All posts by Burt Altman

My Career as a Special Collections Archivist


Now on the verge of retirement from Florida State University Libraries after 34 years, and as my contribution to Archives Month, I’d like to reflect on my work experience as an archivist in the Division of Special Collections and Archives. I wanted to share with you not only the unique aspects of my professional career but also describe some of the most interesting collections I’ve processed, my observations on how the field has evolved, and how I’d like to transfer these experiences and skills into my retirement. I am hoping that for my fellow FSU library colleagues and students wishing to enter the archives field that my narrative will provide an insight into not only how diversified archival work can be, but also how projects can be accomplished with limited resources, and how professional practices in archives have changed over time.


Because the better part of my tenure at FSU Libraries was serving as the archivist of the Claude Pepper Library, most of this story will be devoted to that work.  I arrived in Special Collections in 1981 and was originally hired as the congressional archivist to arrange, describe, and make accessible the Claude Pepper Papers.  Because of the enormous size of the collection, the Papers were housed in a separate room in Strozier Library, and I was fortunate to have a library para-professional and two student assistants to process the collection. The first 900 boxes of the collection originally arrived in 1979, but a library para-professional with little or no archival experience began to arrange the collection. Unfortunately, a portion of the collection had to be reprocessed and it took another ten years to acquire additional materials and to make it accessible.  By that time, the collection and its staff had moved to at least three different locations in Strozier.  Furthermore, in preparation for the opening of the Claude Pepper Library (originally the Mildred and Claude Pepper Library, as a tribute to the Congressman’s late wife) portions of the collection were stored in the old Post Office on Woodward Avenue and the old Dodd Hall Reading Room (now the Florida Heritage Museum) while Dodd Hall was being renovated. I moved into the new Pepper Library facilities at the Claude Pepper Center in 1997.

It was exciting to finally be in a permanent location.  I found my work at the Pepper Library most enjoyable and satisfying.  The collection was fascinating, too. Congressman Pepper served over 40 years combined in the U.S. Senate and House, and his papers truly document all the major events of the 20th Century.  I originally met Congressman Pepper and his staff several times when we were planning the original Pepper Library in Dodd Hall, and continued to work with them at the Pepper Center and with the architect who designed and built the adjoining Claude Pepper Museum.

In my earlier years working at Dodd Hall, I joined the Society of American Archivists’ (SAA) Congressional Papers Roundtable, an association that continues to this day.  Through my contacts in the early 2000s, I learned that several congressional archives were beginning to digitize their collections. After I visited some of these institutions, and fortunately with the support of the Claude Pepper Foundation and FSU Libraries, John Nemmers, my archivist colleague at Pepper, and I proposed and implemented a digitization project. Over a period of three years (2001-2003), we and several student assistants selected materials to be scanned and made available on our new Claude Pepper website. We also prepared metadata for discovery of the materials and monitored search traffic to the website on a monthly basis. To publicize the project, we also wrote an article for the American Archivist; it served as a case study about how the value of digitization projects and how online finding aids can increase the use of archival collections.

Unfortunately, because Microsoft no longer provided server support for the software client we used for digitization and access, we had to discontinue our project. About that time, the FSU Libraries developed a long-range vision to create a repository of Florida political papers, not just congressional papers but those of Florida governors and senators as well. Subsequently, we began to acquire other papers of Florida statesmen, notably the Reubin Askew Papers, and transferred other Florida political papers from Special Collections & Archives housed in Strozier.  In addition, during the early 2000s, the FSU Libraries began developing a disaster preparedness program and created a “disaster plan working group;” I served as its preservation officer.  It was a monumental task, but our preservation “team” representing all FSU Libraries contributed to the development of the plan.  It has periodically been updated since that time.

Up until the time I began processing this collection, my archival experience had been limited to arranging and describing a collection of 18th Century deeds and other land records between settlers and Indian tribes in Long Island. Before I came to FSU, I lived in Long Island and worked at a local historical society. Once I arrived here, since I was the only archivist in the FSU Libraries (known in professional circles as a “lone archivist”), I had to reach out for help to the staff at the State Archives of Florida and begin attending SAA workshops to gain experience. This really paid off when it came time to reprocess and to add more materials.  However, since the concept of “More Product, Less Process” (MPLP) for archival materials hadn’t caught on yet in the 1980s, processing work was more time-intensive because staff had been removing all the original staples from attached documents and were counting all the documents in every folder! Because I was an archival “greenhorn” when I first arrived, I continued this practice but learned from my professional peers that these kinds of tasks weren’t absolutely necessary when working with large congressional papers. So the practice stopped. And by the time MPLP came to light in the early 2000s, we no longer arranged and described these large collections down to the individual document level. Furthermore, as long as the temperature and humidity were fairly stable, we no longer saw the need to remove every staple, either.


Because there was a growing need to reduce the backlog of archives and manuscripts that were gathering in Special Collections & Archives, and since additional archivists could not be hired to process university and non-university collections due to limited resources, priorities changed and I was transferred to Strozier in 2006 as the sole Special Collections archivist.  Since that time, and with the help of a student assistant, intern, and a graduate assistant, we eliminated this backlog. I supervised the students, interns, and a graduate assistant and it was great experience, because they were fascinated by the work and I enjoyed teaching and training them in archival practices for a variety of individual, family, and organizational collections.


To describe these collections through archival finding aids, many of which were created in HTML, the Digital Library Center’s digital archivist created a template to encode the finding aid using the Encoded Archival Description (EAD) standard, and content was entered in the template from older finding aids and new collections with the text editor NoteTab.  After some initial training, the staff created finding aids, through NoteTab, to all of their archives and manuscript holdings (including the Shaw Collection). To present the finding aid on the web, the Digital Library Center exported the EAD content through a stylesheet using DigiTool.  I soon learned that it was not a practical tool for creating archival finding aids. There were too many false and irrelevant search results and it was not clear where in the particular collection searched the content could be found.

As more and more Special Collections repositories began using Archon, a platform for archival description and access, Special Collections & Archives decided that Archon provided a more user-friendly way for archival staff to record descriptive information about collections and digital objects and for end-users to view, search, and browse this content through the web.

However, it soon became evident that since finding aids existed in a variety of formats (Paper, HTML, DigiTool, Archon), it was difficult to discover what we really owned. Therefore, shortly after these backlogged collections were processed, I found myself part of a team headed by our Associate Dean of Special Collections, and consisting of the digital archivist, three professionals, and our library associate.   We became engaged in a major project to locate missing collections, classify collections properly as to whether they were university or non-university materials, and consolidate smaller collections into parent collections, since they were all part of one collection. Fortunately, we have now assessed what needs to be done and are in the process of parceling out projects to complete one major goal: enable discovery of our archives and manuscripts through one venue: Archon.


As manuscript archivist, I processed quite an interesting variety of collections.  These ranged from Antebellum Civil War Plantation Records, to Florida Railroad Company records, diaries, turpentine industry records, shipbuilding company records, FSU faculty papers, and church records.  Two in particular stand out:  the Stanley Gontarski Grove Press Research Materials and the Cinema Corporation of America Collection.

The Gontarski materials were used by Dr. Gontarski to research his forthcoming book about Barney Grove Press, and Barney Rosset, founder of Grove Press. What I found particularly intriguing, and which formed a major part of this collection, were the intelligence files Gontarski obtained from Rosset’s personal papers, compiled by various branches of American intelligence (FBI, CIA, U.S. Army Intelligence) under the Freedom of Information Act. For example, there were U.S. Department of Justice and CIA memoranda regarding pornography, offensive material, and actions taken against Grove Press for importation of the film “I Am Curious Yellow” and other films deemed offensive.

Scene from Original 1927 "King of Kings" motion picture
Scene from Original 1927 “King of Kings” motion picture

The Cinema Corporation of America Collection documents film director Cecil B. De Mille’s role in the founding of the company – based in South Florida — and its film distribution activities in later years under Vice President Alan F. Martin. Through the work of this company and Martin’s activities, DeMille’s most enduring film, “The King of Kings,” has been in constant theatrical and non-theatrical distribution since 1927. The collection is a real treasure trove for documenting American motion picture history and will have great research value for students in FSU’s College of Motion Pictures Arts. In this collection can be found such unique items as a publicity photo for the original 1927 silent “King of Kings” movie, as shown below.


Now that my career in the Division of Special Collections and Archives is coming to a close in a few short months, when I reflect on my professional work, experience in processing collections, supervising projects, and training potential archivists in this field, I intend after I retire to continue my involvement in the profession by keeping abreast of developments and technology, attending conferences, and networking with colleagues in Florida and across the nation. But more than this, my real passion is to share these insights with students through teaching archival courses, and would like to contribute towards creating an archival studies program at FSU.

American Archives Month

SPC_exhibitThe Special Collections and Archives Division is celebrating American Archives Month by showcasing unique archival items that document Florida’s history in our Reading Room at Strozier Library. We’re also collaborating with other Florida archival repositories in creating an online exhibit comprising digitized materials from our collections and from others around the state.

American Archives Month is an opportunity to raise awareness among various audiences of the value of archives and archivists. These audiences may include students, scholars, policy makers, influential people within our communities, prospective donors, and the general public. It’s also a time to focus on the importance of records of enduring value and to enhance public recognition for the people and programs that are responsible for maintaining our communities’ vital historical records.

Celebrating MayDay In the Archives

MayDay Heritage 13As Special Collections staff, next Wednesday, May 1st is our opportunity to truly become aware of our role in preserving our unique collections and protecting the environment in which they’re stored.

Named by the Society of American Archivists after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma struck the Gulf Coast, “MayDay” – this year and every year – is a nationwide effort whose goal is to save our archival materials, no matter which type of cultural institution in which we work.

Here are a few things we can do that day that will make a difference when and if an emergency occurs, tasks that we can accomplish in a short period of time:

  • Quickly survey collections areas to insure that nothing is stored directly on the floor, where they would be vulnerable to water damage.
  • Note the location of fire exits and fire extinguishers.
  • Review basic emergency procedures – currently being updated – in our Reading Room behind the service desk.
  • Familiarize ourselves with the evacuation plan and where emergency supplies are stored – a good chance to check that flashlights are working!
  • Update the contact information in our department staff list

These are just a few suggestions; there’s probably more we can think of. And it’s important that we sustain this effort, not just on MayDay.

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!

New Archival Collections

Thomas William HofferThomas William Hoffer Papers (172 linear feet).
The Thomas William Hoffer Papers consists of a wide variety of his personal and professional materials. From 1972 until his retirement in 1996, Hoffer was a professor in the Department of Communications at Florida State University. He was particularly interested in mass media, photojournalism, and documentary film. He also taught classes in documentary film making prior the establishment of the FSU Film School.

When he retired in 1996, Hoffer became the founding publisher of The Franklin Chronicle, a local newspaper distributed in Franklin, Gulf, and Wakulla counties. He died in Tallahassee on December 9, 2006.

The collection offers researchers particular insights into film studies at FSU before the establishment of the university’s film school. There are also recordings of speakers at various events and meetings of the Franklin County Commission on such topics as aquaculture and other environmental issues that impacted the growth of Franklin County, FL.  Among the more interesting parts of the collection are the research materials Hoffer used for his Master’s of Arts Thesis about his great-uncle Norman Baker, a traveling salesman and radio broadcaster, regarded as unorthodox by the American Medical Association.  Baker promoted his cures at public meetings and his radio station.

The Papers were acquired as a gift from Gary Heald and Richard Alan Nelson, Hoffer’s estate executors. The Hoffer Trust provided funding for student processors and archival supplies, and it took well over a year to process. An online finding aid to the Hoffer Papers can be found at

Reubin AskewReubin Askew Papers (17 linear feet).
The Papers of Reubin O’Donovan Askew, Florida’s 37th Governor, include materials related to his service in the Florida House of Representatives, Florida State Senate, and as Governor of Florida in the late 20th Century.

Included in the collection are campaign files, correspondence, newspaper articles, and copies of speeches. Additionally, there are records documenting his 1988 Presidential bid, as well as other materials relating to his life after his service as a Florida public official. The collection includes the personal papers of his wife, Donna Lou Harper Askew.

Robyn Bertram, an OPS student at Pepper, processed the collection and said “it was fascinating to learn about his important role in the Civil Rights movement in Florida, in particular, his efforts in the fight for Florida school desegregation in Florida really stood out in this collection.” An online finding aid to the collection can be found at

Funding for processing the papers and for archival supplies was provided by former Governor Askew. Selected speeches and recordings will soon be digitized by the   Digital Library Center and Special Collections staff at the Pepper Library.