Friday, June 13, 2008


When people ask me what my job is, I tell them that I am an archivist. When people ask what an archivist is, my answer is either short and somewhat vague (I arrange and describe archival collections) or in depth and detailed (I physically and intellectually arrange archival collections in folders and boxes, and then create descriptive tools such as MARC records and finding aids to help researchers understand what forms of materials are in the collection, how to find specific things in the collection, the intellectual content of the collection, and how that content may be useful to their research). Then there are the follow up questions: What is an archival collection? What's a MARC record? What do you mean by "intellectual arrangement?

Actually, most people don't go that far in their questioning. Most people respond to my explanation with, Oh, you work in a library. But sometimes I explain all of that anyway. I've always thought though, that if people actually saw what I do every day, how archivists take dusty boxes of "miscellaneous" and turn them into acid free boxes of Series 1, Subseries 2, Folders 1-20, and understood all of the research and documentation that goes into writing the description, then people would be way more interested, not just in my job but also in the idea of archives in general. So here are two photos of typical boxes from the New York Chamber of Commerce collection, pre-arrangement.

What is in these boxes? How old are these papers? Why did the Chamber keep them? Where did they come from? Why would a researcher want to see them? At this point, I only have a few, vague answers to these questions. This particular archival collection has a long and storied history, one that it accumulated over the years since its original creation. The collection has been transferred from desk to drawer to cabinet to box, from office to storage closet to basement to warehouse. Along the way it has been exposed to humidity and varying temperatures, not to mention that it has been stewing in its own acidity since birth.

So what do we do when we get a box like this? Well, this is the part of the job that we call processing. It has a certain factory worker ring to it, but I think its usually the part that archivists like most about their job. This is the part where we get to go through boxes and exclaim over weird finds like carved wooden figurines or miniature handwritten journals or the occasional illicit image. We don't have time to read everything--nor would we want to in most cases--but we do get to see the finest details of every collection we process. Some are more exciting than others, but you always hope that you are going to find something unique and noteworthy.



Nick Patterson said...

Hi Jillian,

Interesting the Faber "pencil from the clouds" logo!

I work in the Music & Arts Library, and I'm currently working on the archives of the Computer Music Center. I'm also blogging the processing, at

I'm doing this as the completion of my MLS program at Pratt, where I've done the archives concentration. However, this is my first collection, so, I'd love to be able to benefit from your expertise!

Also, are you aware of any other similar processing blogs? It might be nice to aggregate them somewhere!

Best, /Nick

Karen King said...

I too enjoy reading this blog - especially the "behind the scenes" aspect.

I work in the Broadcasting Archives at the University of Maryland as the Acting Curator of the National Public broadcasting Archives.


Cathleen Miller said...

I think that documenting the processing of collections is an idea whose time has come. We are also blogging about processing the papers of the Chew family of Philadelphia. You can check out our site at I started this blog for many of the same reasons you mentioned in your email to the archives list. We have gotten lots of great feedback from researchers and others.

I look forward to seeing how your blog develops.


js said...

Nick, there's the Hugh Morton processing blog at UNC: