Erin Wahl: Finding What You Want

In the second of a series of six posts to help writers make good use of archival materials, Erin Wahl explains how to find what you want in an archives. 

Archives and special collections can be
confusing places for researchers. We do things a bit differently than a
“normal” library. We have a different set of rules and different ways of
organizing information because of the unique nature of the materials we care
for. Rather than make you read entire books on information resources and
library science theory, I’m going to attempt to break it down for you.
When an archive
receives a collection a lot of things need to be done. There are various tasks
associated with giving it numbers and a space that I really don’t want to bore
you with. Then there are the fun things to talk about, such as how the
collection may need to be frozen for 3 days in order to kill any infestations
(ie. bugs or other creepy crawlies) it might contain. One term you’ll hear
thrown around in the archives world is the word process. We’re not sitting in our offices with a chorus of blenders
on various speeds and bushels of vegetables. When we talk about processing a
collection, it means we are taking that collection that has come in and working
hard to make it accessible to researchers. This means we’ll be arranging and
describing it in order to write a finding aid and also rehousing it–putting it
in acid free boxes and folders, putting photos into Mylar sleeves, and other
preservation tasks, in order to make sure the collection is in an environment
that is safe for it and will preserve it for years to come. Until that happens,
a collection will be called an “unprocessed” collection. Every archive has a
certain amount of backlogged unprocessed collections. Time, money, staff issues
and just the sheer amount of collections that come in all affect the amount of
backlog an archive has to deal with. Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner’s 2005
article “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival
Processing,” (a must-read for archivists-in-training) says that archives have
an average of 60% backlog. Because of this it’s not uncommon for archivists to
make unprocessed collections available to researchers, though that practice
differs from archive to archive.
So what does it mean
when an archivist arranges and describes something? Basically, it’s the
archivist’s job to make the collection accessible and easy to navigate for
researchers and to take measures to preserve the collection. The arranging and
describing part is all about creating a finding aid that makes sense and
preserves the original intent of the collection. You will hear the words
“original order” used often. This is incredibly important to archivists, and
also to many researchers. There is significant importance in preserving the
order of collections as it was determined by the original creator. This can
give all sorts of insights, such as what the person viewed as important or what
they thought was related. Preserving this original order isn’t always possible.
Sometimes relatives go through papers and rearrange them before donating or
just throw them willy-nilly into boxes. It happens. But whenever possible our
job is to preserve for you, the original order of the records creator. So if
you’re in an archives and think you see a paper out of order never fix it
yourself, always alert the archivist to the potentially rogue document and let
them take care of it. It may be that this paper is in this place because of the
original order of the creator. The archivist will have a better knowledge about
whether or not that letter really belongs in folder one or whether it should be
in folder three. We arrange and describe things to make it easier to find them,
but archivists follow original order whenever they can.
Finding aids (and a
beautifully housed collection) are the final result of processing. Finding aids
are made to help researchers understand the collection and find the parts of it
they want. Collections can be very small, maybe 1 or 2 boxes and they can also
be very big, in the hundreds of boxes. Good finding aids make sure you don’t
waste your time surfing a wave of papers you don’t need. So what kind of
information are you going to find? Here are some common types of information
you may find on finding aids:
DESCRIPTION: This section is simple. It’s a description of the
collection. It gives you an idea of the contents and subjects in the
collection. This section will also tell you how big the entire collection is.
Usually providing both number of boxes and the total linear feet of a
RELATED MATERIAL: This section is a place for archivists to
mention collections they have that are related. Maybe this person’s family member
also donated a collection. Maybe they ran a company and the company’s
collection is in the archives too. These connections can be valuable.
ACQUISITION: This will tell you how the archive got the
collection. There’s not a lot of money for buying collections these days. Most
archives rely on donations.
ACCESS: Sometimes collections come with restrictions. If there are
any, you’ll find out in this section.
COPYRIGHT: Important for those who are going to want to publish
things from the collection, this will tell you who owns the copyright so you
can get permission to publish.
PROCESSING: A lot of times archives will tell you which archivist
processed the collection and when it was done.
HISTORICAL NOTE: A history of the collection or the main players
in it.
SCOPE AND CONTENT NOTE: This is going to tell you what kinds of
materials the collection contains. It is also a chance for the archivist to
mention anything particularly important about the collection.
BOX AND FOLDER LIST: This will tell you what is in each box and
folder. Archivists used to describe to an item level, but that practice has
stopped because it’s not feasible with the amount of staff and backlog they
need to get through. You should be able to get a good general idea of what is
in each folder.
Take a look at this
finding aid from the Arizona Historical Society

to see an example of how all of this information is combined into a full finding
But what happens when
you can’t get to a place for a visit? Oh my gosh. That finding aid was amazing.
You have just found the perfect document to feature in your next book. You need
to look at it. You have to. It is in Arizona. You are in Alaska. You can’t just
pack the kids into the car and drive a couple of states over for the weekend so
you can do research in an archive while your hubby takes the kids to buy
lollipops at the nearest Safeway. In fact, a lot of people can’t do that. Which
is why most archives have some sort of system in place to make access possible.
If you check the archive’s website you can usually find this information and if
it’s not easily accessible there, always remember that you can call. Many
archives will be willing to photocopy or scan a reasonable number of items for
you. This service is not, of course, free. You’re probably going to have to pay
something for their trouble. Most fees are pretty reasonable given cost of
materials, time, and shipping.
One thing that any
archivist is going to ask you to do when ordering copies is to be very specific
about what you want. This is where the importance of a finding aid comes in.
You should narrow it down to an exact folder you want copied and if possible,
exact documents (this is harder, of course, now that item level cataloging
isn’t possible). This saves the archivist time and it saves you money. There’s
nothing more annoying than realizing you got 3 copies you wanted and 10 you
really didn’t need. This will always be the danger of ordering copies rather
than going yourself.
Another thing you
might want to think seriously about is hiring a local researcher. Local to the
archive you want to search, that is. Many archives have lists of local
researchers for hire that they can make available to you. Most of these
researchers will have some kind of historical research credentials, so it’s not
like you’ll be hiring a total novice. At the archive I work in, you have to
apply every year to be put on the list and you need to fit a certain criteria.
Hiring a local researcher is most valuable if you really need to look through a
large volume of materials and you’re not 100% sure what documents you need.
Hiring a local researcher to come in and look at the documents for you may save
you some money in the long run. If you can give them an in-depth look at your
needs they can easily identify what parts of a collection would be helpful to
you and what aren’t. This could significantly cut down on your document
reproduction costs.
Many institutions
also have a representative sample of their collections digitized. This is a
whole different monster. It has teeth and it’s coming for you. I’m going to
talk a lot more about digitization in next week’s blog post so hold on to your
photographs of 1880s horses till then.

Erin Renee Wahl has an MA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University and an MA in Information Resources and Library Science from the University of Arizona. Her work has appeared in various professional and creative venues. Most recently, poetry in Sterling Magazine and an article on historical recipe manuscripts forthcoming in Edible Baja Arizona. She lives and works as an archivist in Tucson, Arizona and visits her family in Alaska whenever possible. You can view her portfolio by visiting her very rudimentary website:

If you’d like to learn more about Writing from Research, Kate Partridge is teaching a class on this topic for 49 Writers on Saturday, October 19 & 26, 9 am to noon. Click here for more information.

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