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.


No comments: