A Semester at the WRHS Archives

I began my internship at Western Reserve Historical Society’s research library in August 2017. I was a bit familiar with the building from previous research done there. In the beginning, I spent a bit of time in the first few weeks going through their required paperwork and doing various things to get set up for actually working with the collection. It was a long process, but paid off when I was recognized as an intern there and had my name badge.

The first step they assigned to me was to familiarize myself with archival processes. That process involved a decent amount of reading. I spent nearly the entirety of my first week in the office reading about how to process the various types of documents and images according to the methods covered in the documents given to me. These documents were the WRHS processing guide and an article called “More Product, Less Process”. The article and the guide were long documents and I especially recommend the second one as reading to people interested in archival work. Though it has practical recommendations that seemed very sensible to me, it also contained insights into the state of archives around the world.  A quick summary of “More Product, Less Process”, the article was about how far behind archives are in processing their backlog and guidelines to speed up that processing while still covering what people need from archives. All archives have backlogs and most archives are years behind at what were, at the time of publication, current speeds. Apparently, the article helped change archival processes, but many archives will never overcome their backlogs.

After completing the necessary reading list, I started to dig into my collection. My work was specifically to archive the papers donated by a 100 year old woman named Clara Rankin. She had donated her and her husband’s papers. They were surprisingly well organized. The first step saw the archivist and myself go into the basement where the immensity of the backlog first struck me. Sitting down there on enormous steel shelving all of which were piled high with boxes, flags, maps, and memorabilia sat the Wester Reserve Historical Society backlog. The storage in the basement was just for the archives too. The museum section, which I later asked an archival worker about, was believed to have a back log of similar scope. After moving and looking at box after box of papers, we shuffled things around enough to get to what we sought and took a sizeable pile of boxes, but, according to the archivist, this was still on the small side for a collection of papers. The boxes were moved up and sat in a processing room where some remain as they are still continuing to be processed. Later, more were added to the still not insubstantial pile of boxes.

After assembling the materials in the processing room, I went through the files and donation paperwork. This is apparently the first step and I took an overview inventory of whether I had all of the boxes. Then I began to look and see if the inventory of the boxes were correct to what we had listed. While doing so, I surveyed the material present and did a brief overview of everything in the boxes to be processed. While completing my survey, I took a few pages of hand-written notes. The notes were on the contents of the boxes with additional speculation of a future organizational framework. After doing these tasks and organizing the boxes, I went to work creating a real organizational framework with the archivist for the entire collection before me. In the end, it looked like some sort of poorly assembled bullet point list written on a pad of legal paper with random notes added here and there. However, the framework turned out to be a solid one despite its lack of presentational charm. I had separated the papers into two major groups, the first was the Rankin family and the other was the ancestors of the Rankins primarily Clara. These two groups were then further subdivided into smaller sections. During this initial planning phase, I had the guidance of the museum archivist, Hannah, who advised me on my plan and where I would need to include or change things.

Processing a collection was a learning experience for multiple reasons. The first was because many of the organizations processes were not the same methods as in the literature they had me read on the topic. Another reason was that being inexperienced, I was afraid to remove things from the collection. I feared that removing letters or papers would lose something important, so I frequently asked questions about whether I should remove or where things should go. Related to that, I also had the occasional trouble placing stuff and questions about what to do when faced with weird stuff, like an envelope of hair (I kept it). Initially, the project went quickly and I was confident I could get it done by the end of the semester. As time wore on, my progress slowed. The primarily reason for slowing of the work was because later boxes were less well organized than the earlier ones.

To keep progress on the materials going, archivists say that the most important skill to develop when processing a collection is avoiding reading the documents that you are processing. This speeds up the process significantly in my experience. Many days at this internship have been spent looking at the postal stamp, opening up a letter, pulling it out, flattening it, and without actually looking at the content, putting it in a folder sorted by month. Then repeating the process for five more hours. Much more exciting was trying to solve the puzzles that would crop up. For example, the donor wrote many names as initials, such as EST (Edith Smith Taplin). Figuring out initials was an interesting challenge that was necessary to keep the planned scheme. The difficulty increased in these mysteries when more than one person had the exact same initials, which happened at least twice.

Overall, the experience was a good one. I would definitely recommend that anyone interested in archival work goes and works at WRHS. It was a great experience and the staff were all very helpful. Not at all like the research library staff. Further, it was a learning experience that I took a lot from. It showed me that I am probably not interested in archival work like the kind I am doing. While other positions in the archives like the curator position may be a possibility and interesting to me, taking a position to process papers in the same vein of what I am doing now would be unsatisfying.