A Ramble before a Rest: Making Good Archival Introductions

This semester, I have primarily worked on processing archival collections and preparing them for use by the public. Processing is a somewhat obsessive task, as you fall into the tiny details of a mostly-obscure individual whose papers – by privilege or chance – arrived at your repository. Soon you have little else to talk about, at least until processing is through. However, most of what happens to and with a collection happens after it is processed and considered done: visitors rummage through the records, they take photos and share them with colleagues and friends, they take notes which turn into books, documentaries, newspaper articles, or family stories, and they introduce others to the materials. These interactions, I feel, are the critical center of archiving.

This past summer, I worked as a reference intern at the National Anthropological Archives and spent my days answering visitor questions, finding documents, providing historical and cultural context for materials (as best I could), and explaining to researchers how the archives could be of help.  I was fortunate to be mentored by Caitlin Haynes, reference archivist, who emphasized the importance of being a support and collaborator to researchers – not an enforcer of archival practice, or a breathing Google search tutorial. NAA records were in use for language revitalization, repatriation of human remains and cultural artifacts, historicizing the discipline of anthropology, creating postcolonial web art – just as a start. To support this kind of personal work, archivists need to show empathy, patience, and confidence in the researcher.

“You can put that finding aid where your heart ought to be.”

In the “current political climate,” many of us are feeling short on all three of those attributes: I know I am. At the same time, researchers come to the archives to find hope – hope of rebuilding, of making sense of one’s own existence, or of finding old/new ways to be and do in the world. We think of archives as repositories of information, but that information is scaffolded by embodied human experiences. How we engage with our researchers – whether through finding aids, at the reference desk, or by e-mail – can set the tone for engagements between the researcher and the materials. Think of how difficult it is to learn when you don’t feel the teacher has faith in you. If our encounters with researchers are based in preservationist fears, or the belief that some researchers are more or less capable of engaging with the materials intelligently, then we stifle the very interactions our archives are meant to host. We become bad hosts.

At Special Collections, I’m thinking more and more about archiving as a kind of introducing: helping researchers meet materials which tell stories I cannot tell, stories I do not know. As a host, I want to make good introductions. For instance, a good introduction doesn’t intimidate either party: this might mean writing a finding aid with clear, non-academic language which summarizes what the materials might say but doesn’t over-promise. A good introduction also doesn’t frighten one party by belaboring the other party’s frailty: a finding aid, and reference encounter, with a minimum of scolding about maintaining archival perfection. Can you imagine a dinner party introduction with the content of a finding aid?

“Carol, this is Judy. I hope you have fun talking. But for God’s sake, Judy, watch out because Carol has dry skin and could fall apart at any moment. We only bring her out at holidays. And don’t ask her about her divorce: RESTRICTED. Only one topic at a time, please. Stay where I can see you!”

Over-anxious introductions don’t respect the worth, and competence, of both parties. A photo in the archive might be one of a kind, but so is the researcher. Is preventing fingerprints on a photo worth damaging a researcher’s belief in their own intelligence, or their own value? A good introduction balances the needs of both parties. It sounds simple, but it’s an ongoing process: How can we, as archivists, make good introductions every day? How can we show confidence in our researchers, and demonstrate that we believe them more than worthy of what our stacks hold?

I think the majority of the work is internal: monitoring our impulses and attitudes to understand why we want to hover, to over-explain, to protect one party from another. Learning a model of equity in a workshop is easy; implementing changes in attitude and practice within yourself and your personal life is much harder.

In processing, archivists get to know materials exceptionally well. Through the Carithers papers and the soon-to-be-released Murphey records, I’ve had the chance to try out various ‘introductions’ and think about how they will or will not help a researcher get to know the materials as I have and – hopefully – in different ways. As I wrap up the Fall term, I’m looking forward to next semester, making new ‘nonhuman friends’ in the archives, and hopefully making good introductions along the way.

They’ve truly got one of these for everyone! Thanks to Donna Haraway for a continual stream of ideas on how to live in our busy world.


(I recommend – for archivists and researchers alike – Jarrett Drake’s writing on surveillance, belonging, and liberatory archives. Many thanks to the Special Collections staff and the staff at the National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives for their generous guidance over this past year. I’d also like to offer gratitude to Dr. Katie Walkiewicz for sharing her archival experience with me, inspiring this last post of the semester.)


What is a cassette tape? Why do we have them?

As a graduate student, I’m not afraid to admit that sometimes processing materials downstairs in Special Collections can be lonely. Once assigned a collection, you spend a great deal of time working by yourself. You enter the “Processing World” and focus entirely on the materials in front of you. Often, I’ve spent entire days without conversing with anyone.


This week, I had a random (and entirely wonderful) experience while working downstairs. I’m currently in the process of shifting a collection to make room for growth in our accession area. Shifting, in short, is making space for processed collections on the shelves–thus, unprocessed collections are moved to a different shelving unit. It is an arduous task often completed alone, but it does give one a lot of time to reflect on their day. Whilst moving boxes, I admit to opening the lids to glance at the contents inside. Since I’m working mainly with audio visual (a/v) materials this semester, I wanted to have a count of any a/v items in a particular unprocessed collection. While working with one particular box, a member of the Library maintenance staff happened to be walking by and suddenly stopped to chat.

“Are those cassettes?”

They were. Approximately 80 cassette tapes were sitting in a box. Each is labeled with a date, the subject of a series of interviews, and information about the interviewer and interviewee. The staff member was amazed that Special Collections had cassette tapes, and he even asked if I knew what a cassette tape was. I was born in 1989, and in the early 1990s thought making mixed-tapes was amazing, so I definitely know what a cassette is. But… there are many out there that may not know what a cassette is.


Here is a cassette tape. This is an analog magnetic tape recording designed to record and playback audio (many of use used to have to run to a machine and hit record to “borrow” our favorite songs from a radio station, long before digital downloads). This format was released in 1962 by Philips (via Belgium). Above, you’ll see the two spools in the cassette that wind the polyester type plastic tape. As the tape runs across the bottom, machines would pick up the sound and playback whatever was recorded.

If you have never heard of a cassette tape, this is probably because they fell out of popularity when the CD entered the market. [And if you do not know what a CD is, that is probably because online mp3 sales and other digital media sources have slowly taken over CD sales]. Don’t feel bad. As technology progresses, so does formatting.

“What do you do with them?”

Special Collections keeps archival materials of all formats. One of the current goals of the archive is to begin migrating older formats to newer standards. In many boxes within our collections the master (or original) a/v item is stored next to an access copy that has been migrated to a new format. Thus, an old cassette may be housed with a CD access copy. That CD access copy, in the future, will likely be converted to a digital platform and housed online for easier access for researchers. Yet there will always be lovely, old, wonderful cassettes waiting to have their voices heard in the archives.

But, don’t count cassette tapes out yet. In 2014, National Audio Company produced “Awesome Mix #1” — a cassette that mirrors the cassette Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) listens to in the hit film Guardians of the Galaxy. Sales soared, proving that while this may be an older format, there are still plenty of people out there that are willing to purchase and play this format.


And, if you are suddenly wondering what you can play a cassette tape on, I suggest you begin looking for a traditional Walkman. All in all, I was excited to see another human being downstairs. It was even more fun to discuss that cassette tapes ARE still around and that they’ll always, at least for researchers and archival purposes, be sitting in the shadows waiting to be played.


People’s History of Tucson

chafee_urban history_001
© 1977 Tucson Community Development/Design Center

For the past few weeks, I’ve been dedicating the majority of my hours at work to processing the Chafee architectural collection. The collection is the largest I’ve worked on so far at 43 boxes, and as I work through the papers, I often find some real treasures. Since I found it months ago, I’ve been intrigued by one item in particular, a newspaper sized comic produced in 1977 by the Tucson Community Development/Design Center (TCDC) called People’s Urban History of Tucson. The comic explains the history of the development of Tucson with vivid images from the point of view of Tucson’s lower-income and marginalized communities instead of telling the usual dominant narrative of our town’s history.


I was curious about the TCDC itself, so I did some online sleuthing. It turns out, the TCDC was a non-profit architectural planning, design, and research firm that worked to serve low-income communities, and contributed to and completed a number of projects between 1973 and 1983 such as the Lalo Guerrero project in Barrio Viejo that provides low-income housing to the elderly. The organization even sued a local politician for classifying a neighborhood as “blighted” which allowed the city to use public funds to build a luxury apartment complex for winter visitors.chafee_urban history_001

However, the organization also worked on graphic design projects like the People’s History of Tucson that were meant to educate the public about local housing laws and history, and about politicians working with corporations to displace low-income people in the downtown area in order to open up land for development. I was lucky, because we actually had some of those other pamphlets in our holdings here at Special Collections. In our pamphlets collection, we had two issues of a newsletter called “The True News” (“Los Hechos” in Spanish).

I started to wonder if maybe Judith Chafee did any work for the TCDC or if the comic just drew her in, as it did with me. Maybe she was friends with one of the members of the organization, or maybe, as an architect, she was concerned about how economic policies affect who can afford to buy a house. Either way, I was so happy to get to learn a little bit about housing policy in 1970s Tucson, and I can’t wait for the next treasure I find in this collection.

3 Tips to Prepare You for Archival Research

I wasn’t always an archivist. If you’d told me three years ago that today I’d be sitting in a special collections library, processing archival papers, and preparing for my last semester of grad school, I would have laughed. Like this perhaps:

And though I won’t bore you with the story of how I became an archivist (this week, anyhow), I’m not yet far enough into the world of folders and finding aids to have forgotten how confusing archives can seem to outsiders. So this week I am sharing three tips, from my own experience as an archivist and as a researcher, for archival research.

1. Have a short, clear list of materials you want to see – even if you’re not sure what you want to see!

For many of us in the humanities and social sciences, research involves a good deal of wandering. As ideas coalesce in our minds, we page through notebooks, newspapers, journals, photo albums – all to get a sense of what materials are out there and how our ideas fit into the larger scheme of things. Unfortunately, most archives aren’t set up for wandering. Our stacks are closed, our containers opaque. We need the names of collections or other record groups you want to see. Think of it like booking a flight: You’re free to wander the city once you get there, but the airline can’t give you a ticket unless you give them a destination.

I understand how tough this can be. I conducted preliminary research in quite a few archives this summer, each time with only a vague sense of what I was looking for. At the same time, I was an intern in a large national archive and I understood that an archives’ holdings might be massive, or stored off-site, and so it’s impossible for the archivists to wander the stacks on your behalf. I felt stuck between the realities of research and the pragmatics of archival practice. All the same, I got the best results by starting off with a concrete list of 3-5 boxes I wanted to see.

And on the topic of requests: Make sure your request for materials includes the collection name and box number. Some archival collections have hundreds, if not thousands of boxes, and the archivist is unlikely to have supernatural knowledge of which boxes are of interest to you.

I know at this point you’re probably worried. What if the materials you select aren’t what you need? In fact, this is the norm rather than the exception. It’s rare a researcher opens a box, pulls out the first folder, and exclaims, “I’ve found it!” Archival research takes time. Archivists know this. We’re happy to help; we just need to know where to start.

2. Talk to the archivist.

We get it. Academia is a wasteland of scarcity and you want to be the first person to prove Gertrude Stein took two lumps of sugar in her tea, not one. When the archivist asks you about your project,  you shuffle papers around and get nervous. Will the archivist broadcast your research to everyone else in the room? Is this the moment an evil, tenured doppelgänger steals your work?

Hint: Disguising yourself for a visit to the archives will result in more questions from the archivist, not less.

The truth is that archivists discuss their ethical obligations to researchers frequently and in-depth. Most archivists believe it is wrong to share information on your research without your express consent. If you’re unsure where the archivist or institution stands on these matters, ask – and ask if they have a printed privacy policy you can keep for your own records. Before treating the archivist like a walking information leak, find out if the paranoia is warranted.

Archivists’ trustworthiness aside, it’s easier for us to help you find relevant materials if we understand your project. So, let’s say you’re on the hunt to prove the two lump hypothesis. You arrive at the archives, cagey and shrouded in mystery. You request all the Stein papers, the Toklas papers, and a Virginia Woolf photo album to throw others off the trail. After days of looking for evidence in your favor, you return to your office dejected. If only you’d talked to the archivist you might have known that the archive holds the Surreal Sips Tea Company records – including information on literary celebrity advertisement ideas. Astonishing.

Archivists spend each day learning about their repository’s holdings. Sure, they might not be able to name every collection but over time they’ve learned how collections connect to one another – often in surprising or unpredictable ways. If you describe your research to us and help us understand your goals for your time in the archives, we can point you to resources that online searches might miss.

(And based on this poem, the two lump hypothesis seems reasonable.)

3. Don’t judge a record by its record-ness.

Archives are complicated places. Materials from various individuals, businesses, government agencies, and collecting projects often stream into one archival repository. Those materials are then sorted, arranged, and described – often based on a combination of archival standards and local habit. A single collection can represent many entities, organizations, and initiatives which may have worked collaboratively or antagonistically. How records came to us, how they relate to one another, and how archivists have shaped or rearranged collections are important things to know. It might seem like Gertrude kept her correspondence in alphabetical order, but it’s more likely an archivist rearranged it for your ease. Maybe the correspondence was gleaned from smaller collections, to help create a more cohesive, complete resource on Gertrude’s life. Archival records have complicated lives of their own.

I’m something of an archives agnostic: I don’t necessarily believe archives can tell us the truth about history, or provide definitive proof of how things happened- but I do believe they can tell us compelling stories which are as important as ‘the facts.’ Sometimes those stories are told by what an archive doesn’t have, or how it doesn’t describe materials. By talking to the archivist about the materials you are researching, looking at the finding aid, and comparing holdings at other repositories, you can often gain a more nuanced understanding of the materials in front of you. Surprises await when you follow the story of archival materials, rather than treating them as mere evidence of tales told elsewhere.


1955-1956 in Indian Affairs

More often than not, people ask “What is Congress doing?” Congressional Record collections are a great way to answer some of this information. I recently decided to look through Stewart Udall’s 84th Congress records. There are hundreds of topics throughout this collection (making it perfect for a political affairs researcher!) but I decided to search for information relating to Udall’s work with the Department of the Interior–Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In one letter of interest, a doctor with the Tucson Tumor Clinic wrote to Udall and asked about the costs of medical treatment for Indian citizens. Specifically, the doctor was wondering why the US Indian Service was not providing funds for an Indian patient who was referred for radium and x-ray treatments for his cancer. You can follow a trail of letters within Box 8, Folder 2. But Udall took time to contact several other officials and found that the US Indian Service would provide funds, provided the patient had a referral from the proper agency.


In March of 1955, several officials were worried that Navajo students would be removed from a local school in Snowflake. Judge Don T. Udall wrote to Stewart, reminding him that Snowflake had “invested more than ten thousand dollars in added facilities” for the Navajo children. It is an interesting discussion, considering that there is no dialog with any Navajo officials.

Another letter from December discusses the Hopi Tribal Council. The letter discusses the Hopi tribe’s acceptance of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1935. The letter details when the Council went dormant, and then when it re-established itself in 1950. It is a fascinating back-and-forth about tribal rights versus the desires of the State.


Yet I am most interested in a letter that pertains to the Major Crimes Act. The telegram mentions a situation in which a man [redacted here] allegedly attempted to rape a four-year-old girl and then fled to the Navajo reservation–where the Flagstaff Sheriff could not enter. The man was later arrested on another charge in Tuba City, but it seems again returned to the reservation. The telegram shows Sheriff Cecil Richardson’s frustration, because he cannot enter the reservation and his hands are tied. Issues like this one (specifically, rape allegations) are covered by the Major Crimes Act, but here we see a problem with jurisdiction.


This is just a small, small amount of work that Stewart Udall was conducting on a daily basis. He often found the time to write back to personal letters, offered support to concerned citizens, and kept important records so that researchers can learn a little bit more about what Steward Udall did while in office.

If you’re interested in perusing the Steward L. Udall Collection, here is a great online finding aid to get you started: AZ 372

Examining Film

I recently had the exciting, sometimes terrifying, experience of examining a motion picture film reel. Guided by my mentor, Trent Purdy, I was able to inspect a film to assess its quality and preservation needs. Even though I was initially worried that I would make a mistake and damage the film, it turns out that the process is a lot easier than some might think.

First, you need to attach an empty reel to one side of your device (this one was custom made for Special Collections) and then1026071034 you place your film on the opposite reel. Here, we placed the film on the left and the empty reel on the right. The below picture shows this process, including keeping the film itself taunt to avoid the film loosening around the reel.

Using the handles, you then begin to wind the film. This requires some precision (and was the part I was the most worried about as we began the process) but after a few turns and keeping a hand on the reel with the film, it became rather natural. Below, I’ll include a photo of this process with a light box underneath–which you need to inspect the film.


The light box will illuminate the film as it passes over, allowing you to examine it. We checked the film edges first–any tears, splices, or severe scratching to the images themselves are all things that you would note in this process. You can also tell if the film is black and white, or if it is color. Using a magnifying glass (or a professional loupe) you can then look for an edge code

I’ve pulled the film away from the light box so that you can better see the loupe in action. 

The edge code can tell you the year a film was made. Using a unique code (ours used Kodak film and thus the Kodak codes) the film prints the code throughout.


Here is what I discovered about the film Trent and I inspected: The film was color, was completed in 1964, and the images themselves were in great condition. There were no notable tears in the film or apparent splices. However… the film was warping slightly and thus needs some further preservation to keep it from continuing to warp.

If you have film at home–don’t be afraid to inspect them! I was worried at first, but instead this is incredibly exciting and addictive.