Archival Intelligence (AI) at the UA

As another semester wraps up, those of us at the School of Information are getting ready to celebrate our December graduates. Along with them, we will also recognize one outstanding faculty and one adjunct who, based on student vote, inspired us most this fall. This year I had the privilege of collecting student responses and the landslide results made me very happy indeed: one of my all-time favorite people at the iSchool will be getting a well-deserved recognition for their tireless work. And yet, happy as I am about the popular choice, it is not lost in me that those who usually get the most votes, also tend to be instructors designated to core classes and who spend time with the largest number of students.

Who gets overlooked in these evaluations and polls? I can think of at least three amazing instructors and mentors to the lucky few who get the chance to spend time here at Special Collections. They are archivists and librarians with teaching duties that are integral part of their jobs, whether before entire classes of students or one-on-one with graduate assistants. Each of them in fact embody all of three distinct forms of knowledge as coined by Elizabeth Yakel and Deborah Torres in AI: Archival Intelligence and User Expertise (2003) and which they identified as required to work and teach effectively the use of primary sources:


Domain or subject knowledge is an understanding of the topic being researched, for example historic preservation, Jacksonian politics, or the law.

Veronica Reyes-Escudero, associate librarian and Borderlands curator, has been at the University of Arizona for over 15 years. After four years working as liaison with the English department, she shifted focus and joined Special Collections in 2004. Veronica has strong ties in the community, a deep knowledge of the region, and her Spanish language skills are hard to match. A working partner with the Knowledge River program, Veronica is a strong advocate for students, always making time to train and mentor the next generation of archivists even when her own list of duties is filled to the max. Veronica usually teaches classes that focus on our Borderlands collections or on literature; to us graduate students, Veronica is precious for the time she spends showing us how to handle materials, do holdings checks, set up displays and much more. She is as tough as she is patient, always pushing us to excellence by holding expectations high. No one can spend any time under her supervision and not leave better than when they arrived.

WendelArtifactual literacy is the “practice of criticism, analysis, and pedagogy that reads texts as if they were objects and objects as if they were texts.” This is the ability to interpret records and assess their value as evidence.

J. Wendel Cox, assistant librarian and archivist, started working at Special Collections just last October, but brings with him 20 years of teaching experience before undergraduate and graduate students of American history, American Indian history, and the history of American foreign relations. Wendel alone has taught us all at Special Collections more about assessment that many of us thought possible. After spending most of his first year creating a comprehensive tribal resource guide, his last four months went to analyzing Special Collection’s circulation, instruction and reference, interlibrary loan, document delivery and reproduction requests. Translating numbers to all form of visualization formats, Wendel has made it simple to wrap our minds around them, reminding us bookish librarians that numbers are indeed our friends

RogerArchival intelligence is a researcher’s knowledge of archival principles, practices, and institutions, such as the reasons underlying archival rules and procedures, how to develop search strategies to explore research questions, and an understanding of the relationship between primary sources and their surrogates.

Roger Myers is the Rare Books expert at Special Collections and an associate librarian and archivist in title, but in reality he is the cornerstone of our department. Roger has been in the profession for over 30 years and has what I believe to be photographic memory, for he can tell you the history of just about every book and collection held here. Getting his start as a cataloger and moving on to archivist within 5 years, he was responsible for making the Mo Udall papers accessible back in the mid-80s and overseeing installation of the department’s compact shelving. There is no reference question he cannot answer and I shudder to think how we all will get by once he leaves for sabbatical at the end of this month. A natural teacher, he never misses a chance to share what he knows, whether it is while setting up a room for one of his many lessons on the history of books, or as he unpacks the latest addition to the rare books’ vault.

Yakel and Torres defined archival intelligence (AI) based on characteristics identified to “foster the development of expertise in novices and to reinforce and extend the archival intelligence of expert users of primary sources.” Regardless of public recognition, we at Special Collections know that AI in our department is through the roof–I truly could go on about these and other staff, but having reached the word limit, I will have to leave that for another post.


Seek and Select: Creating an Exhibit

Part of my work as a graduate assistant in Special Collections is to assist with upcoming exhibits highlighting the papers of notable individuals and/or organizations. I recently received word that we will be showcasing some of the materials from the newly processed James Kolbe Papers for an exhibit and reception held in his honor.


Congressman Jim Kolbe, undated

Jim  Kolbe began his political career as a U.S. Senate Page for Barry Goldwater in 1960. Congressman Kolbe served in the U.S. House of Representatives for the state of Arizona from 1985-2007 in the 5th congressional district (later renamed the 8th district). He is known for his expertise on trade, especially the North American Free Trade Agreement.

I was tasked with selecting items from his collection for display in the exhibit. The first step in the selection of materials was to consult the James Kolbe Papers collection guide and make a list of potential candidates for display. Next, I pulled boxes individually from the collection to examine documents and photographs more closely. I opted to choose visually appealing materials that would honor his life of service. I then placed the items selected in mylar sleeves to protect them from damage. I also made a list of each item pulled from the collection and created a spreadsheet with the item name and location in the stacks. It’s important to think ahead when creating an exhibit to ensure that the items can be returned to their appropriate place when the exhibit closes. You don’t want to end up with a box of papers and photographs and no idea where they belong in the stacks! After creating the spreadsheet, I wrote out labels for each item in a Word document which I saved. The labels will later be printed and mounted next to the items on display to create context for the viewer. I also created a mock-up of how the display will look once completed, although it requires some reworking.


Campaign Materials

The exhibit, which opens on January 19th, will be arranged chronologically, beginning with a photo of Representative Kolbe as a congressional page and will proceed to underscore important community events as well as relationships with political leaders such as United States Presidents. The exhibit will also feature campaign materials from various elections. Although not yet complete, I’m hoping that my work with this exhibit will focus attention on the James Kolbe Papers in Special Collections and inspire access and use for students, researchers, and the general public.