What am I going to do with all this? My first day I sat in a cubicle with four boxes of disorganized mess and wondered what it was I had gotten myself into. My main project at SCPC was to process Councilman Luther J. Battiste’s papers. As much as I loved my archives management course, I felt ill prepared to process the ‘collection’ in front of me. It seemed like such a jumble. Where does one even start? To be honest, before this internship I didn’t really understand why archives bother keeping most of what they do. A few days into inventorying the collection, though, not only did Luther Battiste start to take shape but so did Columbia. I learned more about Columbia and local government through processing Battiste’s papers than I probably would have if I had taken a class on it and so could anyone else who looks through his papers in the future. This is worth keeping. By themselves, each individual item is pretty worthless, but keeping them together allows the materials to lend each other context.
My supervisors are internship masterminds. When I finished the Battiste collection early, they gave me a small portion of a larger collection to work on. The Battiste papers were only 3.75 linear feet processed. The Sanford campaigns that I worked on were 4 or so boxes in a collection of 180. I processed about the same volume of materials for this collection in ¼ of the time it took to process the Battiste papers. Now, I’ll give some of that time to the experience I gained with the previous collection, but it is also the nature of a much larger collection. I was much less detailed in my processing.
There is tension to being an archivist; there is a push to process efficiently due to backlog, and yet, there is pull to remain as detailed as possible so that researchers and archivists alike know what is in a collection. And then there is the cost of processing to consider. I imagine that if archiving were like a commercial where the price tag for materials, staff time, and storage hovered over each part of the collection that our decisions during processing would look much different. It took me 2 full work days to sort Sanford’s campaign correspondence into general, congratulatory, and contributions. Is it worth the price tag to sort the correspondence? For Sanford, I think it is worth the time, for another collection maybe not. What I have learned is that archival management really comes down to one thing…context. There is no one answer for how a collection should be processed, stored, or described. A ‘good’ archivist is one who is able to make the best decisions about management for their archive at that particular time.
Oh, and they need to be able to fight fires with the appropriate sweeping motion.
Editor’s Note: Karli Mair, a graduate student at Syracuse University, was our 2013 Schuyler L. and Yvonne Moore Intern. She processed the Luther J. Battiste Papers and the Mark Sanford Campaign Records. We asked her to reflect on her internship and what she learned this summer. Here’s what she had to say: