Tag Archives: archives

Meet Gloria Jahoda

Coming from a strictly public library background, at first the world of Special Collections felt just as foreign and mysterious to me as I’m sure it does to many people. Luckily, as a graduate assistant in Special Collections & Archives, I’m in exactly the right position to learn more about it every day. While it might seem obvious why some books are special — they’re often very old, or very scarce, or both — archives are a bit more elusive. As the Manuscript Archivist explained to me, archives provide contextual primary source documents to help researchers understand the environment surrounding a person or event.

img_20170223_105153.jpgMy first project as a graduate assistant involved the Gloria Jahoda Collection – or rather, collections. An author whose husband taught at Florida State University, Gloria Jahoda initially donated a portion of her personal notes and manuscripts to FSU Libraries forty years ago. Some donors might offer more material to the archives after the first gift; this can happen quickly or many years later. These new items are assessed to see if they fit within the scope of the initial donation and, in many cases, added to the same collection. Sometimes, though, this doesn’t happen. When I started working with her manuscripts, Jahoda’s work was spread across seven collections, all donated at different times. I was first tasked with looking over the materials to find a major theme that might unite them into a single collection. I divided the work into new series – like smaller chapters in a single book, series help organize a collection by grouping items together based on their original purpose. I then rearranged the materials, removed duplicate publications, relabeled folders, and copied unstable materials (like old newspaper articles) onto paper that wouldn’t discolor or deteriorate. As this was happening, I learned a lot about who Gloria Jahoda was.

She was born in Chicago and was very proud of the fact that her first poem was published at the age of four. She liked to write on overlooked areas of Florida, including Tallahassee, which she described as being “200 miles from anywhere else.” She photographed her cats. She enjoyed classical music, especially by the English composer Frederick Delius. Her book The Road to Samarkand chronicled Delius’s life, including his time spent managing an orange plantation in Florida. She was an elected registrar of the Creek Nation. She spoke about ecology and conservation. Gloria Jahoda was bold, witty, and passionate.

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What’s left behind after her death in 1980 are her books and, now, the Gloria Jahoda Papers. Visitors to Special Collections can track the development of Jahoda’s works, learn about her personal interests, and laugh at the jokes in her letters. Jahoda’s books document an interesting time in Florida’s development, and I’m proud to say I contributed to preserving her work for future research.

To learn more about the Gloria Jahoda Papers, the finding aid can be found here.

Claude Pepper & Edward Ball: A Long History & A Brief Summary

Spring is in the air, the sun is out and that usually means it’s time to find a body of water to sit by and enjoy since we live in Florida. One of those places you could visit this spring and summer (or anytime really) would be the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park.

Wakulla Springs Contest Winner Austin Hackimer "Manatee"
Wakulla Springs Contest Winner Austin Hackimer “Manatee”

This Florida State Park is home to plenty of wildlife including alligators, deer, birds, and of course the majestic manatee. There are guided water boat tours and a spring for swimming where the water is always a nice, cool temperature. Find more information about this beautiful state park here.

The park is named Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, you might wonder, “who is Edward Ball?” According to the Florida State Parks website, he was a “financier” who “purchased the property in 1934 and developed it as an attraction focusing on wildlife preservation and the surrounding habitat.” The Lodge at Wakulla Springs was built in 1937 as a guest house on the 4,000 acres Ball purchased the same year. In the 1960s’ Ball donated land to Florida State University for a marine lab which is now the Edward Ball Marine Laboratory.

Now you could be wondering, “what does any of this have to do with Claude Pepper?” The former Florida Senator and Congressman Claude Pepper and Edward Ball were like the Cady Heron and Regina George of their time, publicly civil with one another, but deplored each other in reality. Pepper writes about his relationship with Ball in his autobiography, Pepper: Eyewitness To A Century.

Ed Ball was a financier who amassed a great amount of wealth and power due to his family connections. His brother-in-law Alfred I. duPont was one of the wealthiest men in the country in the early 20th century. After duPont’s death in 1935, Ball took over control of the duPont Trust and emerged as a wealthy political dominant force in Florida in the 1940s’. Ball never ran for political office himself, but backed and tried to defeat political candidates running for office. One of those candidates he tried to defeat in the 1944 Florida Senate election and eventually succeeded in defeating was Claude Pepper in the now infamous 1950 Florida Senate election.

Claude Pepper Campaign Card FSUPhoto A (33)-08
Claude Pepper Campaign Card FSUPhoto A (33)-08 Front
Claude Pepper Campaign Card FSUPhoto A(33)-08 back
Claude Pepper Campaign Card FSUPhoto A(33)-08 Back

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The history of these two men is long and extensive and I encourage any reader of this blog entry to read more on the subject. A great place to start would be Tracy E. Danese’s book, Claude Pepper & Ed Ball: Politics, Purpose, and Power published by the University Press of Florida in 2000. These two men played a great role in shaping the political history and future of Florida. I hope this blog gave you a brief summary of their relationship and intrigued you to read more about it.

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.

The Days of Our Lives: FSU Archives Edition

What do archivists do all day, anyway?  Look at old photos?  Dust yearbooks? Take papers from one file folder and put them in another?

Those are all true to some extent, but university archivists play more roles in their community than one might think.  Take a look at some of the extraordinary events during an average week in FSU Special Collections and Archives:

Thursday, October 15:

Students from the ART5928 workshop “Creating Experiences” visit the Claude Pepper Museum.  Their project this semester involves creating a public event that could be held in in a museum space.  The students have designed a Claude Pepper Pajama Party event and social media campaign, and today they’re walking through their ideas with Pepper Library Manager Rob Rubero.

Rob Rubero with ART5928 Students. (c) Justyn D. Thomas Photography. Used with permission.
Rob Rubero with ART5928 students in the Claude Pepper Museum. (c) 2015 Justyn D. Thomas Photography. Used with permission.

FSU Special Collections has always considered local history one of its collecting strengths. In an effort to deepen community connections and learn more about the Tallahassee music industry, Rory Grennan and Katie McCormick attend a public appearance by influential songwriter and producer George Clinton.  Aside from smiles and photo opportunities, our archivists enjoy many conversations with Clinton’s family and associates about his work and his legacy.

Rory Grennan and Katie McCormick enjoy photo opportunities with songwriter and producer George Clinton.
Rory Grennan and Katie McCormick enjoy photo opportunities with songwriter and producer George Clinton.

Friday, October 16:

Today, the Special Collections Research Center reading room has the privilege of hosting the members of the Florida State University History Club.  A dozen history undergraduates attend an informational presentation by Manuscript Archivist Rory Grennan and Rare Books Librarian Kat Hoarn.  Presentations and instructional sessions for students, faculty, and the public are a core part of the Special Collections mission, and occur frequently at the beginning of the school year.  History Club members are excited to see 4000 years of human history laid out in documents from our collections including cuneiform tablets, a page from a Bible printed by Gutenberg, and artist books from the 21st century.

Rory Grennan looks on as Kat Hoarn closely examines a rare book with the FSU History Club.
Rory Grennan looks on as Kat Hoarn closely examines an illustration by Theodore de Bry with members of the FSU History Club.

Monday, October 19:

Monday morning, archivists Sandra Varry and Krystal Thomas visit the University Registrar’s office to consult on the preservation of student transcripts on microfilm.  The filmed student records see heavy use, and unfortunately enough of the film has been worn down that some records are losing information.  The group discusses modern strategies such as digitization to preserve these essential historical records that document a century of higher education.

Later, Sandra Varry and division staff prepare for a new exhibit opening today in the Special Collections Exhibit Room on the first floor of Strozier Library.  “Mittan: A Retrospective” celebrates the work of photographer Barry Mittan, and documents student life at FSU in the 1960s and 1970s.  The exhibit was curated by graduate assistant Britt Boler and runs through January 2016.

Exhibit title card at gallery entrance; Sandra Varry adjusts a framed print in the exhibit room.
Exhibit title card at gallery entrance; Sandra Varry adjusts a framed print in the exhibit room.

In the afternoon, Krystal Thomas carefully reviews and uploads recently-digitized cookbooks and herbals to the FSU Digital Library.  The Digital Library features digitized versions of the highlights of our collections, as chosen by Special Collections staff and our users, and new content is added regularly by archives staff.

Tuesday, October 20:

Things They Don’t Teach You In Grad School #47:  Water and vinegar makes an effective, non-abrasive cleaner for a headstone.

Former FSU faculty member Paul Dirac was a giant in the fields of mathematics and quantum mechanics, and his papers are a frequently-consulted resource by researchers at FSU Libraries.  Since no members of the Dirac family remain in Tallahassee, it has become the unofficial duty of our library and archives staff to visit Dirac’s grave once a year and see that it is kept clean.  October 20th is the anniversary of Dirac’s death, and seems an appropriate time to visit the site.  Archivists Katie McCormick, Rory Grennan, and Krystal Thomas, accompanied by library Director of Development Susan Contente and a handful of Physics Department students, scrub the headstone and plant fresh flowers this afternoon.

Top: Krystal Thomas, Katie McCormick, and Susan Contente remove grime from the Dirac headstone. Below: A clean headstone with fresh flowers planted on either side.
Before: Krystal Thomas, Katie McCormick, and Susan Contente remove grime from the headstone of Paul and Margit Dirac.
After: A clean headstone with fresh flowers planted on either side.

Wednesday, October 21:

Early this morning, archives staff notice an uncharacteristic rise in temperature in the stacks.  After confirming initial impressions with a few temperature readings, contact is quickly made with library facilities staff to take steps to correct an issue with the building’s HVAC systems.  Constant environmental monitoring is an important part of preserving our collections, as paper, film, and other substrates are vulnerable to fluctuations in temperature and humidity.  There’s no point to collecting items that can’t be made to last!  You never know what someone might need next week…

(re)Introducing the Dime Novels Collection

Subbasement
A view of one of the Special Collections & Archives storage modules in the subbasement

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Bilbo tells his nephew Frodo, “It’s a dangerous business… going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” The same might be said for visiting the subbasement of Strozier Library; it’s a dangerous thing, because you never know what new projects you might stumble upon. In this case, it was six boxes of uncatalogued dime novels stuffed unceremoniously into Hollinger boxes. Where did they come from? How long had they been here? Although we seemed to have more questions than answers, we knew we wanted to get these items stored properly and cataloged so that they would be available to researchers. And so, I was given the opportunity to rehouse and process my very first archival collection. Now, I would like to (re)introduce the Dime Novels Collection!

Dime Novels
Different dime novel formats (MSS 2015-003)

“Dime novels” is the term given to mass-market fiction publications from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, which really ranged in price from five to twenty cents. They are essentially the American equivalent of Great Britain’s “penny dreadfuls.” Dime novels revolved around themes of action, adventure, and crime, sometimes drawing on contemporary and historical events like the American Indian Wars and the Revolutionary War. Some come in a magazine-sized format, others as thicker, twenty cent pocket-sized editions. While they were never prized for their literary excellence, dime novels were a widely popular form of entertainment and continued to remain popular among collectors, inspiring periodicals like Dime Novel Roundup, a collector’s guide.

20 cent novels
20 cent thicker-format dime novels stored in boxes, protected by transparent sleeves

Although dime novels can be cataloged as books and given individual call numbers, the FSU Dime Novels Collection has been kept together as a collection. While a single dime novel might be an object of interest to a researchers studying depictions of Native Americans in popular literature or turn-of-the-century graphic design, the collection is also valuable as a whole. Along with the dime novels, I found handwritten note cards with titles and check-marked lists of issues owned, which bear testament to an unnamed collector. These sorts of notes give us a sense of how the dime novels were used and what importance they held. The value of the collection as a whole, as it was developed by its collector, would be lost if the dime novels were separated and cataloged individually.

FullSizeRender
Pocket-sized dime novels stored in a Hollinger box

Because they were designed to be cheap, mass-produced, and temporary, dime novels have often not survived over time or survived in poor condition. The FSU Dime Novels Collection has some serious condition issues. The acidity of the paper has made the novels extremely brittle, and this was exasperated by less-than-ideal storage conditions. Now, each dime novel has been placed in an archival-quality plastic sleeve, grouped according to titles, and stored in acid-free boxes. The smaller, pocket-sized dime novels were stored upright in individual folders separated by dividers in a Hollinger box. Pocket-sized novels with loose or detached covers were given additional protection from a card stock enclosure.

To find out more about this collection, view the Dime Novels Collection finding aid, which includes an additional description of the collection and list of titles included.

My Career as a Special Collections Archivist

burtaltman

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.

AT THE BEGINNING…….SERVING AS A CONGRESSIONAL ARCHIVIST

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.

BECOMING A MANUSCRIPTS ARCHIVIST AT STROZIER

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.

CHANGING TECHNOLOGY

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.

FAVORITE COLLECTIONS I’VE PROCESSED

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.

LOOKING AHEAD TO THE FUTURE

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.

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 place in the sun

Tally Ho, The Florida State University, 1967
Tally Ho, The Florida State University, 1967

Florida State

both a university and a place in the sun

an invitation both to learn and to feel

and above all an education

an exercise of the mind and body

the spirit seeking knowledge in the fountain of life.

–Tally Ho, 1967, page 4

Challenges to a new Digital Archivist

I’m Krystal Thomas, digital archivist with Special Collections at Florida State University. I am new in my position, just starting this past summer. I am not new to the world of digital collections, but as I have learned quickly in my new position, each institution has its own processes and procedures for handling its digital collections over time. As my days are still finding their rhythm, I thought it would be more useful on this the Day of Digital Archives to share some of my lessons learned on starting a new position and learning a new institution’s ups and downs with digital projects.

Florida State University has had active digital collections for a decade and more at this point. During that time, many people and departments have influenced and been involved in the development, publication, and preservation of digital items, which is wonderful and I am happy to see the support these programs have received over time. However, coming in as the new kid on the block, I had a lot of questions about how work had been done, how decisions had been made, and where all of this work was now. As I found during my explorations, these answers weren’t always easy to find. Sometimes, it was simply there was no documentation to look over, while other times it was that the people who could give me the answers had left Florida State long before I was hired. From my research gathering, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned in inheriting a digital collections legacy and what you should be doing and/or thinking about to properly help the people who come after you in the digital archivist role.

Document everything

Why did you choose this collection? Why did you choose only three boxes of that collection? Why did you name the files that way? Why didn’t you use the source field? Where are the TIFF images now? I have a million questions about how digital items were created and cataloged in the past but can’t find the answers anywhere. Document every decision you make for a digital project for your benefit, as well as the benefit of the people you are working with and the people who will come after you. This also helps in understanding partnerships you may establish with other entities. FSU participates in several digital preservation programs, but we currently are working to re-establish our relationships with them as there is little to no documentation about how FSU used them before.

Your decisions might not be as obvious as you think

This advice goes back to the “document everything” mantra but deserves its own line: no one is a mind reader, and no one coming after you will be faced with the same set of challenges, resources, and expectations again. There were probably very good, logical reasons why you made the decisions you did when it comes to a digital collection you are working on, but if you don’t record those somewhere, no one–not your supervisor, intern, or even you ten years down the road–will know that and be able to explain that to others moving forward.

Hindsight is 20/20

As an institution moves forward with digital collections, it will learn a little more with each project undertaken. It will gain expertise, and its last project should be better organized and better presented than its first. Hindsight is, after all, 20/20, but if there isn’t an active plan to be recording and sharing the information learned on each project with those involved, how will we learn? Project Management literature says once a project is completed, whether it was a success or not, a team should look back over it and see what they learned and then record that information. Digital projects should be handled the same way. Whether you completed all 2,000 items or ran into a glitch halfway through so the project was never completed, you still learned something of value and that hindsight should be put to good use.

Some times what everyone else is doing won’t work as well for you

When digital projects were started, everyone was looking at everyone else for how to do things which was great and is one of the best ways to learn, but there still has to be a thought process involved. Just because one institution does their digital projects one way does not mean that way will work for us. Each institution has its own set of factors determining how its digital projects are going to work; it is not a one size fits all, and that’s OK. Look around and borrow one process here or one standard there until you’ve developed the right digital process for your institution’s goals and culture.

Don’t make the same mistakes all over again

All of the above leads up to the fact you don’t have to make all the mistakes all over again. A lot of those challenges wouldn’t exist if more of the people and departments involved in the digitization process had communicated more effectively with each other as they worked on projects. A better communication structure would have meant a lot more of what had been done before would have been recorded, creating a self-sustaining institutional memory for this type of work at FSU.

Think outside the box

Keep in mind that you don’t have to do it the same way as before and if you want to help improve the systems and create new ones, get creative and think about how to solve the problems in ways people haven’t before. One of the best things about working in the digital world is creative solutions are always there if you just take the time to think through how they will work and fit into the long-term strategy.

Moving forward in my position, I want to make sure we are documenting our work and learning from our mistakes to create a strong digital collections program moving forward. It will be a challenge but I’m looking forward to it!

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!