Beacon Street Diary blog

Ask An Archivist Day recap

October is National Archives Month, and the Society of American Archivists began the month with #AskAnArchivist, a social media campaign that allowed people to ask archivists their most pressing questions about archives and life as an archivist.

Our social media followers asked some great questions about the Congregational Library & Archives, and our archivists Cristina, Jessica, and Sari provided the answers on our Twitter stream and Facebook page. Here are some of our favorites.


Our first question for #AskAnArchivist Day came from our friend, Margaret Bush. She asked, "How are you sure this new electronic information is still going to be here in 100 years?"

Sari explained: As with all things in the archival world, it comes down to preservation. Just as there are steps and processes and guidelines for ensuring that our physical archival items are preserved for use by future generations, there are steps and processes and guidelines for digital preservation. They include things like making sure the we keep up with obsolescence (the tendency of technology to evolve to the point where old media and files are no longer compatible with new hardware and software) of both our digital files and our physical hardware, creating backups and copies to combat system failure and file corruption, and ensuring that the files we are creating today are in stable non-proprietary formats. Are any of these things foolproof? No – but then preservation of a one-of-a-kind manuscript isn't foolproof either (fires, floods, other natural disasters, wear and tear, etc.). What we archivists do is work to establish systems and procedures that meet best practice to give each item (digital or not) within our custody the best chance it has to still exist and be usable in 100 years.


Our friend Jim Hopkins asked, "Do you stop to read the juicy bits?"

All three archivists had something to say.

Sari: It depends on how much time I have! But generally, yes. It's my job to have an idea about what is in a collection – both the boring and juicy bits. The juicy bits are also what can often interest someone in the collection and can be avenues into the material for people who don't usually work with archival collections.

Jessica: If I can, yes. But it really can be a trap when you need to keep moving.

Cristina: Of, course! But… the extent depends on how I'm processing a collection – how large is it, what's my deadline, what's my goal in the value-added description I can add to the collection in a finding aid. It's our job to become the "experts" when processing a collection and we can't write compelling finding aids without understanding what's in a collection. That said, other times my goal is to let people know we have a collection in our possession. In those cases, I do less reading, but we can always go back to those collections iteratively.


What is the funniest thing you’ve come across? Something that made you laugh out loud?

Sari says: Marginalia can be a fun place to find funny things. One of my favorites is this face added to a booklet of sermon notes.

I also like when you find someone else has interacted with an item in a funny way. I found this clerk's note on a document from a long, drawn-out fight between two men (first cousins) who clearly didn't get along. It reads "Mr. Burt again." I enjoyed the clerk's mild exasperation because, when I found it, I was also beginning to wonder if these two would ever solve their differences and put an end to their arguing!


Jessica writes: Yes! Earlier this year, I was organizing a church's papers, and they had collected complaints from the neighborhood, apparently mostly from children, about the carillon (the system that rings church bells in a melodic fashion).


Cristina says: During the course of processing a church collection from the 1975, I bumped into an editorial comment that just made me laugh out loud. Someone wrote, "A real loser" across a Pan Am annual report.


Another laugh out loud moment is more macabre. The humor is in no way regarding the topic, but rather the imposed organizational structure used to house topical older sermons regarding murder. For such a serious, sad topic, this pamphlet box titled "Murders, Duels, etc." just struck a chord. How could these sermons NOT be intriguing?


What information have you discovered/uncovered that still gives you a thrill?

From Jessica: One of my most recent processing projects was over the summer was sorting out the UCC Open and Affirming Coalition's collection. It's been fascinating to see how the movement has changed over the past 40 years. Each decade had its own focus, which is echoed in the programs and focus for the Coalition. It means a lot to me that I'm able to organize a collection that has to do with living history with new pages being written every day.

Cristina liked this question enough to have two answers…
As both an archivist and a beekeeper, I love the story of Henry C. Gould's time in the Union Army during the Civil War. Through a memorial scrapbook made by his daughter, I discovered Gould survived Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Sherman's March in Atlanta; he survived being hit in the forehead with a spent shell. The only time he was off duty during his service was due to illness from confiscated honey. Second, while processing the First Church in Haverhill collection, I found a statement from Ebenezer Eastman written circa 1730 to be read at service giving thanks that his living wife successfully gave birth to a living child. A simple and powerful statement of thanks.

Sari says: Oh! I think my answer to this is very changeable. Right now the piece of information that amuses me the most (perhaps because I am currently obsessed with the musical Hamilton!) is that Jonathan Edwards, fire and brimstone preacher of the early 18th Century, was the grandfather of Aaron Burr, the United States' third vice president (and the man who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel). I learned this while writing text to accompany this letter Edwards wrote to his daughter, Aaron's mother Esther.


What are the work rules? Can you eat/drink on the job, etc.?

Cristina answers - We're very careful about making sure our hands are clean and dry whenever we begin handling our materials. But, we also need to eat our lunch during the day! We never handle food while also working with our archival items. We keep food away from our collections and make sure our work surfaces are clean with no residue. Any water we are drinking is kept in a spill-proof vessel and far away from our collection items, on a separate surface.


Board member Mimi Biedron's asked, "What is your favorite material to work with?" Each archivist had a different response:

Sari: Right now, my favorite things to work with are colonial era church disciplinary cases. I like the mystery of trying to piece together what happened (they are often quite vague). These documents also provide insight into people's worries and concerns – and they're where we learn that they're more like us, today, then we tend to give credit for. It's where a lot of our historical stereotypes about New England colonists and Puritans get broken.

Cristina: I love working with oversized materials, such as architectural and technical drawings. Sometimes their sheer size can be the biggest threat to their long-term preservation. Wrangling them under control for both preservation and access of use for researchers is deeply gratifying. I also love working with personal papers; I enjoy the universal connections between people through letters, drawings, and scrapbooks, regardless of era.

Jessica: Missionary family papers are a rich treat when we can get them. We have several families represented. I've worked with papers from families who spent time in Angola, Turkey, and South Africa (look up Blake and Goodsell; Phillips; and Welch on our website!). Missionaries provide details about a time and a culture that we would not get otherwise. It's a resource for people interested in going past what the usual school text books provide on major international events. Being able to work with material that provides this context is exceptionally gratifying.


Our friend Sue asked, "What are the basics of digitization?"

At the most basic level you need to know what you have, it needs to be in good enough condition to digitize it without destroying it, you need a good method of producing good quality digitization that works for the item you are digitizing, and you need a system in place to provide for the on-going care of the digital files you have created (we call this digital preservation). Digitization doesn't mean you digitize your originals and then throw those originals away, but it can prolong the life of the thing you have digitized by providing another way for people to access the information found in the original. Digitization can also provide a way to more easily share the item in ways not possible with the original.


A patron who happened to be in the reading room asked, "How do you find archival supplies?"

We use several archival supply companies depending on needs & occasionally we make our own boxes!


Twitter follower Jenn Parent asked two questions.

1. “How do you market your collections to users?”

Blog posts, finding aid announcements, & talking collections up on social media just to name a few!


2. "What really speaks to you about being an archivist?"

Sari answers: Everything we do (IMO) is about facilitating access. People using collections is what speaks to me!


We hope these answers are both helpful and entertaining. Of course, you don't have to wait until next October to ask our archivists your questions. They are happy to help at any time of year. Please feel free to contact them at any time, and consider becoming a member to help support their work in return.

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January 24, 2019
Holy Humanitarians