Monday, May 31, 2010

Caution - House (storage) smaller than it appears: Challenges of Closet Archives

For public historians, the strangest things come in handy at times – the perfect map, that mini-voice recorder absentmindedly left in a bag. I personally have found myself giving thanks for tetanus vaccinations the last few weeks. As Katharine Thompson and I have worked to archive papers from Kiplin Hall’s board of trustees, we have removed hundreds of staples, rust falling off and coating our fingers at times. Though a tedious part of the conservation process, it is a vital one which serves to emphasize several of the challenges small institutions face in keeping and maintaining archives.

The typical image of an archive, popularized by documentary films, is that of a large library of identical boxes, each containing stacks of papers perfectly organized in color-coded folders. For small institutions, the reality can be much less glamorous: a few shelves in a back room or closet, an assortment of boxes with carefully hand-labeled manila folders. This is the case at Kiplin Hall, where a tiny bathroom has been renovated and filled with shelves. The challenges of preserving objects in historic houses, where climate control is difficult at best, are similar for fragile sheets of paper. We’ve removed rusted staples from documents produced as recently as 2002, proving that air, humidity, and metal can work destructive wonders on paper. Keeping archival storage areas cool, dry and dark is perhaps their most important physical component, so the decision of curator Dawn Webster to locate archival boxes in what is essentially an interior closet does accomplish this.

In an ideal archive, each large topic (known as a series) and sub-topic (subseries) has its own box, with ample shelf space available to add future boxes in each series. In small institutions like Kiplin, storage concerns simply do not make this feasible; space is at a premium, and no inch can afford to be ignored. Consequently, many different subseries are often located within one box, which is then carefully labeled and stacked on a shelf in spacing so tight boxes might be frequently shuffled. Placing so many different sets of papers so closely together has made me doubly conscious of organizing these records logically and coherently. Finding aids (comparable to a table of contents for each collection) will help future researchers and curators find what they need, but physical arrangement of the documents will also provide important clues.

One additional challenge seldom encountered by large museums and archives is the mixing of active and dead records. Just as individuals choose to keep their most recent and relevant business documents close at hand, museum staff in large institutions often have enough office space or on-site storage to keep significant files on several years’ worth of activity. Records might not be pronounced “dead” until several decades after their creation, at which time they can be integrated into an archive using the established archival system. But in smaller institutions, any documents dealing with matters that are more than a few years old may be removed from offices to make room for new material, with the understanding that this information might need to be quickly found again.

This is the case at Kiplin, where the board’s secretary occasionally drops by to consult his archived papers, rendering this a semi-active collection. This led past USC students to partially base their archiving system on the secretary’s active-filing scheme, including meticulously recording each archived folder’s relation to the old active file. Katharine and I chose to continue this pattern, and several of our conversations have centered on how to make these new documents accessible to someone who has previously used them yet manageable to future staff or researchers who may have little familiarity with the collection.

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