Extinction, Sloths, and Sloth Dung

My first processing project of the semester revolves around two additions to the Paul S. Martin (MS 442) papers. Martin earned a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and spent most of his research time collecting plant, pollen, and fossil specimens. Eventually, he became the leading expert on ‘prehistoric overkill’. Overkill theory suggests that the sudden demise of large mammal populations across continents is due to the arrival of nomadic humans who, unfortunately, rapidly hunted these animals. Animals our ancestors probably hunted to extinction: ground sloths, camels, mammoths, and mastodons. As one can imagine, Martin’s work continues to fuel debates–maybe humans killed them maybe we didn’t–but has sparked my interest as a student organizing his papers and materials.



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One of the large mammals Martin is quite interested in is the ground sloth. Ground sloths lived in North and South America, but have been extinct for 10,000+ years–which is unfortunate, because they look absolutely adorable!


The Shasta ground sloth, which Martin focused his research on, lived in the Rampart Cave region in the Grand Canyon, Arizona. These giant sloths would spend the season in Rampart Cave and, before leaving, would leave behind large piles of dung that Martin and other researchers were fascinated with. They collected it, photographed it, searched for it on their hands and knees…they did all of the hard work so that students of history can examine the “proof” of where these ground sloths were before they disappeared from the planet.



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Martin has several research files dedicated to the Shasta ground sloth, Rampart Cave, and many of his lectures, slides, research files, field notes, etc., can offer great insight into these sloths. I knew nothing about these sloths until I began opening folders and, admittedly, I ended up reading a great deal about them and their dung.




And, Martin even kept a small sample of sloth dung so that future generations can gaze upon something quite cool! I am always fascinated by what you find in the archives. Not only have I continued to learn about the process of processing, arranging, and protecting archival materials…I now know a *lot* about Martin’s work and I can posthumously thank him for teaching me about the creatures that came before.



OSIRIS-REx Mission Archiving

When I pictured the first collection that I would work on either as a graduate student or in my first professional position, the last thing I ever imagined was that it would be comprised of fully born-digital material. When the opportunity arose before the start of my first semester to join the UA Special Collections team on a new and exciting project in conjunction with the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory I jumped at it without hesitation. The Special Collections department was brought on board as part of a project to survey, archive, and preserve born-digital reports and documents related to the OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Return mission. This project is one of the first of its kind working to help contextualize mission records and data to help future researchers and historians.

Artist’s conception of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft collecting a sample from the asteroid Bennu
Credit: University of Arizona/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

You might be asking yourself what is the OSIRIS-REx mission? OSIRIS-REx stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer and it is a NASA asteroid study and sample-return mission. OSIRIS-REx is on a mission to obtain a sample from the asteroid Bennu which is a carbonaceous near-Earth asteroid and then return that sample to Earth for detailed analysis. A quote from their website states that the mission “seeks answers to the questions that are central to the human experience: Where did we come from? What is our destiny? Asteroids, the leftover debris from the solar system formation process, can answer these questions and teach us about the history of the sun and planets.” The spacecraft was launched in September of 2018 and is expected to return to earth in September of 2023.

This series of images taken by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft shows Bennu in one full rotation from a distance of around 50 miles (80 km).
Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

In the early stages of my work on the mission I am primarily using two programs. ArchivesSpace to create the finding aid and the UA Campus Repository to upload documents for digital preservation and access. Working with fully born-Digital collections has its set of own challenges within these programs and one of the more satisfying aspects of my job is finding ways to make them work for us and the particular needs of the collections. The hands-on training aspect is another high point and I really enjoy being able to share my new knowledge with my classmates.

Images and information taken from http://www.AsteroidMission.org

A Koan of Archiving

This has been an unsettling time for me, since it is my first time living in Tucson, and my first semester in the Master’s in Library and Information Science program. It is far from my first time in a Special Collections though. Nevertheless, my experience in the archives has dramatically changed. I went from being the one who pored over the works in a collection to the one who shapes such assemblages. Or, at least, trying to learn how to do such.

The initiation into archival processing began with the assigning of the John R. and Charlotte Goodding Reeder papers. They were well-known agrostologists (those who study grasses) who continued their seminal work, after retirement, at the UA Herbarium. It has been both exhilarating and terrifying in this Herculean task, even in taking just elemental steps. Lisa Duncan has been quite benevolent as she guides me through the apprenticeship.

Today, I received supplementary succor in the form of Ms. Amy Rule, a renowned archivist. She had created a principal inventory of the Reeder papers, which has helped me in making sense of the collection. She graciously provided a tour of the UA Herbarium, while giving a brief history – originally built as a Men’s Gymnasium, it still retains the basketball court flooring today. She moved me through the collections describing the process of collecting and “mounting” plant specimens. She introduced me to the staff of three, who expressed their willingness to help with the processing of the papers of two of their most celebrated botanists.

Ms. Rule and I shared a bit about our previous lives. I knew about her time at the AZ State Museum and revealed that I had been a “shovel bum.” She cursorily (humbly) mentioned that she had worked at the Center for Creative Photography. I discovered online later that she had been Acting Director at one point.

During my visit, she said something which provided greater insight into the nature and complexity of archives. As she opened up the shelving containing specimens, where we both took deep breaths (partaking of exuding aromas), she turned to me and said, “The plants are the books.”

I spent the rest of the day musing upon this koan of archiving.

Let the Pop-Up Exhibits Begin!

Last year, Special Collections added a new, fun, and very challenging project to the Graduate Assistant workflow: the pop-up exhibit. A pop-up exhibit asks Graduate Assistants to curate their own small-scale visual exhibit for visitors to the reading room. The student will select a theme, pull appropriate materials, create informative labels and cards for the materials in the exhibit, will arrange the materials, and will then have successfully created a pop-up exhibit that will sit in the reading room for approximately one month. While in theory this is an easy task, it becomes quite challenging to pick a theme and narrow your ideas down to a few items!


As a returning GA, I was asked to create the first pop-up exhibit of the 2019-2020 school year. I decided that I wanted to pay homage to September’s “National Read a Book Day” by including information about books…which led me down a rabbit hole. I began reading more and more about typewriters and eventually the showcase became “interesting books and materials written on typewriters”. Fun fact: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain was the first book to be entirely written on a typewriter for publication.


Special Collections also houses the Paul Edward Jones World War II Correspondence (MS 686)–which includes lengthy letters about Jones’ typewriter. When he signed up for Naval training he took a typewriter with him. It went missing in the barracks and was (much later!) found and returned to him. However, months later the typewriter was confiscated and given to the Navy for other “higher” officials to use. While reading these letters, it becomes almost impossible not to wonder about the significance of the typewriter in Jones’ life–while we know he returned from WWII, we don’t know what happened to the typewriter!

Creating a pop-up exhibit is challenging because sometimes the ideas you have going into the project shift, and sometimes you realize you’ve pulled materials for ten cases and you only have one, but nonetheless this was the perfect exercise to get me back into the archives this semester!