The Questions to Answer in the End

(last reflective paper for class)

As I wrap up my summer internship, everyone at work has been asking me what I liked best, what I did not like, do you still want to be an archivist after this? In turn, in order to answer, I have been doing a lot of thinking about what exactly it is that I like about the work. I will admit, sitting in a windowless room, staring at a computer screen day in and day out would have driven me insane two months ago. So one perk to the job is the variety. Because we had a schedule of some sorts at SIA, I knew what building and what I would be working on every day. My supervisors did not always have that luxury. The variety of their work excited me – some days they worked on digital materials, another day they would be processing, the next they would be out at an appraisal or doing outreach with another office in the Smithsonian. I like a job that gives me variety and a sense of adventure. Being an intern there to work on a single project, I did not always get that variety myself but I see the possibility of it in the profession.
I also answer to the “what did you like” question, the feeling of discovery. True, a lot of the collections I worked on outside of my scanning room were not the most riveting of materials – a lot of administration paperwork and so on but a few of the collections were truly interesting and I was never sure what I was going to find next. One collection, from the National Air and Space Museum had video footage of planes being flown into Dulles airport for the NASM Hazy Center Annex at the airport. How often to get to see a space shuttle piggy backing on a 747? Or another collection from the National Museum for Natural History was entirely correspondence between a geologist and professors, collectors, and experts in the field with some fun dirt samples and weird leaves thrown in for good measure. I like wondering also who will use this collection next and what will they discover in it?
I am hard pressed to answer the question “what did you not like.” One thing I did not care of was the isolation from the archives department. Because of the location of the scanning room, I rarely saw my other interns or, often, my supervisor simply because of my location. That is no fault of the profession, more poor office planning. While I like having a space to work in alone and be able to organize everything “my” way, I would like to see other people from time to time…I also did not like getting frustrated with the work which would happen every so often. I would find whole groups of photos with no names or find ruined pictures that no one bothered to remove the first time the collection was looked over. However, my supervisor assures me that that is simply a part of the work. There will be boxes of unknowns and silly people who do not understand what happens to rubber bands thirty years down the road (they harden and stain and crumble…not good). It is a frustrating job I have been forewarned by everyone in the office but also a rewarding job. I have only been able to observe the reference desk a few times but the look on people’s faces when we have that obscure document from the National Museum of American History or we have that photo of the old National Air and Space Museum is worth it.
As for the last question, “do I still want to be an archivist”, the answer is a resounding yes. It took me so long to find a career that was challenging and rewarding enough to keep my interest and fit into what I am personally interested in outside of work. Now I just need to work on the inevitable next question: “what kind of archive do you think you would like to work in?” I am still deciding this one. I really enjoyed my time at the Smithsonian and I would definitely apply if they decide they want to hire in the spring but I want to keep my options open and I have been lucky enough to have co-workers this summer who have experiences in just about every type of archive you can find so they have given me a lot to think about. It’s a question I am still working on but I feel this summer has given me a taste of an institution and an environment that I would be very happy to work in long term any time in the future.

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learning goal check

(reflective report for school)

I thought this week since I only have about three weeks left I should reflect a little on how I am doing with my project and my learning goals for the summer. For one, I am realizing now that I was unrealistic in thinking I could complete the project this summer. It was never the intention of my supervisor that I should finish however; I thought to myself I could get the main boxes scanned over the course of the summer. I started on the letter H. I am just now rounding the corner of the letter L. It sounds like I have not gotten far at all. But looking at the numbers, I have scanned over 1770 photos into the database. Sadly, I am never going to see the final steps of the project personally at SIA. The refining of the metadata, the linking of the actual photo file to the database entry and the launch of the database into SIRIS, the Smithsonian Institute database on-line where it would be searchable by the user will take place long after I am back at school or even out in the work force. I am just starting to realize the massive amount of time and resources it takes to make a project like this get off the ground and to finally see it completed.

My supervisor took time to explain to me this week about the SIRIS protocol and what the collection will need to go through still after the scanning is done. She was very interested in using flickr as a resource to help identify people we know little or nothing about in the Science Service photos. The Smithsonian Institute and the Library of Congress have both already utilized flickr to not only give better access to their users but to tap into their users’ information. It is amazing to me the network of resources outside of an institution that are available if we only have the tools to use them. I will be interested to see if flickr or a site like it will be used with my collection in the future. This fit well into one of my learning goals for the summer which was to understand how a digitization project comes together from start to finish, what an institution needs to know or learn to make a project of this magnitude a worth-while endeavor that will ultimately help the user of an archives to better access and understand a collection. What I find interesting in this case, with the Science Service photos, is we have a lot of blanks. Photos with only initials and a last name or, worst-case scenario, simply a last name. No university, no area of science to go off on. I have googled many and come up with full names for few. It is another project in itself and one that digitization of the photos could help complete if SIA decides to go the ‘flickr route.’

Along with the start to finish of a digitization project, I have learned a lot about processing collections: when to toss, when to keep, when a finding aid is “good enough” to work for the moment. Something the classroom and the real world have both agreed on whole heartedly is there is never enough time, people, or money to do everything you want to do with a collection and its finding aid. Sometimes, one simply has to say that it is as good as it is going to get for the moment and move on. A perfectionist would die a slow and painful death in the archives. You are perpetually leaving everything half done with the idea that some day you will come back and finish that finding aid to perfection, list other collections that link to it in the archives and elsewhere, come back and digitize everything. In reality, the collections I put back on the shelf today at Fullerton will probably never be returned to – they will live with a simple listing of folders and a brief summary of where the papers come from and what they may pertain to during the dates listed. A user could use them easily, true, but we could do better…if we had time.

So, my learning goals are there. I feel I have gleaned a lot from my digitization project as well as the time I have spent processing collections. I learned patience certainly but from discussing the big picture, I see that it is hard work and lives you often with the feeling that if you only had a little more time, it could be done that much better. It is a problem found in many lines of work. However, I often find myself wondering, as I work on a collection, which will use it next and what can I add to a finding aid to help them in their scavenger hunt. So I add a few lines to a summary, a few lines after a folder name to say something interesting I have found in my perusal of the collection over a few hours of processing. It is not much but the user is something SI has made me very aware of and I feel that one of my lessons, even if it was not in my learning goals or even something my supervisor has pointed out to me, is that the user is always there in the back of my mind and I am working to make the user’s quest in the archives go that much smoother. If it takes me five extra minutes at my computer, in the end, I think it is worth it.

Work Culture at SIA

(reflective report for school)

For this week’s report, I wanted to reflect a little on the work culture and management of the archives at the Smithsonian. The other archive I had worked in prior to this internship was my undergraduate college’s archive. While the students there were allowed to dress casually, for the most part, it was a formal environment to work in with a hands-on management style. The Smithsonian archives takes a much more casual, hands-off approach to management that creates a very casual, very relaxed work culture where there is little difference between the manager and the intern in how you interact.

In terms of management, which in turn creates the work culture, there is very little “intense” management. My supervisor works on the opposite side of the building from where the scanning room, where I spend most of my time, is located. She comes over to see me maybe twice a day if she is even in the office. Often much of the staff is out of the office at other archive locations or involved in work at other museums for the Smithsonian. Because of this, I am in charge of my time management and project advancement. I have no manager breathing down my neck if I get a bit behind on a box because there were more pictures in some of the folders than usual. I have no deadline except what I myself set. For my work style, this type of management is perfect. I have a lot of independence in how I structure my days. On certain days that I am out of the scanning room and either out at the Fullerton warehouse or working on a different collection at Capital Gallery, I am always given instructions first and ask any questions before I am set loose and once again, I set my own pace. This works very well for me, as I stated before. I do not hesitate to ask questions if I get stuck or confused but I am not left feeling like my supervisor will be constantly looking over my shoulder either. For me, this means I enjoy the work more, learn more and work harder. I am my hardest taskmaster. A more controlling management style would get me nervous and flustered and I would enjoy the work less.

That said I found having my work checked over is a good thing for me. A fellow intern is doing quality control on my work in the scanning room, making sure my entries in the database are filled out correctly and match up to the digital image. Being my own taskmaster so often means I can get a little sloppy. I think I tend to get into a zone of repetition and stop paying as much attention as I need to the details. Having my work checked this past week reminded me that, while I enjoy my independence at work, I also need to police myself a bit better in general. I am trying to check over my entries at the end of the day to make sure I did not forget something silly like changing a folder name or not putting a “dr.” before someone’s name where it belongs. If I take the time to do this, most of the mistakes my fellow intern is finding would disappear.

Because of this management system, the work culture at SIA is very casual and informal. The director of the archives is approachable by everyone and anyone in her office. All have an open-door policy. I joke and laugh with my supervisor a lot and they encourage all the interns to discuss our projects but also just to talk in general. We have the Internet radio playing when I am over in the archives offices, working on a collection. We share fun or weird discoveries in our collections with each other and our supervisors. The dress code is very casual so I personally am even more in a comfort zone at work. The Records management side tends to be a bit more formal so I am definitely more comfortable in the archives offices even if I spend the most time on the records management side in the scanning room. It is an interesting office because of the physical split in where the archives have their offices and workspace and where the records management teams have offices. However, while more formal in dress, the records management people are just as casual in manner and also add their own radio and stories to the atmosphere of the office. Overall, I find it a very comfortable and relaxing place to work. I like being able to set my pace and be my own manager for the most part around people who are encouraging and helpful as well as genuinely interested in sharing their experiences and learning mine.

Appraisal in the Real World

(second report for summer class)

The suggestion for this week’s report was uncannily like a topic I had been playing around with writing on anyway. I did a little blog post on it for the blog as well but I wanted to use my reflective report to share my first actual appraisal experience and to compare it to SI 632, Appraisal of Archives, a class I just took this past semester. For the most part, I found that while we can be taught the theory in a classroom, there is no greater teacher than experience.

For my first appraisal, I accompanied my supervisor to the National Museum of Natural History. The paleobiology department had contacted Tammy about looking through several filing cabinets to see if it was anything the archives were interested in or if they should just get rid of everything. Loaded down with acid-free boxes, as we had no idea how much stuff could be in the filing cabinets, we drove over to the museum. We then proceeded through a maze of hallways into a massive basement room, full from top to bottom of specially made fossil cabinets with regular filing cabinets interspersed. After being shown the way through the maze to the filing cabinets we were concerned with, Tammy dove into the first cabinet. Immediately I saw that experience was the key factor here. She knew the types of forms in the drawer and where copies of them would be and how long they would be kept. She quickly recognized maps that were published, paper drafts that should be kept and any correspondence was an automatic keeper. However, she also had difficultly with the subject matter. The papers could have common paleobiology knowledge on them or some research that never got around to being published. It was a tricky balance that she was trying to find between keeping and tossing.

In the end, we took four and a half boxes full of papers back to the archives, the bulk of which was correspondence. The rest Tammy suggested the department at least glance through before tossing as they may catch important research she did not recognize. Compared to the amount of papers Tammy looked through we kept about 10-15% for the archives. Tammy talked me through what she was doing the whole time. She kept a list of everything she found and the reasons why she either did or did not take it to explain both to the department head as well as to put in the appraisal log back at the office. She stressed the archives was most interested in correspondence between the Institution and “everybody else.” Why however, she never said and I was too busy lugging boxes to ask. I will ask when she gets back from vacation though.

So, How did this compare to class? One thing I noticed, and just mentioned, was the reasoning behind what Tammy was taking. She wrote down the reasons why she was not taking things – mostly because it was either published or located elsewhere. In SI 632, we discussed collection policies and their importance in appraisal as it helps an archives say ‘no’ when it needs to. I have not seen SIA’s collection policy nor do I know if they have a formal policy in writing. I have noticed things at SIA tend to be very loose and laid back. An environment I enjoy but it does not jive always with the formal atmosphere I sense in class at times. Professor Hedstrom stressed the imperfectness of appraisal and how the best teacher would be experience. However, my first experience here had no rhyme or reason to it. There was no method Tammy used, no theory we discussed in class that seemed to guide her. It was pure “I have done this a million times before so I can do it this time too.” I was both impressed and terrified. I want to talk to Tammy more about this however she has been on vacation since so my weekly meeting has been pushed to early next week this time around. I am interested to hear her opinion on how she approaches appraisal in general and see if that links to a theory in a more subtle way.

In terms of class vs. reality, it comes back to what I discussed in my last report. The classroom can prepare us, give us the mental tools we need to approach a task in the archives but there is no substitute to the actual work itself. That observation seems to be my major take-home message of the summer so far. I need to soak up all the background work, all the theories and experiments and use that to approach the real-life tasks. I may have been overwhelmed by my first real appraisal experience but I feel, armed with the SIA collection policy, I could have done a good job just working from the basics I learned from SI 632. The class is a good jumping off point for the real-life work involved in appraisal and I was glad I had that under my belt for this first time out.

Dirt and Discovery

(my first report for my class this summer)

My first impression of this work is that I cannot be afraid to get down and dirty, to put it bluntly. In the classroom, when we discussed appraisal or re-housing collections for preservation purposes, we never discussed the dirt. I have been at my internship at the Smithsonian Institute Archives (SIA) for two weeks now and I have ruined a pristine pair of white gloves, covered a t-shirt (not to mention my hands, face, and hair) in red rot and found some interesting newsprint stains on a pair of jeans. In theory, and in the classroom, this job did not seem quite so…undignified. However, I find the practice is much more to my liking than the theory. In class, it was always hard to picture “well, I would do this in this situation…” Now, being in the actual situation, I find I work better in the grime.

The pair of white gloves is my companion for my main project this summer – a digitization and re-housing of a collection of photos in the Science Service collection. These file folders contain photos, newspaper clippings, press releases and various other materials from the 1920s to about the end of the 1960s. The Science Service aimed at popularizing science – Think of it as the AP for science enthusiasts. These folders tend to be disorganized, grimy, and filled with bits of paper and rot. My gloves did not stand a chance. However, I love looking through these files. The actual project itself is very repetitive. I find a photo, place it under acid-free paper, add it to the database, scan it and move onto the next. If the folders themselves were not fascinating, I would be a robot by 10 AM. As it is, I have already scanned in over 450 photos in two weeks. Something has to keep me involved in the work and I found quickly with these files the element of dirt goes well with discovery. I am looking at files that have not been used much, if at all, since the 1960s. There are newspaper clippings about the dropping of the atomic bomb, pictures chronicling women in the lab before women were suppose to be there, and press releases about new discoveries I took for granted in high school chemistry class. It is the artifacts themselves that I have come to enjoy and because of that, I enjoy the work. I often wonder who will find these photos useful – what will them do with them? What I can add to the database entry that will help them?

Another aspect of my internship involves helping with a moving project at a warehouse in Virginia at Fullerton. SIA has to be out of this space by the end of the summer but they are using this opportunity to take stock of these collections and to do preservation and re-housing on most collections before removing them either to the Capital Gallery collections ( the building in DC where I work most days) or sending them out to Iron Mountain for storage. It is clear that this move needs to be made. I could see the list from introduction to Archives and Record Management about a good location for archives and Fullerton meets very few of them. It is also just plain dirty. A lot of the collections have not been touched in decades. I re-housed two collections out at Fullerton to date and both left me with dust and dirt everywhere. I especially enjoyed a collection of 19th century ledger books that left me with “red rot” all over my hands, face and t-shirt. Strangely though, that made me feel I accomplished something. I put that collection into a better environment so when a researcher needs to know how much the Smithsonian paid the zookeeper in 1888, that ledger will be preserved and ready for him/her.

So, my first impression of the work is that it is not easy – it is hot, dirty, tiring work some days. However, it is also very rewarding. I like the feeling that I am preserving that picture or that letter for someone down the road who will appreciate it more than I ever could. It was a feeling I knew I should get from my classes but practice is a much better way from me to understand what my professors were saying to me