You may know what archives are and what an archivist is, in an abstract sense. But what are they, exactly? Archives can exist in a business, organization, nonprofit, federal, state, or municipal government, a university, historical society, museum, or for just a single individual. Archives contain the documents created by and relating to these entities which have enduring value. They can be used by researchers in creating histories, genealogists documenting their family trees, people needing practical information such as where exactly their property line is, are they entitled to certain benefits, the location of miners trapped in a collapsed tunnel, or an understanding of our present with that ever important connection to the past.
Archivists do a variety of tasks in a variety of settings. They work with researchers – helping them find what they need. They digitize materials for broader access. They describe the collections in a catalog or database and create guides for using collections called finding aids. They create exhibits (physical or online), write histories, consult with organizations and individuals about how to care for their records, find new collections, and make sure all the collections are properly stored and preserved.
Most of my archival career thus far has been spent processing collections. Processing is basically preparing the collections for many of those other activities listed above, but broadly speaking, preparing the collections for use. Sometimes collections come to the archives nicely ordered – documents in folders, appropriately labeled, no major preservation issues (mold, insects, etc). Other times, everything is more of a mess – papers tossed in a box in no discernible order. Most collections fall somewhere in between. Working with donors ahead of time helps to ensure more orderly collections coming in, but that is not always possible.
When I process a collection, I start by conducting a survey or inventory where I record in a spreadsheet the contents of each box. Of course this is easier when folders are appropriately labeled. Then I take my spreadsheet of folder headings and determine how I need to sort the material. Every collection is a little different, but often, most of the records will lend themselves to arrangement related to specific subject areas or document types (correspondence, meeting minutes, reports, etc.). I determine the order and then physically arrange to the extent necessary. It helps to have knowledge of the subjects related to the collection, and often some research is involved.
While I’m going through the records, I’m also looking for things I can eliminate from the collection. Space is always at a premium in archives, and extraneous material slows down researchers. It takes careful consideration – I certainly would not want to remove a document that could help someone one day.
I’m also looking for a number of other things. I have developed some pet peeves with record keepers:
Overstuffed folders. They can become unwieldy and curve the papers. Also, there are little creases on the bottom edge of most folders, which enable them to accommodate more and keep the papers in good condition.
Rubber bands. As they age, they start to look like shriveled worms, and they leave stains on the documents.
Binder clips. They take up too much space, mostly because they are rarely the appropriate size for the documents they are binding.
Tape. Also does not age well. Sometimes the adhesive turns to a powdery dust that flies in the air upon removal, which the poor archivist inhales. Other times, it leaves a sticky residue and/or stain.
Not everything does or should end up in an archives, but avoiding these practices can help keep records in good condition during their lifecycle and beyond!