Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Room with a View

The name of this blog, "Notes from 2M11" refers to the room number of our office (I guess it also refers, in embarrassing cliché, to Notes from Underground, but that's so sadly first year English major, that I'm hiding it in parentheses). Although the RBML is on the 6th floor of Butler Library, Katie and I occupy this "satellite" location on the second floor mezzanine.

We are lucky. We have a window which we stare moodily out of when the sun is shining in a cloudless blue sky, watching Columbia students blithely enjoying their young lives. We can listen to NPR and shout at the inanity of commentators without bothering neighbors or students or passersby. We have quite a bit of floor space which is generally unheard of in this profession. We don't have luxuries like desk drawers or supply closets or water coolers, but we are content nonetheless.

Anyway, last week Katie and I came to a realization that if we didn't act soon, our office was going to be overrun. Archival boxes were piling up, spreading across shelves and desks like kudzu.

Exhibit A (in which you can catch a glimpse of our window):

Exhibit B (which kind of scares me, frankly):

So we assessed the situation, considered our resources, and then did what any similarly space squeezed archivist would do--we created a makeshift processing table in the middle of the room out of record carton boxes:

This mini-desk gave us just enough space to organize, reorganize, label, and barcode our "processed" manuscript boxes so we can send them off to off-site storage. We are at what is kind of the mid point of our processing. We've gone through almost 200 boxes of materials, and most of those almost 200 have been weeded, re-foldered, temporarily labeled, re-housed in archival manuscript boxes, and recorded on our work-in-progress finding aid. We still have quite a bit of work to do with this collection, but for now, clearing out about 80 MS boxes was quite a relief. So hurray for accomplishments, and hopefully we can repeat this send off again sometime soon.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Discards: A Love Story

Like many archivists, one of my favorite aspects of the job is throwing stuff away. The thrill of throwing out bags and bags and boxes and boxes of discards never quite fades. Its like that satisfactory feeling you get from cleaning out the garage or your closet. Here's a look at the discards that Katie and I have amassed during processing over the last week or so (two and a half bags of paper, one record carton of binders and bound volumes):

Ok, so most people that are not familiar with processing or archives are horrified by this. "But it's from the turn of the century!" they say. Or, "But look how pretty the design is!" Or, "What if it has some undiscovered research value?" they ask. So I then ask them to consider this: If you are a researcher and you are interested in using an archival collection that amounts to over 300 manuscript and oversized boxes, and you aren't quite sure what you are looking for or which materials are going to be useful to your research, will you be happy to know that every folder you search through contains an inordinate amount of duplicated material? Would you want to wade through countless daily memos that a secretary sent to the Vice President in 1912 that relates mundane information such as a meeting was cancelled or the location changed or an interview has been rescheduled? Would you like to open a box that should contain information related to an important conference, only to find that all of the folders are filled with receipts related to the catering of the conference? No, of course not. Most likely, you would be looking for information on the content presented in the conference, the attendees or speakers, speeches given, resolutions made, etc. So that's the stuff that we save, folder, box, and describe in our finding aids. The receipts however, are thrown out with much glee and satisfaction.

The Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia, like most institutions with archival holdings, has a processing guide for its archivists which specifies record retention guidelines that follow best practice procedures established by the archival profession. (It seems that there will always be some disagreement in this profession as to what should be saved and what should be thrown out, and I imagine that each institution's retention guidelines vary according to its own interests.) So don't worry, we aren't just randomly throwing out materials according to our own personal whims. Sometimes, we do tend to get a bit sentimental about things we are discarding, as I did when I came across these slim, smart looking bank account books the other day:

They date from the 1880s, are really lovely light tan leather, and feel not unlike a moleskine notebook in your hand. But, although it seems from the writing on the front that they were intended to be used to keep track of special fund accounts, they are blank on the inside. Meaning they have no real research value, at least in terms of the scope of this collection. So . . . we are discarding them, albeit with a slightly heavy heart. I guess no love story is complete without some trials and tribulations.

As a side note, sometimes we do hold onto discards. If something does seem to have research value, but is not pertinent to the collection that it came with, archivists often donate it to an appropriate institution. Occasionally, if a to-be-discarded item catches someone's eye--a button, or a flier, or an odd paperback--it may be rescued by that person or hung on an office wall. I should be clear though, that this is only after an item is determined to be a discard, and archivists' professional standards hold us to an objective view in that determination process.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Secret Transmissions

Katie, who is assisting me on this project, is still stuck in the mire of arbitration correspondence from the 1920s. She is always finding all sorts of weird communications--sarcastic replies, indignant feedback, or the occasional advertisement for curing baldness. Correspondence is really such a great way to get a feel for the spirit of an organization or a person, or to get a peek into how people really feel about things. But, yes, I know--a lot of it can be pretty boring, too. Anyway, Katie recently came across this Western Union telegram (or cablegram, I guess):

It's easy to discern that "Bernheimer" is the addressee and that "Tulloch" is the sender, but it's that line above "Tulloch" that catches the eye. What does that garbled message mean, you wonder? Well, just consult the code key:

The translated code is confirmed in the letter that follows:

One can only assume that the message was coded because it is related to a private legal matter; I guess it's similar to encryption methods used today. It makes me wonder though, how often was this coding method employed and how it was translated? Who came up with the code? Was a new one used for every case or incident? How does the receiver find out the key to the code? I like the idea of law firms and businesses sending out secret decoder rings to clients and associates,

or secretaries poring over confidential memos that lay out the key.

Any code experts out there, if you have some insight in to this, please feel free to let me know.