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.

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DC Adventures

So, update on my life. I have been walking a lot around the Capitol Hill and Mall area since our weather finally broke and it’s bearable to be outside and one doesn’t feel like dying. I love the area I live in – it’s so walkable and beautiful to explore. This past week/weekend I finished going through both the NMNH and NGA. I have decided I don’t particularly like the NMNH – I like the gemstones and the dinosaur bones but all the stuffed animals were too eerie – give me a zoo any day. The NGA however, is my kind of museum. I love to look at artwork and really take my time to look at the brush strokes and the way an artist may have gone about the work. The areas I hadn’t gotten to yet included the museum’s Rembrandts as well as the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the United States. It looked a lot like the Mona Lisa to be honest and it was even smaller. Yet another painting to go, “huh” and walk along.

After I finished the NGA, I walked home via the Capitol (after walking through the festival happening on Pennsylvania Avenue – very interesting group of people). I have decided I really love the Capitol Building. It is absolutely beautiful. I just wish the steps were open more so I could get a view of the city from the top. I imagine it’s breath-taking. I then walked around the building to the actual front of the Capitol where inauguration takes place in January. It’s a big mess right now as they are constructing a new underground visitors center. Walking around, I found the Library of Congress (which I’m visiting this weekend – so excited!!) and the Supreme Court building. Turning up towards home, I found the Sewall-Belmont House near Stanton Park which I was more excited about than anyone else probably would be. It was a house where Alice Paul lived so I now need to add that to my list of things to visit. I might try to get it in this coming weekend.

This week I haven’t done too much. With the weather being so nice, I have walked home from work and watched the Representatives queue up for taxis at the end of the day at their office buildings. Yesterday, walking back from the Botanical Gardens where I ate lunch, I go caught up in a motorcade. It was unmarked but with the amount of firepower in the SUVs around it, I figured it was the president which it was, I found out later. The whole city gets put on hold, all the traffic stopped – cars pulled over etc. I didn’t take pictures though. I thought reaching into my purse to dig out my camera might be misconstrued by the military contingent surrounding his car.

Work continues to go well. I was appraising in the NMNH today in the paleobiology department – it was like a dungeon in there and the office was everything you would expect – furniture that was ancient, piles of paper everywhere, more bones, shells and unidentified “dirt” then I think I’ve ever seen (including the Paris catacombs which is saying something). After we finished taking what we wanted, I worked on a collection of correspondence to and from Julia Anna Gardner, a geologist with the museum and the USGS from the 1920s until her death in 1961. It’s amazing how many people spend their lives identifying fossilized mollusks – but some of the letters are fun. They were so formal – “thank you for the specimen you sent. It was beautifully packaged and arrived unharmed” and etc. Tomorrow it is back to scanning.

Hello from DC!

OK – this is a bit late (only a week late but late none the less) but be happy you’re getting it 😉 I arrived in DC last Sunday for my summer internship at the Smithsonian Institute Archives. I am lucky enough to be staying with family in the beautiful Capitol Hill neighborhood.

First off, I am loving this city. Minus the extreme heat that makes me feel like I am hitting a wall when I step outside the door, it is an absolutely beautiful place to live. One of my new loves is the Metro system. Seriously, why doesn’t every city have one of these?? It is so easy and fast to get anywhere. It works great for me, car-less as ever, especially. Plus, I am in a city with a million museums – what is a girl like me not to love?

I’ve visited two of the Smithsonian Museums so far and I need to go back to both to finish them. I ran out of time at the Museum of Natural History (NMNH) as I went after work one night and couldn’t get everything done before it closed. My main highlight there was the Gemstones and Minerals. I think I looked at rocks for a good hour and half. I didn’t even drool at the Hope Diamond that long either. I did sigh longingly over some of the emeralds and sapphires though. Sadly, my gem of choice isn’t even a gem according to the Smithsonian. I was quite put out to find my amethyst classified as quartz and stuck in with all the minerals. I guess I have cheap tastes then!

The other museum I’ve been to is the National Gallery of Art (NGA) which I was very excited to see. My only other foray at the Mall was in 8th grade, before I developed my love of art museums. This museum was fabulous and I’m looking forward to going back. I went with my fellow interns and we skipped a wing in favor of modern art. However, I dreamed my way through another collection of the Impressionists. I do so adore them. If only I could see the world like that. NGA’s Van Gogh collection was slim but they had some fabulous Renoirs and Monets so I forgive them for now. It is a massive museum though – we spent all day there and skipped a wing so I definitely will take another morning or afternoon to finish my visit there. (FYI – I did buy two books at this museum but let’s face it – the only other place I might by a book at is the National Archives so I feel entirely justified in my purchases). After we did the museum, we walked for a bit in the fabulous 100 degree heat. We found the Navy Memorial that way and made our way along East and Pennsylvania for a bit. However, I was seriously gross when I got back to the house. I am not accustomed to heat – I am from CNY people!

So, I suppose I should discuss my job a little? I have to keep a blog and write reports for my class on my internship so I’ll probably post those on this blog as well for my family to read (it will be riveting, have no fear!). The Smithsonian Institute Archives (SIA) is in Capital Gallery, a block south from the National Air and Space Museum (NASM). The facility is superb and the staff so nice and friendly. My supervisor, Tammy, has been great. I have spent the majority of my time so far on my major summer project, digitizing photos from the Science Service morgue files. The files have been interesting to go through. The Science Services was like AP for scientists and the files I’m working with are from the 1920s to the late 1960s. Some of the cool things I’ve found deal with atomic energy and weaponry research so far as well as the occasional woman scientist who existed in the early years of the files. I have been surprised how long it takes me to entirely process a folder to be honest but I think I have found the best system for me so I just keep plugging away at them.

Last week, on Friday, they did let me out of my windowless scanning room. I worked on accessioning and arranging the papers of Donald Lopaz, the former deputy director of NASM. He seemed like a very cool guy – he was a fighter pilot with the Flying Tigers in China during WWII and worked with NASA on the Saturn rocket design. His papers weren’t bad to go through at all which is always a good thing. Organization was not his strong point however – I pulled a stack of papers from a box inside another box…ugh. I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to finish his papers. I had a bunch of electronic records to get through yet. However, I have scanning tomorrow, I’m out at the Fullerton warehouse on Wednesday, more scanning on Thursday (I’m assuming, we have a calendar but it changes frequently so one never knows…) and then Friday I’m at the NMNH with Tammy to look through four filing cabinets in Paleobiology. Fun times ahead for me 🙂

I am enjoying it though, a lot. I was wary of coming to be honest. I’m not much of a city person but I have found if I can find my cute little neighborhood, residential pocket in a city, I seem to do just fine. Good thing to know for down the road.