Through the Eyes of a Collection

American Archives Month is when archivists often take the time to tell the public what it is we do all day and why they should care. However, we’ve never much talked about how it must be for the collections themselves. Here’s a collection-level view of what an archivist does when new materials arrive.

When I arrived in the Special Collections & Archives Division at Florida State University, I was a real mess. Parts in cardboard boxes, others in plastic bags; I heard the folks who brought me in say more than once that it was hard to tell which end was which. Since then I’ve discovered that it isn’t always the same with other new arrivals.

Some show up completely tidy and ready to help people find the answers to their most pressing questions. Not so with me. I started life out in the College of Communications at Florida State University in 1972 in the office of a young professor named Thomas Hoffer. I wasn’t much at first, but as the years kept piling up, as is the tendency with things, I grew. Exams, course syllabi, professional correspondence and some non-important bits like old blank warehouse club membership applications were just a few of the things that came to represent me after the thirty years I was with Professor Hoffer. Being quite substantial at this point and with the Professor retiring, I needed a place to go. After getting boxed, and bagged up, I was taken to a storage facility not far from the university.

Many archival collections arrive in need of physical processing to ensure preservation.
Many archival collections arrive in need of physical processing to ensure preservation.

Settling into my new home wasn’t too bad once I got over being constantly lifted up and put down again, though I must say it was a little warmer than I was used to. After a few years had passed, it was decided that I would be donated to the Special Collections & Archives at Florida State University and I became acquainted with some folks that called themselves archivists. That’s when things got interesting. At first they made some initial visits to my storage space to go through my contents, making notes and doing a lot of talking about how much of me there was.

After several of these visits, instead of bringing note pads and pencils with them, the archivists showed up with hand trucks, push carts and a van which they used to bring me back to the university. It was a little confusing at first and I’d wondered if there had been a mistake, but eventually, piece by piece I was moved from my storage room back to campus. To be specific, I was moved to an archives.

My skepticism started to fade when the archivists and student workers began to remove my essential parts from the musky boxes and plastic bags, and started putting me into fresh new folders and boxes that, by the looks of them, were made specifically for archives. According to the folks who were shifting me around, these new folders and boxes would help in keeping me around for a good while longer. As all of this was going on, all of the non-important bits that I mentioned earlier, like the blank forms and random accumulations such as a bit of reptile skin were removed and disposed of. After about a year and half of this celebrity treatment, my “physical processing,” as the archivists called it, was finished and I found myself in a new home on the shelves of the Claude Pepper Library.

Fully processed, the Thomas Hoffer Papers are ready to aid patrons in their quest for knowledge.
Fully processed, the Thomas Hoffer Papers are ready to aid patrons in their quest for knowledge.

Since then an electronic finding aid, which as I have gathered, is like a road map for my makeup and contents, has been put online by the good archivists and can be found on the FSU Special Collections & Archives homepage (the internet wasn’t around when I got my start, but I highly recommend it!). The finding aid helps researchers like yourself find what you’d need quickly and easily like Dr. Hoffer’s work with his film indexing project or classes he taught on documentary film making. I hope you’ve enjoyed my story and will come visit the Florida State University Libraries Division of Special Collections & Archives to see what our collections are made of. Whether it’s for a project or personal enrichment, I guarantee you’ll find something interesting to learn about and enjoy.

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