Collections of Disarray: Cleaning Up and Preserving Archival Materials

The 2018-2019 academic year marks my second year as a GA (Graduate Assistant) at Special Collections, but I’ve held different student worker positions here since 2009. My plan to infiltrate the archive and make myself a permanent fixture here seems to be working.  Processing collections has always been one of the most significant tasks I’ve been given and I cannot stress enough how much I love being able to make sense of collections for future researchers, scholars, and curious patrons.

My first processing project this semester is what can only be (lovingly) described as a ‘Collection of Disarray’. This nickname refers to a collection that comes in with no clear order (everything is haphazardly piled into boxes), lots of dirt and grime, needs a lot of weeding (removing and discarding items that have no intellectual value to the collection–like an old phone bill or receipt from the grocery store), and has condition issues.

The collection I’m currently processing arrived to Special Collections looking like this:

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It is not uncommon for collections to come in without any specified order to them. After all, donors are entrusting their materials to an archive because archivists take the time to tidy up the collection: we put materials in folders, clean up any small issues, etc.

Yet this collection was unique because it had significant dirt and grime. This was likely due to storage issues (not everyone has a temperature controlled room, and you should keep in mind that lots of people keep their materials in storage sheds that aren’t dirt and/or animal proof). Thus, as I’ve started sorting these materials, I’ve had to spend a lot of time carefully wiping up dirt, bugs, and other fun treasures. It actually is *very* fun.

The collection itself also has different types of damage.

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A significant portion of this collection is letters from the 1910-1930s. The letter pictured above is family correspondence from 1921, and as you can see there are different types of damage to the letter itself. This letter had some dirt on it, which was easy to carefully wipe away. However, there are still some stain “spots” of an unknown origin. The edges also have some significant damage from an unidentified bug. I have a carcass or two that were preserved in these boxes, and I’m not kidding when I say I’m taking photos and sending them to a friend who studies bugs in order to get the true identity of the letter-eaters! You can see little areas where a bug was happily eating away at the letter (the more ’rounded’ areas). However, there are also nicks and tears in the letter (likely from improper housing and, let’s be honest, plain old age and non-archival paper).

The collection is exciting because it is giving me a chance to use different real-world techniques to get some of these materials back into shape. Cleaning dirt off, putting letters in sealed mylar, and arranging the items is proving to be time consuming but well worth the effort. And… I get to use these exciting blue gloves that make me feel like a doctor–skillfully bringing life back to a collection!

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