All posts by brittboler

My Year in Special Collections

As I sit down to write my final blog entry as the Special Collections and Archives graduate assistant, I can’t help but think about the pivotal moment that started me down this whole career path.

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It was the Fall semester of 2011 and I was the nerdiest college sophomore that you’ve ever met. I was completely obsessed with a class I was taking called Illuminated Manuscripts, which my brother still, to this day, jokingly refers to as “laminated manuscripts.” Once a week, our class would meet in one of the classrooms in Strozier Library to study the medieval facsimiles from Special Collections. The rare books librarian, who I thought had the greatest job in the whole world next to Alex Trebek, would administer over these extraordinarily recreated works of art as we students examined the pages with the unflinching attention of a neurosurgeon and took notes (in pencil, of course) on our discoveries.

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The Book of Kells, 800, ND3356 .B7S8 1914

The facsimile I found the most impressive was the iconic Book of Kells. Likely created around the year 800 CE on the Scottish island of Iona, the Book of Kells is widely regarded as the finest European medieval manuscript to survive. Comprising of the four gospel books of the New Testament, it is created in the Hiberno-Saxon, or Insular, style, which refers to a time period in post Roman Britain before the Viking Age when indigenous artistic conventions, such as stylized interlacing knot and animal motifs, were popular. There are a total of ten full page illustrations, including a whimsically blonde Christ and a vignette of cats eating the Eucharistic host, with numerous decorated initials and smaller abstract illustrations surrounding the text. The manuscript is massive, lavishly decorated, and constructed from the finest materials. Its pages are made of vellum, the highest quality calfskin parchment, and the colorful inks are made from a wide variety of imported materials. Ultimately, this manuscript is a showstopper. It’s the medieval equivalent of a modern day Ai Weiwei or Damien Hirst masterpiece.

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And now as I wrap up my assistantship and prepare to graduate I realize I’m sincerely going to miss my friend, the Book of Kells, who sparked my interest in medieval manuscripts and beckoned me to pursue this opportunity in Special Collections. It’s true; those of us who seek a career in libraries envision being surrounded by the materials that we feel the most passionately about. And as great as blonde Jesus is, it’s the people of Special Collections that really make the department so special. Looking forward to commencement and the nebulous unknown of the “real world” that will follow graduate school, I honestly hope that I can find a work environment as supportive and team as cohesive as the one I’ve spent the last year with.

Cheers!

Order in the Manuscripts Archives

IMG_1967Everyone enters a field of work for one reason or another. For me, pursuing a Masters of Library and Information Studies began from a desire to be an archivist, a type of information professional that is largely underrated, misunderstood, or even unheard of by the public. The mystery regarding the profession drew me in initially. Popular culture depicts archives as dark and secluded repositories with strict access restrictions guarded by a gatekeeper, hesitant to divulge any of the archives’ secrets. Think of the less-than-helpful associate in the Jedi Archives who turns Obi-Wan away in Star Wars Episode II; she might as well have shushed him while she was at it!

The reality of archives is quite the opposite. In all of my experiences, archivists are more than happy to help you in your research and want to share the collections as much as possible with the public. That’s why they collect it all. In order to do so, however, they must establish order. 

IMG_1976In a job where creating order out of disorder is a top priority, the profession tends to attract many an OCD history buff. There’s something viscerally satisfying about organizing a dusty old mess of papers into a neat collection of documents in acid-free folders, legibly labeled for ready accessibility.

IMG_1980Many steps go into creating this order, however. After gaining legal custody of the documents, the archivist has to “gain intellectual control,” which is a sophisticated way of saying “learn exactly what kind of stuff is in the collection.” In order to do this, one must comb through the contents, which could take a very long time depending on how many linear feet the collection is, and create an inventory. The collection I’ve been “gaining intellectual control” of is called the Douglas and Jeannette Windham Papers, which contains the papers and publications of Douglas and Jeannette Windham, a distinguished FSU alumni couple. I’ve listed the materials that are in the collection, including personal papers, correspondence, academic articles, photographs, and professional reports. Once intellectual control is established, I can work with the archivist to determine a plan for order and begin to folder the contents into acid-free folders. A.K.A. the fun part! The kind of fun that is on par with labeling the shelves of your pantry, or color-coding your closet. (Yes, this is how I live).

The ordering continues when the boxes are stored in the stacks which are kept under strict environmental regulations in order to best preserve the archival materials from accelerated deterioration. The last step of creating order in the archives is to write the online finding aid so potential researchers can get an understanding of what is in the collection. This helps the collections get used more, which is, after all, the whole point in the first place! And there you have it: archives de-mystified.

Secrets from the Rare Book Vault

FullSizeRender (2)When I applied to the Special Collections & Archives graduate assistantship, I had one thing in mind: rare books. As an undergrad at FSU, I frequently visited Special Collections for class projects and assignments related to medieval manuscripts and early printed books, knowing that someday I wanted to work with rare material like these. So naturally when I received the news that I was selected for the assistantship, my first thought was of all the rare books I would get to “work with.”

The concept of “working with” rare books was always a very abstract one to me. I assumed rare book librarians got to study the materials, give lectures to visiting classes, and create exhibit displays. A very glamorous position in academia. As a young and naive soon-to-be graduate assistant I really had no idea what rare book maintenance would entail because my only previous job experience included retail, banking, and an archives internship. Now that I’m slightly older and much more experienced, I can say I have insight into “working with” rare books. The epitome of rare books. The vault books!

That’s right, I left my career as a community banker to find myself auditing yet another vault. Just like the huge quantities of money safeguarded behind lock and key, the rare books that live in the Special Collections vault are the most valuable items in the collection. And I was tasked with examining just over 1,000 of them to determine their condition and assess whether or not they needed any preservation treatment. Most of them (71%), I’m happy to report, are holding up just fine considering their age. The other couple hundred are in need of various types of enclosures that will preserve all of their fragile, decaying, or detached parts. 

This naturally led to a practicum in box making. Under the high-quality tutelage of the Uppsala University Rare Books YouTube channel, the Rare Books Librarian and I tried our hand at custom box making. This turned out to be much more difficult than the 5-minute duration of our video lesson implied. And if rare book box making was an Olympic sport, our Swedish friends at Uppsala would take home the gold. But in the end, with a lot of time spent practicing, we were able to construct several excellent enclosures to protect some of the most deteriorated books in the vault.

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These days my glamorous vision of rare books librarianship still includes spontaneous bouts of paging through incunables to appreciate the illustrations, hand binding, and old book smell. But the reality of the job entails a lot more dust, red rot, and wormholes. Ultimately, the basis of “working with” rare books is preservation; removing the dust, and stopping the red rot and wormholes so that librarians and patrons alike may continue to marvel at illustrations, hand binding, and old book smell for centuries to come.

Florida County and City Histories Collection Online

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Jefferson County Florida or the Monticello Section written by Ida Meriweather.

The Florida County and City Histories Collection comprises two boxes of essays written by students at the Florida State College for Women in 1922 and 1923. These essays consist of research into the history and culture of certain cities and counties across the state of Florida from Dade County, to Jacksonville, to Pensacola. The essays provide an interesting glimpse into the methods of 1920s academic writing, whereby papers were researched without the convenience of the Internet and were written by hand, absent of formatting, style guides, and citations. This collection is now digitized and available through the FSU Digital Library.

In order to digitally scan the Florida County and City Histories Collection the ties and brads that bound the essays together had to carefully and meticulously be removed so as not to damage the nearly century-old documents. This practice, the delicate removal of hardware and binding materials, is part of a process aptly called processing, in which the archivist takes steps to ensure the preservation of the archival documents.

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Page from Jefferson County or the Monticello Section written by Ida Meriweather.

Once the ties and hardware were removed from the essays the individual pages were ready to be digitized. In the cultural heritage field, we use a fancy word called digitization to refer to the digital photographing or scanning and online presentation of physical materials. In this case, the records were scanned on a  state-of-the-art flatbed scanner (which is worth more than my car) in order to capture high quality images in a short amount of time.

In order to provide access to the images of the essays online, one of the most important steps of digitization is collecting and organizing the metadata. Metadata, in my opinion, is a scary word that refers to the abstract concept of information about information. In all reality, metadata is the set of data that describes a piece of information. In this case the piece of information is the essay and the data describing it includes details such as the language it was written in and size of the paper. After organizing the metadata into a spreadsheet it is then converted into a code, presumably by means of magic or sorcery, by the Metadata Librarian.

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Page from Jefferson County or the Monticello Section written by Ida Meriweather.

The last step of digitization is to gather up all the metadata code and the digital images into a queue that is uploaded onto the Digital Library’s server and arranged according to the instructions in the code. Because the magical code tells all the little bits of information how to look and how to behave, the text and images appear in a way that is ergonomically and aesthetically pleasing to the viewer.

And that’s the behind the scenes of the digitization process. Check out the Florida County and City Histories to evaluate for yourselves!

Britt Boler is currently the graduate assistant for FSU’s Special Collections & Archives division.

Mittan: A Retrospective

Mittan: A Retrospective is the photographic exhibit currently on display in the Special Collections and Archives gallery space in Strozier Library. The works of J. Barry Mittan candidly capture the student experience at Florida State University in the 1960s and 1970s. As a student and photographer for numerous campus publications, including the Tally-Ho yearbook and Florida Flambeau newspaper, Mittan often photographed students at official university-sponsored events and spontaneous student gatherings alike. Through his documentation of sporting events, Greek life, protests, concerts, study sessions, socials, and so on, he was able to construct a comprehensive view of FSU student life in which individuals banded together to share a common voice in an age of social change. Mittan’s unique perspective as a student informed his photographic purpose to see the individuals among the crowd.

For my first project as the Special Collections & Archives Graduate Assistant, I was tasked with designing and installing the Mittan exhibit. Faced with a daunting job of going through twenty-something boxes of unprocessed photographic materials, I was thrown head first into this new position. But having a background in art history and previous experience processing archival collections, I was up for the work. After an initial assessment, I determined that there was some order already established as slides, negatives, and prints were generally arranged by time period and subject. Because of this order, it was pretty easy determining what boxes would be useful for the exhibit knowing that we wanted to focus on Mittan’s work from when he was a student.

The most time consuming, yet entertaining, part of the design process was physically pulling negative strips out of sleeves and examining them through a magnifying glass over a light table. Although I’ve never worked with photography before, I eventually adapted to looking at the thousand or so tiny negative images. Having a pretty good eye for composition, my skills were tested when I digitally scanned the negative strips to determine the clarity and balance of the image. Having scanned about a hundred and fifty images, I eventually narrowed my choices down to thirty black and white images and twenty color images for the final exhibit.

The last tasks were just hard labor: printing, framing, and installing. I severely underestimated the stress of installing an exhibit seeing as this was my first experience. Using a large format professional printer was definitely a skill I acquired with a serious learning curve. I regret the loss of paper and ink that was sacrificed as we printed test strip after test strip trying to configure the color, size, and saturation of the first batch of prints. And I will never again underestimate the brutality of the small metal brackets holding the backboard of the frame as thirty sets of them pinched and bruised my fingers over the course of an afternoon.

After what seemed like a mad dash to the finish line, the exhibit actually opened fairly smoothly and nearly on time. Every day I’m proud of my hard work as I walk to Special Collections in the back of the library and am greeted by a poster that advertises the accomplishments and legacy of J. Barry Mittan. It makes me realize that what we do as college students has the potential to make a difference for the years to come. As a student in a time of social, cultural, and political change, Mittan captured the power of the individual to enact change. A sentiment college students still strongly hold on to today.

Mittan: A Retrospective, the photographic exhibit showcasing the work of J. Barry Mittan, is open in Strozier Library’s first floor exhibit space. The exhibit will be on display until mid-January and is open to the public Monday through Thursday, 10am to 6pm, and Friday, 10am to 5:30pm. An accompanying online exhibit is also available here which includes more images and descriptions not available in person.