved my boss, our hardworking volunteer and me, but eventually we got the Smith finding aid to a place where we felt it could be used and, more importantly, be useful to researchers. It was a steep learning curve and a valuable reminder that every collection is different and sometimes a collection is diverse within its own materials, purposes, and uses. Finding aids are not static tomes to be revered, but living documents that need care, attention, and periodic updating. The Right Finding Aid for the Right Time “More product, less process” is a valid and important workflow for archives, but the other end of that practice is knowing when and how to reevaluate collections, and to what level they are processed and organized. The digital age makes this kind of reevaluation and excavation even more invaluable because archivists never know what fields researchers will come from or from what angles they will approach a collection. Interested parties range from geologists to cartographers to ephemera enthusiasts—anyone, really. Sometimes decisions made in the first blush of a collection are absolutely right for the time, but, years later, need to be revisited and refined so that finding aids keep up with and reflect the times they are in along with evolving research interests.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://www.bluetoad.com/article/Excavating+a+Finding+Aid/2425106/293827/article.html.