A Day in the Life of a Special Collections Archivist

Burt Altman, Certified Archivist

As this is American Archives Month, I feel compelled to share my long, active, and fascinating career as a Special Collections archivist and archival manager with those just starting out in the profession and students exploring archives work as a career. Here at Florida State University’s Division of Special Collections and Archives, I’ve had many opportunities to utilize my training and experience in a variety of situations. To give you an idea of what an archivist actually does in a special collections environment, here’s a description of what was an unusually active but rewarding day for me.

After sipping my morning coffee and checking voluminous emails from my professional associations, notably the Society of Florida Archivists (SFA), Society of American Archivists (SAA), and the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress (my specialization is political collections), I examined the progress of our graduate assistant (GA) who has been conscientiously arranging, describing, and preserving the collection of a renowned, retired Florida State University (FSU) faculty member whose papers he gave to Special Collections document his rich professional life as a researchers, instructor, and book collector. Our GA has performed her professional tasks well, and with my guidance, she’s learned how to research everything she needs to know about the faculty member/donor to write a biographical sketch and synopsis of the collection. Also I’ve found that the materials have been arranged in a manner that they can be clearly described to researchers and they’ve been placed in the proper archival containers for long-term preservation and use. Several items have been flagged for digitization because I know these items are frequently requested by our users.

By late morning, our GA has arrived, and after an hour’s orientation, I’ve trained her how to use Archon, our archival information system, to create a finding aid or descriptive guide to the faculty member’s collection. I know it will take her several days to complete this, but I have all the confidence that she can.

After returning from lunch, I check in with my GA to be sure that she’s on the right track with Archon or has any questions.  She’s well on her way, but no sooner do I return from lunch than I receive a call from our Music Library that they’ve discovered some mold on their books and have no idea how to treat this problem. So I don my preservation adviser’s hat and head out the door. When I arrive at the Music Library, their mold situation seems to be a fairly simple one, only affecting a few books, and there’s no need to call in any professional companies.  I suggested that the books be brought outside, the dried mold brushed off, the books put into the freezer for about a week at the Claude Pepper Library, and the shelves they lived on sprayed with Lysol. This seems to do the trick because the problem hasn’t re-occurred.

When I returned to my office in Special Collections, our GA pointed out some neatly-drawn over-sized plastic transparencies, supported by cardboard frames that could only fit on an overhead projector.  From my knowledge about the donor and his professional activities, it was evident that these were teaching materials he used in the classroom. I found this particularly interesting in light of today’s use of PowerPoint software, a computer, and a projector for presentations. While considered “low tech” for that time, it was clear to me and to potential researchers what purpose the instructor had in mind – notably to illustrate different European battlefield military strategies employed well over 200 years ago. We decided that since the transparencies were so large, it would be best to archivally store them in larger document boxes rather than the standard “Hollinger Box”.

I finished up the day revising and updating our archival processing training manual, because I found that a large portion of the collection we were arranging and describing could be processed using “More Product, Less Process” (MPLP) procedures.  They were contemporary papers, but a large portion of the collection was already in order and folders could be re-used.

By the time I was ready to leave at 5:00, I felt it had been a productive day in the life of a Special Collections archivist!

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