The Archives Ghost(s)

In honor of Halloween, I wanted to direct attention to a unique member of the Special Collections team: The Archives Ghost(s). When you’re working downstairs in the ‘basement’ of an archive, there are often strange things that happen. Many will tell you that your mind plays tricks on you. You think you hear a sound, but it can easily be explained away as a water pipe or creaky door. You see the lights flash in the motion-sensor aisles and think glitches happen.  But for many of us, we wonder if there is an Archives Ghost that lurks throughout the collections.


Clearly, this is not our particular Archives Ghost because no one has been able to catch the apparition on camera. Yet we’d like to think of the Archives Ghost as a friendly individual that helps us maintain the collections, and hope that we do a worthy job of protecting the treasures that the Archives Ghost oversees.

Some have reported hearing a voice in the annex area, but when you round the corner, there is no one there. Many have reported that while working the motion sensor lights in aisles will turn on, which creates a distinct clicking sound. Yet no one will be in the aisle when you get up to go investigate. Others are even certain that folders will have been moved from one side of a table to another with no explanation. And of course, there have been times when it seems to be oddly cold downstairs.

There are, of course, many that would explain these instances away. Voices belong to people that move. Technology can do strange things by itself. While cleaning someone may have moved folders. And we work in a temperature controlled archive so of course when the a/c comes on, it gets cold for a moment. These are all reasonable explanations. However, if you work in an archive and feel like there may be otherworldly helpers watching over the collections, you’re not alone. Perhaps we all have an Archives Ghost(s) making sure we’re doing our best to preserve their materials!



Birds Just Want to Have Fun: The Photographs of Laurence M. Huey (MS 241)

While it is not a secret that I love birds, I will pretend that this is a fact you do not yet know about me.  But my name is Michelle and I love birds. I’m also a peristerophile (someone that loves and cares for pigeons). Now that we’ve been properly introduced… you can imagine how excited I was when I saw the following manuscript labels on a collection I was not yet familiar with:


Photographs of Laurence M. Huey (MS 241). 

Traditionally, manuscript labels are simplistic. They’re in black and white text and include the manuscript identifier (MS 241), the name of the collection, and a box number. So, you can imagine my excitement that there was a bird waving at me, practically screaming, “Look at this collection!” 

Laurence M. Huey was the Curator of Birds and Mammals for the Dan Diego Natural History Museum from 1922 to 1962. His photographs include pictures from his trips across Baja California, the United States, Canada, Central America, and South America. Many of his subjects are birds because Huey loved birds *almost* as much as I do.

Now, I’m not sure where Huey found a single mallard duck in the middle of the White Mountains, but it is plausible. And it is adorable!


(MS241_Box2_Folder3): Young Stephens Whip-poor-will. June 1931. (Photo N-7874).

I was also very excited when I found several different photographs of hummingbirds in their nests. If you’ve ever seen a hummingbird, you know how fast they are. You also know that trying to photograph the tiny birds is extremely stressful, and you often end up with lots of ‘dud’ photographs. Yet Huey had an amazing eye for hummingbirds, their nests, and their young.


Another fun photograph was titled “Little husband, little wife!” and depicts two Phimbious Gnatcatchers creating their home in Western Arizona, near the Lucky Star Mine, in Mohave County. The photograph was taken in April 1938.


(MS241_Box2_Folder9). Phimbious gnatcatchers (N-7891).

Huey took several photographs of different birds sitting on branches. Whether flying solo or playing with friends, it is clear these birds were entertaining themselves and photographers.

Huey also enjoyed capturing birds feeding their young.


(ms241_box2_folder18): Ash Throated Crested Flycatcher building a nest in Yavapai County, Congress Juntion area (n-7888).

Finding odd/irregular nesting locations was a bonus for Huey.


(ms241_box2_folder18): Ash Throated Flycatchers. May 20-25, 1941 in the Congress Junction area, Yavapai County, Arizona. One bird entering a nest (in post!) and one watching for danger (n-8236).

Huey also liked to find groups of birds. As I am sure you have heard, the best things sometimes come in sets of three!

Other birds are interesting specimens because they have some amazingly unique “hairdos” that should be shared with the public.


(ms241_box2_folder19): Yuma County, Arizona (n-7925).

This prominent crest would be passed on to another generation of adorable birds–which Huey also photographed.


(ms241_box2_folder19): Phainopipla feeding young in Castle Dome, Yuma County, Arizona. April 21, 1935 (n-7901).

And if you think I forgot to include a photograph of several different bird nests that Huey photographed… here is the photo you have been waiting for!


(ms241_box6_folder3): Several photographs from the collection that show different styles of bird nests. 

I hope that you now share my love of birds just a bit more. The Laurence M. Huey collection contains a large grouping of different avian photographs–I hope to intrigue you with a few selections from Box 2, which features birds from Arizona. But if you would like to go “bird watching” in the Special Collections library, there are numerous bird sightings to be had in this collection. To take a look at the collection guide, feel free to click this link: MS 241.

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:


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.


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!


Digital Collections: The Future or a Curse?

Recently, I entered a heated debate with a friend about e-books, via Facebook, of all places! A voracious reader, I have always preferred to hold a book in my hands. I enjoy the way the paper smells, its feel beneath my fingers, and I own a large bookmark collection. Despite having a Kindle and storing books on it, I find it hard to read there. But my friend, and many others, are of the digital age and believe everything is more accessible online.

While working at Special Collections–specifically, examining old movie posters that show 1signs of mildew and mold–I began to wonder if digital collections are becoming the new “norm” for archivists. Adding things to the digital sphere is becoming common everywhere I turn, but would entirely digital archival collections lose something special if I could only view them from a screen? Special Collections currently does host several digital online collections. Most of these collections are not representative of an entire collection, but are instead smaller selections aimed to draw interest.

I decided to explore the Records of the San Rafael Cattle Company (AZ 122). I have a

fondness for ranching and cattle so this collection stood out to me as a researcher. Visiting the digital collection, I was able to start examining the Bylaws for the company. The digital collection has an interface that allows you to look at the collection page-by-page. You can zoom in if you want to look at something in more depth. While meant to be a “quick” way to explore the collection, I personally found that it was harder to navigate the side panel (because it does not title each item in the folder, only gives page numbers) than it would be to sit down with the folder in the Reading Room and search through the collection one document at a time. But… that does not mean that having access to digital collections is not an amazing feature of the digital world.

My primary research focus for my dissertation work is on the Maori. Traveling to New Zealand to visit an archive, as you can imagine, would take a great deal of planning, time, and let’s face it: money. Luckily the National Library has online collections that allow researchers unable to travel long distances access to some of their materials.

While many of us still want to hold things in our hands, there is also the obstacle of getting to archives that are far away from our research. And this is true for researchers using Special Collections’ digital materials, exhibits, and collections. So even though you may never see me holding an e-book…you’ll definitely see me exploring digital archives as a way to begin my research journeys.

If you’ve never browsed the digital collections at Special Collections, I suggest taking a virtual tour to let your mind explore.

Additions: when donors and collections keep giving and growing!

A great deal of my work at Special Collections has including processing collections from their infancy. The Jack Sheaffer Photographic Collection was a labor of love that took nearly five years to complete. I was then extremely excited to process the Sam Levitz Photographic Collection. One of my favorite parts of working with Levitz’s photographic material was telling Tucsonans, who know the family for their furniture, about Sam’s interest in photography. After all, it was Levitz who hired and trained Sheaffer, who later became one of the most prominent photographers for the Arizona Daily Star newspaper. I’ve also worked on many smaller collections.

Recently, I’ve been working with additionsI like to think of additions as joyful materials that come to Special Collections with a purpose–they already know which collection they want to be a part of, and they’re not taking ‘no’ for an answer. Additions come in many forms: paper-type documents, ephemera, audio-visual materials, CD/DVDs, etc. In some cases these additions are donated by new donors who, having found a certain collection at Special Collections, realize they have items that would fit perfectly within our existing collection. For example, the below record is a vital addition to the USS Arizona collection and represents music that would otherwise be missing from the discussion and representation of the USS Arizona’s full experience.



Additions can sometimes create unique challenges for an archivist. In many cases, additions can be easily placed within an existing collection. In example, a single black and white photograph will likely fit within an established folder within the collection. When processing a collection, an archivist will leave a little ‘wiggle room’ in each folder and box to (1) make sure the materials are not too cramped and (2) in anticipation of any later additions. My own addition work has included a lot of ‘easy’ additions where materials can be added to existing boxes.

But not all materials are easily added to the collection. I found this to be true when working with some recent Papers of Morris K. Udall additions. While many of these Udall additions were photographs, letters, and other documents that could be added to existing folder and boxes, there were a few unique items that needed a more personal touch. These items include oversized framed photographs that include pens used for legislation signings, a large wooden clock carved in the shape of Arizona, and statues gifted to Morris K. Udall from different individuals and groups.


A statue by Arturo Montoya. Presented to Morris K. Udall in appreciation from the Pascua Yaqui tribe. This is one of the unique additions to the collection. The statue is very fragile and required special housing to make sure it remains in good condition. (MS 325, Box 782)

Due to the nature of many of these items, I had to decide several things about each piece.

  1. How should this item be housed/stored?
  2. Does this item fit anywhere in the existing collection?
  3. If the item needs its own new box, and does not fit within the collection…where should we add it?

Of course, it takes a lot of time to gather similar materials and group them together to try to keep the flow of the collection intact. It then takes a lot of time to determine how to best house/store each item. For some larger framed items it was decided to move them to an oversized item area and leave them framed, outside of boxes, but give them unique identifiers. Items like statues were housed in boxes if they fit well within standard archival boxes, but there is one large saguaro rib statue that remains wrapper in bubble wrap and it is being stored in the oversized materials area. Because of the fragility of the piece, it made the most sense to leave the item securely wrapped.

Despite all of the work, additions are a labor of love. I am able to take items that have been saved, preserved, and donated to our collections and make


them available to the public. And sometimes, you may even get compliments and congratulations about your efforts. Yet my passion comes from finding these hidden treasures and reuniting them with the collections they were born to be added to. Every item is special and unique by itself, but now that I’ve seen the USS Arizona record I cannot imagine the collection without it. Now that the Morris K. Udall collection has statues, tokens of appreciation and gratitude from those he helped while in office, I hope that more objects of this nature come to fill the shelves. Even though I love every minute of processing a collection from beginning to end… there is something magical about making small additions.

Space: Is your library running out of it?

One of the most iconic scenes in film occurs when the Beast allows Belle to enter his extensive library, where of course she is mesmerized. 1bbAs a young bibliophile I was amazed as well and, of course, desired to have a similar set-up in the future. Perhaps this is part of the reason that I wound up in a Special Collections Library. Just like the Belle, I love books, and just like the Beast, I have a deep desire to preserve them. But what this iconic scene fails to mention is: maintaining a large library is more work than one often bargains for. More importantly–what happens when you run out of shelving space?!

Running out of space is something that most consumers of modern technology have come across. For example, your iTunes library can become cluttered. You can download 2too many games onto your XBox. I myself once saved too many photos on my phone and had to delete photos before I could save more. Similarly, libraries and archives alike only have so much space to work with, and at some point begin to wonder how much space they really have left.

When public libraries run out of space, they turn to their catalog for help. Older books, or books that have not been checked out in over a specific amount of time (it depends on the library, but is usually a year or longer), often find themselves in the dreaded discard pile. Jamaica Library in Queens, New York, is one of many libraries that had to discard hundreds of books in 2017 in order to make room on the shelves for newer selections, resulting in the following (heartbreaking) photo:

Over the past few weeks, Special Collections has been undergoing a project to clear up space in their ever-growing archive. Due to the nature of the materials held in Special Collections, we do not send items to the discard pile. Clearing up space means moving boxes from one area to another, consolidating space, and sometimes re-organizing entire collections. This involves a great deal of manual labor, which I have found both enjoyable (free workout!) and tedious (some of these boxes are heavy!). Yet even a shift does not “create” new space in the four corners of the defined library space.

Special Collections still has space within its walls, but I now have a new appreciation for just how much work goes into collection management. Acquiring, processing, and housing materials is just a piece of a much larger puzzle. You also have to make sure that there is a spot on the shelf for these items. It is a delicate shifting game, one that is extremely fun to participate in, but it is also eye-opening and leaves a bit of a worry in the back of my mind: what happens when all the space is gone?

Sticky-shed syndrome in Audiotapes

In a recent post, I discussed audio cassette tapes and their recent re-appearance on the market with popular movie franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m certain that plenty of people will be receiving a copy of this cassette tape during the holiday season. Many will likely begin digging through old boxes in the garage to find more tapes to play, suddenly nostalgic for their golden years. But before you begin sticking old tapes that have been in storage into your boom-box, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: sticky-shed syndrome. 

This condition is one most archivists run across while processing old audio/visual materials, but is very much a threat for anyone that is holding onto audiotape. So what is sticky-shed syndrome? In short, it is a condition created by the deterioration of the binders in a magnetic tape, which hold the iron oxide magnetizable coating to its plastic carrier, or which hold the thinner back-coating on the outside of tape If this sounds confusing, don’t worry. I’ve borrowed an image from Imperial College to help show you what we’re talking about…

Sticky-Shed Syndrome

A closer look at sticky-shed syndrome from Imperial College, UK.

As you can see in the close-up above, the coating of a/v audio often begins to deteriorate over time. The binder (or ‘glue’) that holds the oxide (dark coloration on the tape) on the tape can become damage over time. Soaking up water, including humidity from inside of a garage in the Arizona heat, is one explanation for why this occurs.

If you have any audiotape, it could be at risk. The best thing to do before attempting to play old cassettes or other audio media you’ve been storing is to give the tape a quick inspection. If you see “dust” in a case, it is likely oxide particles that have fallen off, and you likely have a tape with some serious issues. If you don’t see any immediate damage, you can always insert the tape into a player. But, if you hear loud screeching sounds on the tape as you attempt to play or rewind/fast-forward, STOP. This is another sign that there are problems with the tape.


Sticky-shed from attempting to play older tapes.

What are your options if you have a tape that you suspect has sticky-shed syndrome? There is one easy at-home remedy that you can always try: Move the tape to a dryer, lower-humidity climate. Sometimes the tapes can “dry” by themselves, the extra moisture will be gone, and the tape can then be salvaged. If this does work, you should definitely consider migrating the tape to a newer form of technology.

Baking is another semi-risky procedure where you literally bake the tape at low temperatures. There’s not a set procedure for doing this, and different labs/technicians/hobbyists have different methods. At times this will dry the tape out enough so that it can quickly be recorded onto a newer media format. Other times, the tapes have been known to catch fire, so there definitely is a risk involved. Even the best technicians admit that sometimes baking does not help a tape. If most of the oxide coating is gone, no amount of baking will be able to perfect the tape.

Keeping audiotape away from humid temperatures is highly recommended. Whenever possible, store them in air-tight containers. Whenever possible, do convert any tape you have to another form of media to further preserve it. While sticky-shed syndrome is more common in certain stock brands (Ampex/Scotch-3M, etc.) it can occur in any brand. One of the best methods for preservation is migration to a new format.