Thorns, towels, and a farewell

Not so very long ago, I made my first post on Archivist Apprenticeship and shared with you the story of Joe Carithers’ water from beneath the Rainbow Bridge. It’s hard to believe that this post will be my last, and will mark the conclusion of my graduate assistantship at Special Collections.

Anticipating my entry onto the job market, I’ve spent much of the past month preparing for and attending conferences so I can share my recent work with other scholars. At the American Comparative Literature Association annual meeting in late March, I presented my current research into archival things and their relationship to theories of materiality. As part of a panel on “Neglected Lifeforms,” I engaged in conversations with professors and graduate students who write about dust, atmospheric particles, equine disease, fungi, wheat, soil, and the erotics of plants. My presentation, in part, reflected on the physical experience of processing the John W. Murphey records and the ways the oversized ledgers dried my hands and made me sneeze, drawing my attention to the non-textual, non-pictorial elements of the ledgers.¬† I paired the ledgers with another agent of bodily change, ubiquitous in the Sonoran desert: puncture vine (Tribulus terrestris). An interdisciplinary panel of this kind can be really beneficial to archivists, because it introduces us to theories and ways of thinking about archival things that we might not otherwise engage.

The fruit of Tribulus terrestris. Some people use them as a hormonal supplement; I just get them stuck in my feet. ūüė¶

For conference #2, I traveled back East to an archives conference. Outside of Special Collections, I am a curator for the Pittsburgh Queer History Project – an oral history and media archive focused on gay & lesbian after-hours nightlife, 1960-1990. Along with the lovely Harrison Apple, I demonstrated some of the ways community archives can productively complicate our concepts of ‘archival records’ and ‘linguistic tokens.’ Shifting back to my training in sociolinguistics, I used VHS tapes of 1980s drag queen pageants to consider how we might write a history of Pittsburgh English that can take into account queerness and performance. As always, the video of Pittsburgh sportscaster Myron Cope – often called the ‘voice of Pittsburgh’ – detailing the origins of the Terrible Towel brought more than a few chuckles. It was a delight talking to other presenters and attendees afterward about methods for community engagement.

Though our presentation went well, our conference experience started off on a bad foot with an even worse shoe. As we approached the conference registration table, Harrison asked the volunteer at the table for directions to our conference room. The volunteer looked at us and replied, with undue self-assurance: “This is a conference for archivists, actually,” and suggested we might be at the wrong table. Harrison – with discernible annoyance and a tone as pointed as a freshly-sharpened pencil – assured her that we did in fact know which conference we were attending. Another, somewhat embarrassed volunteer gave us directions. As we made our way towards the meeting rooms, I saw archivists with all manner of dyed hair, plaid bucket hats, tattoos, and casual wear. Looking around, it became clear: to that volunteer, we looked too queer or too trans to be archivists.

Me, after receiving my name badge and conference program.

There continues to be a gap between the language of diversity & inclusion, and the personal commitment by archivists and librarians to doing the deep work: processing (emotionally), alone, outside of work hours, all the biases which inform our actions. Changing methods of description and widening collection policies has to be accompanied by attention to interpersonal interactions. In 2018, it was disturbing to find that someone would presume we couldn’t be archivists because of how we looked, but I know that we – as two white scholars with no visible disabilities – didn’t even experience the worst of this kind of behavior.

My conference experience was a timely reminder of the interpersonal work ahead of me in the archival world. With my experiences here at Special Collections – both with people and archival objects – I feel more prepared to be part of the discourse which shapes the field. How can we keep an eye on theory while engaging in archival practice? How can we spot the gap between discussions of inclusion and openness, and the lingering discomforts and prejudices we harbor internally? How can archivists learn from the researchers we serve as much as they learn from us? After a year at Special Collections, I’m ready to take these questions out into the world and work on them – collaboratively, patiently, looking exactly as I do.

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93F on a Red-Letter Day

“30 June 1970 – Tues. Springfield & Washington. A sort of red-letter day, when I got a Distinguished Service Award from The Department of the Interior […]”

Gale Monson’s journal for May 1970 through April 1971.

Each collection I encounter, at Special Collections or in the archive elsewhere, has its own kind of pattern or signature – a certain set of organizational characteristics or tropes that bring the materials together. In the case of the Gale Monson papers, my current focus at Special Collections, it’s the calendar.

Beginning in the 1920s during his pre-teen years, prior to the invention of the category of ‘pre-teen’ in fact, Gale Monson began making daily observations about animals, plants, and environmental conditions. His journals continued into the early 2000s before his death in 2012. He logged monthly average temperatures, the birth dates of pets, the first saguaro bloom of the year, and bird sighting tallies by species and location. The pages of his journal are punctuated with full-color photographs, postage stamps, cut-out illustrations, and ephemera.

 

 

While I enjoy his notes on plants, I think Gale Monson’s papers also offer insight into the psychology of record keeping. With journals spanning almost 80 years, his entries include reflections on styles of journaling, what is most important to record, and ideas on how to maintain a daily journal in spite of severe disruptions – including college and World War II. He even outlines the reason he journals: to create a place where can confirm his memories, and to preserve his experiences for “posterity.” (Gale Monson’s journal for 1 May 1947 – 20 October 1947) For Monson, seeing a bird or a wildflower was a moment of truth, but it was also an ephemeral moment which could only be later confirmed if it had been written down, photographed, or mapped out.

Monson accumulated his proof in many forms: journals, photographs, slides, correspondence, newsletters, popular press clipping. Each form is organized by its connection to a date on the calendar. With or without meaning to, he assembled sets of objects which help us imagine his experiences in a multi-sensory way. On 30 June 1970, when Monson received a Distinguished Service Award from The Department of the Interior, we know from his monthly weather log that it was a ‘very hot’ day in the Washington, D.C. area – high of 93F and low of 63F. The wind was light and moved southward. Although the sky was mostly clear, with a few cumulus clouds, the overall atmosphere was hazy.

Being from the East Coast, it’s easy for me to imagine this kind of summer weather: stagnant and heavy. Hot in Washington, D.C. is a sticky hot, and your clothes adhere to your body in a way that never seems flattering or tolerable. On 1 July, Monson snapped a few photos of day lilies in his yard. With the weather in mind, the flowers suggest that those of us with allergies would have felt stuffy, maybe with a headache or itchy eyes.

The calendar is a way that we collectively experience time. Most of us would agree that today is March 19th and that the 19th is different from the 18th or 20th, even though we might stay up late and blend the work of the 19th into the 20th and so on. Although Monson’s journals attend mostly to non-human neighbors, it’s not difficult to imagine how other humans felt moving through the city on his “red-letter day” and I suspect many of them felt less exuberant and celebratory.

Monson’s prosaic retelling of the day’s events is often so detailed that I have trouble identifying with him as the ‘main character.’ We don’t have much in common, Gale and I. But his concurrent meteorological notes, maps of Montreal and Washington, D.C., his photographs allow me to imagine bodily experience of living in the same ‘where’ and ‘when’ as Monson – even if we were oblivious to one another, even if his materials could never serve as evidence for my existence.

You might be an archivist if…

While scouring the Internet for an answer to my burning question:

Why do some people pronounce it ar-CHI-vist, and others AR-chi-vist? (I still don’t know. If you’re a phonologist and you’re reading this, send help!)

I came across a blog post from 2010 entitled, “The Increasingly Common Use of ‘archive’ as a Verb.” In the post, the author, Kate Theimer, expresses her shock at the use of ‘archive’ in sentences such as, “I am going to archive this document tomorrow.” Theimer suggests that using ‘archive’ as a verb isn’t something archivists themselves are likely to do, and signifies that the speaker doesn’t understand what archivists do.

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There is a shocking lack of archive gifs on the Internet, so I chose a dust gif as a not-so-subtle nod to Carolyn Steedman.

Admittedly, I do not use ‘archiving’ as a verb, though I use it as a gerund pretty often. (Example: Archiving is a complex process.) I suspect what Theimer considers a ‘lay’ usage is meant to express something like, “placing items in long-term storage for retrieval later.” “Archive” becomes a term for a safe place to store things from the past or present which we see as important for the future. This understanding of archiving focuses on product rather than process.

For archivists, things are murkier. Archiving might include accessioning, appraising, deaccessioning, describing, re-describing, cataloguing, foldering, or curating. Much like cooking, archiving from the archivist’s perspective is a complex process which involves many steps – some which overlap, some which bleed into other processes. Cooking leads to eating, archiving leads to researching. Is cleaning part of cooking? It is hard to know where the stream of processes becomes something else entirely.

But you don’t have to do things the way a chef does things for your actions to count as ‘cooking,’ even though chefs are generally recognized as authorities on cooking. Theimer’s blog sets up a dichotomous world in which there are archivists – who do not use archive as a verb – and non-archivists who do. But do non-archivists exist?

A few years ago, I joked with a photographer friend (who has worked in photography for many years) that nowadays, “Everyone is a photographer.” Surprisingly, they replied that they believe everyone is a photographer, that the ubiquity of digital photography and the bloom of self-declared photographers isn’t of detriment to anyone and need not be condemned. This friend continued, “Just like everyone is an archivist.” In essence: there’s enough room in the world for all of us to take photographs, to store things for future knowledge (to archive), and to identify ourselves through those actions.

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I’ve been looking for an opportunity to use this gif.

In contrast to professional territoriality, it is refreshing to think of ourselves as individuals who are practiced at a style of archiving and who have learned from past mistakes and successes, but who do not own the archive or its processes. That which compels us to place things in ‘an archive,’ if we believe Jacques Derrida, is deep rooted and not unique to archivists.

On one hand, I sympathize with Theimer that those who do not work within institutional archives tend to overlook the labor involved in creating and maintaining the institution. This is a claim made by Michelle Caswell and others. For Theimer, ‘archive’ as a verb signals a de-professionalization or an oversimplification. But by thinking of other collections as kinds of archives, as siblings rather than neighbors, I am not convinced we in the institutional archives will lose out. Instead, I think it will push us to expand our theory and practice beyond the legacy of Jenkinson and Schellenberg, to ask about other conglomerations of things: fossils in the ground, tools in a toolbox, a teen’s digital photos stored on the iCloud. We might also ask why, after a good century or so of professional archiving, our methods remain so opaque to others. Through this, archival theory and practice can emerge as useful ways of looking at and engaging with meaningful groupings meant to endure through time.

In a lecture at Concordia University, Dr. KimTall Bear offers that, “I cannot have faith in scarcity. I have tried. It cut me from the circle.” Though Dr. TallBear’s concern is the politics of sex and not the archive, I think the quote still offers a powerful challenge to archivists: How can we archive without scarcity? How can we open up our terms, titles, and rules to allow everyone to be an archivist?

Preserving CD-Rs, and Other Topics from 2004

Last week, a number of blogs broke the news that Hot Topic would be selling a Rugrats¬†themed eye-shadow palette in the shape of a “VHS cassette.” In comments sections and on social media, however, many expressed horror – “That’s not a VHS cassette – it’s an audio cassette!”

Image via Hot Topic.

While this gaffe might startle those of us who remember the reigns of VHS and audio cassette, it’s an undeniable fact that media become obsolete – or at least less-favored – over time. The CD, successor to the audio cassette, is a great example.

CDs, compact discs, have been in use since 1982, with ‘writeable’ formats like the CD-R being on the market since 1990. More than an audio medium, CD-Rs were considered an excellent way to store and share computer files throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Compared to size-limited floppy disks and not-so-portable hard drives, CD-Rs filled an important niche. So when I asked to see some Special Collections files from the early 2000s, it was no surprise to find said files stored on 700 megabyte CD-Rs. As I browsed the files (after taking ~30 seconds to remember how to open a CD drive), I wondered: How do CDs work? How stable are CD-Rs? How can we best preserve files like these?

Most mass-produced audio or software CDs are made of layers of polycarbonate with molded ‘pits’ and ‘lands’ – not entirely unlike a vinyl record. The polycarbonate is covered with aluminum or silver, then sealed with a clear lacquer on the top of the disc. CD drives read the disc by focusing a low-intensity laser on the disc and reading the textural pattern of the polycarbonate.

Image via Science ABC.

CD-Rs aren’t so different, except that instead of having the data molded into the polycarbonate, they contain a layer of heat-sensitive pigments. A CD-R drive uses a high-intensity laser to alter the molecular structure of the layer and destroy the transparency in certain areas of the layer – thus mimicking the pits and lands. When the low-intensity laser is used to read the disc, the pigmented sections provide the illusion of texture. CD-RWs (the kind you can write and erase over and over) work much the same, but the pigments are replaced with a metal alloy and the pigmentation be undone and re-done.

Image via Infocellar.com.

So, how stable is this medium for storage? On one hand, CD-Rs are not quite as susceptible to water damage as a hard drive, and they can handle magnetism and x-rays much better than hard drives or camera film. On the other hand, the chemical dyes within CD-Rs are subject to degradation which can be sped-up by environmental factors. CDs of all kinds owe their lightweight portability to their polycarbonate ‘skeleton’ which is both flexible and heat-sensitive. Given these factors, how can you best preserve digital files stored on CDs? Here are some tips:

  1. Prioritize CD-Rs and CD-RWs. Mass-produced CDs (think Encarta Encyclopedia) have their data physically molded into the structure, so there’s no risk of dyes failing you. However, they are prone to warping and scratching.
  2. Speaking of warping and scratching, always store CDs ‘book style’ – with the spine vertical. Vertical storage helps stave-off warping if the CD is exposed to high heat. Whenever possible, store CDs in plastic jewel cases. These prevent scratching as well as moisture damage.
  3. Since the exterior of CDs is plastic, many people assume that moisture isn’t a concern. However, if the lacquer of a CD is sufficiently scratched, moisture can reach the reflective aluminum or silver layer and cause damage, eventually rendering the CD unreadable.
  4. Avoid solvent cleaners like acetone and solvent-based permanent markers. Solvents can disrupt the lacquer, again raising the risk of moisture damage, or even damage the polycarbonate itself, making the CD unreadable.
  5. Don’t use adhesive labels. These labels can attract and trap moisture against the CDs surface. If they begin to detach, they can also disrupt playback in a CD drive.
  6. Keep CDs away from direct sunlight and heat. Remember that data is encoded on a CD-R using the heat energy of a laser to modify a layer of dye. Over time, sunlight and heat can impact the dye in much the same way. One study by Slattery et al. suggested that just a few weeks of direct sun exposure could damage some CD-Rs considerably. Even mass-produced CDs should be kept away from heat to prevent warping.
  7. Clean moisture off a CD with a soft, dry cloth. Wipe from the center of¬† the CD toward the edge – never in a circle. Scratches which are concentric to the CD’s edge can result in large patches of unreadable data.
  8. Finally Рmake a backup copy of the CD! Slattery et al. suggest that CD-Rs with a phthalocyanine dye and a silver and gold alloy reflective layer may offer the best long-term storage. Store the backups as described above.

Even after you’ve backed up your CDs, keep in mind that data and software also become obsolete. For instance, one CD I recently used contained files in a now-obsolete format from an antiquated version of a proprietary computer program. Thankfully, the program was created by a large company which is still in operation, and which provides information on ‘upgrading’ the files – but this isn’t always the case. Some filetypes may only be accessible via a specific program, and that program might require obsolete hardware or software. For very important files, consider making copies in a format indicated for long-term storage. The Digital Preservation Coalition’s handbook is a good place to start.

New options for data storage are routinely marketed to consumers and professionals alike, but enduring forms like the book are a rarity. Projects like The Museum of Obsolete Media demonstrate how quickly the devices which store our memories and artifacts become lost to time. Obsolescence always brings us back to an interlocking set of questions that trail collectors of all kinds: What should I keep? Why? How? Answers to these questions remain contentious even among archivists, but in the rush to preserve or the calm of letting something slip away I think we learn something interesting about ourselves and the historical moments we live in.


References:

Byers, Fred R. Care and Handling of CDs and DVDs – A Guide for Librarians and Archivists (National Institute of Standards and Technology and Council on Library and Information Resources, 2003).

Harvey, Ross, Martha R. Mahard, Preservation Management Handbook (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014), <http://www.myilibrary.com?ID=595041> ( 31 January 2018)

Slattery, O., Lu, R., Zheng, J., Byers, F., & Tang, X. (2004). Stability comparison of recordable optical discs-A study of error rates in harsh conditions. Journal of Research of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, 109(5), 517-524. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.library.arizona.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/214789596?accountid=8360

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 Рnot 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 Рjust 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.)

 

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.

 

Minimal Processing, Maximal Learning

Since my last blog post, I’ve moved on from the Joe Carithers Papers (now open to researchers!) and onward to the John W. Murphey Records. That’s a tentative name for approximately 40 boxes of drafts, ledgers, correspondence, records, and flooring samples donated to Special Collections by the Arizona Architectural Archives. The materials show the day-to-day operations of the John W. Murphey and Leo B. Keith Building Company here in Tucson, Arizona.

Besides offering insight into mid-20th century house construction, the Murphey Records are the subject of my first attempt at something archivists call MPLP: More Product, Less Process.

 

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A snapshot of the Murphey Records in-progress, as I ‘rough sort’ through the types of materials.

 

MPLP was proposed by Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner back in 2005 as a means of working through archival backlogs. Greene and Meissner suggested that archivists spend too much time organizing archival objects down to the last semiotic bit and describing the life out of every archival collection. As a result, archives are forced to make materials available at a glacial pace. The authors asserted that, far from being a credit to the profession, this obsession with perfection was detrimental to researchers, the public, and the viability of the archives in a world of budget crunches. Instead, we should ask how much processing a collection really needs in order to be useful to researchers and responsibly available to the public.

 

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A hefty ledger from the Catalina Foothills Estates, one of Murphey and Keith’s projects, dated 1935.

 

The Murphey Records are a great candidate for MPLP treatment. For instance, the records contain approximately 20 boxes of job files, all in their original folders and organized by job number. Traditionally, an archive would re-folder these materials and provide new labels, or maybe re-order them based on client names or project dates. Per MPLP, however, I’m leaving these folders as they are. Prior to digital finding aids, this might have made the records less accessible but researchers nowadays can easily CTRL+F their way through the finding aid and find the folder they need, even if they don’t know the job number.

 

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Replacing folders only as needed. Old folders (red) are seen alongside new ones (green).

 

As a wholly unscientific observation, I think a lot of archivists are detail-obsessed. We like to produce resources which are hyper-specific, visually clean, and impeccably researcher. We are also likely to be detail-paralyzed – perpetually quagmired in anxiety about making the wrong decision. MPLP asks us to balance our commitment to quality with the reality that no archival resource will ever be perfectly processed, and maybe we don’t want it to be. This can be difficult to accept, but I think it’s also a way of showing respect for the intelligence of researchers – who often come to the archives for the same reason we choose to work in them, to experience a collective of materials with complicated and contradictory interrelationships – not all of which can be described or explained by the archivist. Through my first MPLP experience, I’m learning to monitor the moments when I want to constrain or define the meaning of materials through excessive organization, and finding MPLP a useful call to share rather than master these records.