A Summer Semester in the Jewish Archives at WRHS

It was Friday the 13th and I was sifting through boxes in the research library of Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS). The end of the semester was near and so was the deadline of my graduate thesis. I had been in touch with Dr. Sean Martin, Associate Curator of the Jewish Archives at WRHS, for the past few weeks and we were in the process of setting up a formal interview regarding the internship. However, I had recognized Dr. Martin as he walked through the library. I sent him a quick email letting him know of my location and if he had any available time. Within a minute, he introduced himself and the interview we were planning to have happened just moments later.

The first day of my internship was unlike a standard day at the archives. It was May 21, 2018 and I started a few weeks before the rest of the interns in the program to stay on track with Cleveland State’s summer semester schedule. I had the pleasure of attending a private tour with a few other WRHS library staff members of the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage led by Dr. Martin himself. We walked through the museum’s core exhibit and discussed its issues, what needed to be updated, what needed to be modernized, and the role of technology throughout the exhibit. Something that stuck with me that Dr. Martin mentioned was that most of the technology had not been updated since it was installed back in 2005.

During the first week, I was assigned lengthy readings that were required for anyone working in the archive. These documents were the WRHS processing guide and an article titled, “More Product, Less Process”, written by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner. To quickly sum it up, “More Product, Less Process” also known as MPLP, is a call for archivists to rethink the way they process collections. They argue that a better, more consistent approach with processing a collection will expedite getting collection materials into the hands of the users. Further, they argue that good processing is done with a shovel, and not tweezers.

For the summer semester, Dr. Martin and I agreed that I would be processing a collection that had already been started. However, there was still a lot of work that needed to be done with this collection. The collection is unofficially called “Karamu House and Reuben and Dorothy Silver Papers III”. A volunteer had started processing the collection prior to my arrival, but unfortunately, they left a lot of documents in miscellaneous folders and unidentified. I had my work cut out for me. The first week I was able to combine four different series into one and rework the entire arrangement of the collection with Dr. Martin’s help. For this collection, I focused on arranging it by document type and then by subject. The biggest challenge for me during my time working with processing this collection was removing things from it. While Dr. Martin encouraged me to be confident with my decision of removals, I kept questioning every last thing, like some sort of manuscript hoarder. At first, I did not want to get rid of anything. However, by the end of it, I could remove something with no guilt and no questions.

Since I was Dr. Martin’s only summer intern, he quickly became my mentor. Besides working on processing my collection, I had the opportunity to attend weekly meetings with the archival staff and management, attend Dr. Martin’s monthly coffee talks at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, and experience what it was like first hand to be an archivist. Sean mentioned that public outreach is a major part of his job and probably one of the most important aspects of it. I learned this summer that he was not wrong. During the third week of my internship, I had the opportunity to meet a donor named Len who came in to WRHS and brought two paintings. These original paintings pertained to Richman Brothers Company, where he worked in management throughout the 1980s. Dr. Martin asked him many questions about his experience working there and how he obtained the paintings. Aside from meeting Len, I had the opportunity to visit and meet with others in the community who were interested in donating their collections to WRHS.

One family that we met with has known Dr. Martin for several years. This showcases the importance of public outreach and building a connection with those in the community. At first, I did not realize how significant these connections were, as some families have made many donations over the years. The family that we met up with was the Frum family, who were the children and grandchildren of the founders of Kol Israel Foundation in Cleveland. This organization was created by Jewish Holocaust survivors who settled in Cleveland after World War II. They had hundreds of photographs, uniforms, pins, meeting minutes, letters, and other correspondence piled in boxes on their dining room table. It was such a surreal experience to see these documents and objects come to life in my hands.

Another project that I worked on during my internship was digitizing an oral history collection of ten interviews that had already been recorded and transcribed. These interviews were with former board chairs and presidents of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. For this project, I taught myself how to use the Islandora software that WRHS uses for their Digital Cleveland Starts Here repository. I wrote short bios for those who were interviewed, added the proper metadata, and created a cohesive look for this collection. In addition, I created a step-by-step guide for WRHS staff members and volunteers who may have to use Islandora in the future because it was rather challenging to use and made it difficult to upload the information at first.

As my internship has come to an end, I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to work under Dr. Martin. I remember how insecure I was the first time I walked into the research library because it was all so foreign to me and now I can walk in with my head held high. Not only did I develop many new skills and gain more experience in the museum profession, I also gained a level of confidence that I was lacking before. This internship has encouraged me to pursue my passion for the museum profession and to not sell myself short.

Manuscript Processing Room at WRHS
Dr. Martin Pulling a Photograph for a Loan
Viewing a Potential Donor’s Collection at a Storage Unit in Northfield, Ohio
A Self-Portrait at my Main Workspace
Dr. Martin’s Coffee Talk on Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver at the Maltz Museum on August 1, 2018