Saturday, February 16, 2013

Another head*desk day at the museum

I spent a few hours at the local county historical museum yesterday. After I rejoined the county historical society last year, I looked around to see where my skill set would be most useful to the museum. It didn't take me long to figure out that the archives were a mess. Over the years, the historical society has been remarkably successful in obtaining donations of artifacts and documents. The holdings include records from local businesses and fraternal orders, family histories, scrapbooks, and various historic documents. There is a wealth of material. There was one thing that society had apparently never possessed, however, and that was someone who knew how to file.

The first time I looked in a filing cabinet, my immediate reaction was to mutter, "Holy shit," and then close the drawer quickly. There were multiple 4-drawer filing cabinets, and each one was a mess. Unlabeled file folders, folders that were labeled but had contents that didn't match up at all with what the label said, multiple file folders with the same name. Naturally, nothing had ever been cataloged or accessioned; finding aids were nonexistent. This wasn't a surprise; most people don't join historical societies because they love to file. They join because they're interested in some aspect of local history and enjoy talking about it with fellow enthusiasts. When I asked the other volunteers how they ever found anything, the answer was "Jim knows where everything is." They apparently believed Jim was going to live forever, which, of course, no one does.

So I asked Jim [the historical society president] if it was okay with him if I took a stab at creating finding aids and getting the archives into some sort of order. His response was an enthusiastic yes. That was back in June. Since then I put in a few hours a day one or two days a week at the museum slowly going through the vertical files.

I never trained as an archivist so I do have moments when I wonder if I'm doing it right -- I'm definitely doing some stuff wrong because the historical society has never had the budget to purchase the right supplies (buffered acid-free file folders, for example) -- but I do know the alphabet (more or less). I've also heard that you're supposed to create finding aids after you're done cataloging, but I'm doing it more or less simultaneously. The nice thing about everything being computerized is that it'll be easy to either clump or split subject headings as the collections sort themselves out. As long as the catalog/finding aid is a Word file, it'll be easy enough to find almost anything by using the Find function.

One sure thing is that every time I go in, there will be at least one head*desk moment, sometimes several. It isn't just that stuff is misfiled or badly labeled. There's also the frustration of finding truly nifty things that have been literally vandalized by well-meaning people who didn't know better -- e.g., historic photos that have information written on the front with a ballpoint pen -- or interesting newspaper clippings that have no identifying information (what newspaper printed the article and when?) or are incomplete. I've found a lot of second pages of articles with no first page to accompany them and vice versa. You know, a clipping with no context or incomplete content isn't particularly useful to anyone, either an ordinary person looking for genealogical information or a scholar doing academic research.

My head*desk moment yesterday came when I found several No. 10 envelopes tucked to one side in a file drawer. Each one was just bulging with newspaper clippings; none of the clippings included the name of the paper and almost none had the date of publication. It is, incidentally, positively amazing just how many newspaper clippings it's possible to cram into one business-sized envelope.

One envelope was labeled "local businesses" and turned out to be full of box ads for various businesses in Baraga County. There was, of course, no information given on which newspaper or papers the ads had been clipped from. A few of the ads did have dates written on them, so it's possible to know that during 1948  a local hardware store was having a 3-box cars sale on new refrigerators. (Not just one box car load of refrigerators, mind you, but three! They must have been counting on a lot of demand for new appliances.) Unfortunately, the dates were written in ink right on the ads -- not above or below it or on the back of the clippings, but right in the ad. Which means, of course, that not only is that ink going to make the paper rot faster, it makes the ads harder to work with for curatorial purposes. As soon as I saw the ads, I thought they'd be cool to work with to create a photo montage for a background in an exhibit case highlighting local businesses, but all those handwritten dates would be a bitch to photoshop out.

Then I opened the envelope labeled "deaths," looked at the mess, realized it included not just obituaries but also marriages (which really makes one wonder about the label on the envelope), and decided it was time to quit for the day. Even my CDO has its limits.


  1. I have never done archival work, but I have done two history researches and delt with unorganized data.

    I am presently researching my wife's genealogy to establish her kinship to a local Indian tribe through her great-grandmother.

    I salute your commitment.
    the Ol'Buzzard

  2. I am passing this one on to our friend KB who is an archivist with Saskatchewan Archives and to my daughter Lyn who is a librarian at a high school in North London. Lyn has been there one year and a half and will be another year and a half there until her contract runs out. By that time IF she is lucky she will have cleaned up the mess left by the previous librarian. it is Lyn's first real job as a librarian and she is learning. Your post should let her know she is not alone.

  3. After nature turns everything to dust and compost none of this will make any difference anyway, I think I'll just go fishing.

  4. Is the old man going to get a decent motor for that boat this year?

  5. Well, it may all be compost eventually but until then it's got to be organized so the people who want to use it can find it. Paper takes a long, long time to compost when it's in a filing cabinet in a controlled environment. Even if cheap newsprint will last for centuries if it's kept dry and away from sunlight.

  6. But is the old man going to get a decent motor on the boat this year?

  7. As long as the ice is a foot thick and growing thicker on the Bay, he's not thinking about the boat. I don't think he has much choice, though. If he wants to use the boat, he has to get a different motor.


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