Author Archives: Rebecca Weintraub

Post-Internship Thoughts

On the first day of my internship at Burke, Brigette, my internship supervisor, asked if I would write a blog post discussing what I expect from my internship and the overall experience. Would I want to be a processing archivist once the next few months were over? Not having had any experience processing a collection from start to finish (I always seemed to come in the middle of things) or having any experience writing a finding aid, I will admit that I was just a tad apprehensive going into it. On top of that, I was worried that not knowing any of the subject matter or terminology (I’m Jewish) would hinder my work in some way.

Side note: I now know the definition of “Ecumenism” with confidence!

Fast forward about four months later and I have four collections under my belt, with the accompanying finding aids to prove it. I thought the whole process was going to be harder than it actually was for some reason or another, but I’m glad to have been proven wrong. Granted, that is not to say that processing these collections was easy for me. It took me some time to get used to the way an archivist needs to think — how do I organize this? Should there be any series? Subseries? How do I put it all together in a way that will make it easy for the researcher to have access to these materials? There’s so much to think about and to consider, that oftentimes I found myself getting bogged down by all the details instead of doing what needed to be done.

Things got easier for me as I went through my first collection, which was around 10 boxes or so. I transitioned into a one-box collection, and made it all the way up to a 19-box collection in the end. This may not seem daunting for those archivists who have processed 100+ box collections, but for someone with little experience doing so I have to say it was a pretty good feeling. Each collection had its issues, however, and sometimes I found myself doubting all of the knowledge that I had gained thus far. Thank goodness Brigette was always there to help me snap out of my doubts, giving me the confidence to go with my instincts. After all, every archivist does things differently.

This internship provided me with the confidence to do the work of a processing archivist and (hopefully!) do it well. Yes, there will always be stumbling blocks and new things to learn along the way, but now I know that not only am I capable of processing archival collections, but I really enjoy it!

Be prepared!

If Hurricane Sandy and Winter Storm Athena have taught us anything, it’s to be prepared. We all knew that both storms were coming, and we were able to prepare to the best of our abilities, but nobody knew what the extent of the damage would be. If that has taught us anything else, it’s that even our best attempts can fall short. There is no excuse not to have a plan!

So how can a cultural institution like Burke, or any of the other Columbia libraries, be and remain prepared for a natural disaster like Sandy? (Based off of Columbia University Libraries’ Disaster Response Manual)

1) Keep an updated emergency contact list on hand, including the names and numbers of your institution’s preservation and conservation department.

2) Be prepared with all the necessary supplies, and replenish when needed. Such supplies might include plastic tarps, buckets, paper towels, and other cleaning supplies.

3) Assign priorities to certain groups of materials, so that they will be attended to first in the event of an emergency.

4) Ensure the safety and security of the area in question. Make sure the exits are clear, that the security systems are working, et cetera.

5) Know the floorplan where the collections are located. Note the location of fire extinguishers, emergency exits, sprinklers, et cetera, and make revisions to said floorplan when necessary.

6) Reduce the potential risks to collections, including both fire and water damage. Make sure, for example, that collections are not located on the floor (in case of flooding), and make sure that appliances such as space heaters are turned off.

7) Document all reports of maintenance problems in your location and be sure to report all leaks and other issues to facilities, whether or not damage has resulted from these problems. Proper attention to these and other issues will help curb future problems.

It is important to note that as your institution evolves, so must your disaster preparedness plan. Collections may move, floorplans may change, and key staff members come and go throughout the years. Keeping your plan up to date and making sure that all staff members are continually updated is integral in to maintaining disaster preparedness in your institution. And while having a plan in place is no guarantee that your institution is safe from disaster, you still have done all that you can do to prepare. The rest, unfortunately, is up to the unpredictable force that is Mother Nature.

“Such scenes are very afflicting to a European beholder…”: The Papers of Samuel Leigh

In his first letter to the Committee of the Methodist Missionary Society in London, the Reverend Samuel Leigh, a Wesleyan Missionary, wrote:

While the above quote puts more emphasis on the differences of missionary work at home and abroad, it also applies to acclimating to an entirely new world and culture. Having been born and raised in England, Samuel Leigh’s life in Australia and New Zealand – where he served as a missionary – was most certainly different from what he was used to seeing and experiencing back home.

After spending a few years building up a missionary circuit in Australia, Leigh traveled to New Zealand where he was immediately thrust into a civil war brewing between the natives. Upon his arrival in New Zealand, Leigh not only heard of the deaths of thousands of native men, but also the way these “heathens” dealt with their enemies. In his first letter from New Zealand dated February 25, 1822, Leigh writes:

It is with a great deal of confidence that I can say that Leigh had probably never heard or witnessed such a thing, and such a description probably served as a shock to his English upbringing.

Dispersed among his letters from a few years later are extracts from Leigh’s journal, dating from December of 1822 to May of 1823. In them, Leigh reports upon the daily goings on in New Zealand in a very matter-of-fact manner:

Despite Leigh’s seemingly casual attitude to the not-so-common events he observed, his initial feeling from his very first letter still stands. In that letter, Leigh starts off by describing the grief of a newly-slain Chief’s wife:

But it is his observation at the end of the letter that belies his ostensibly indifferent attitude:

In the end, Leigh was just another English boy unaccustomed and unfamiliar with native ways. Unfortunately, his time in New Zealand was cut short due to ill health, and he returned with his wife to Australia after only a few short months.

The completed finding aid for this collection can be found online:  MRL11: Samuel Leigh Papers, 1818-1824.

One Collection Down…

Credit to WAB: City Council of Churches Records, Box 4, Folder 10,
The Burke Library Archives (Columbia University Libraries) at Union Theological Seminary, New York.

I started on August 28th, and ended on September 25th – in a little less than a month, I finished processing my first collection from start to finish. It’s incredible how differently it feels than jumping into a collection in medias res, and only helping process a portion of it. I finally got to witness and experience “the bigger picture” of processing archival collections, and all the things (some delightful, others…not so much!) that go with it.

So, did I like it overall? Absolutely! For my first collection, Brigette assigned me the City Council of Churches Records from the William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library Archives. The first step was giving the collection a quick survey, or once-over, before I started on my official work plan. After writing down almost every item in the collection in my notebook (apparently I didn’t think of using the computer to do this, for some reason – honestly, it baffles me!), I was ready to put together my work plan. I decided on how I wanted to organize the collection, described its physical state, and contemplated its research potential, among other things.  Once approved, I set off to work!

Now, I’m not going to say that this came easy to me. It didn’t. I have come to learn that archivists need to develop a certain way of thinking about things. Honestly, I never thought I would see the day when I would agonize over whether something is a pamphlet or a brochure, or if that pamphlet would go under a folder titled “Events” instead. Brigette called it “archival anxiety,” and if you had asked me a month ago what that was, I wouldn’t be able to give you an answer. Now? Well, now I know! Throughout the course of my first processing venture I asked many a question of Brigette, and though I thought that I was asking too many, she only said that she would rather I ask now than make mistakes that I would have to go back and fix later. I learned that every archivist organizes things differently and thinks about collections differently – you just have to stick with your gut and be consistent. I won’t lie, though – this was a very hard mindset to wrap my head around. I wonder, does it ever get easier?

Finally, the day came when I finished the physical processing. I went from four tattered, torn and messy boxes of material to six impeccably (if I do say so myself!) neat and ordered record cartons. The sense of accomplishment I felt (and still feel) was huge. I did that! Other people would actually be coming in to research the collection I had worked so hard on.  However, the work wasn’t over yet.

The next step was to work on my finding aid. I tweaked the template made available to me and did research to flesh out the Historical Note detailing the background of the collection. Once I finished the Scope and Content Note (i.e. what kind of materials are in the collection and what topics are covered), I was finished. At least, I thought I was finished.

But wait – there’s more! Fast forward to today. I made a couple of quick edits to the finding aid and affixed the box labels, and it was sent to the Burke archivist for one more look over. Once approved, Brigette gave me a lesson in Digital Asset Management, in how to upload my finding aid to the web, as well as in how to catalogue it. We walked through each process step by step, and they were just as non-intimidating as Brigette said. I have to say, it is one thing to finish processing a collection, but what good is it if it’s not available online? Seeing that active link on the Burke Archives website and in CLIO really brought this entire experience to life and shot my feelings of accomplishment through the roof.

The absolute final touch (I’m telling the truth this time, I promise!) was announcing that the City Council of Churches Records collection was now available for research.  With the help of social media superstars Facebook and Twitter, followers of the Burke Library will know that the collection is finally processed and ready for use.

So would I do it all again? You bet. Despite the bouts of “archival anxiety” (which I’m sure will be making multiple comebacks), I learned an immense amount in the process. Seeing a collection through from beginning to end gave me a better idea of how archivists work and how they train their brains to think. Not only that, but it gave me a sense of accomplishment and confidence, affirming that, yes, I am capable of doing this. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for me next!

…and I have a good feeling you’ll all be hearing about it, too.  Stay tuned.

My finding aid can be found here: City Council of Churches Records, 1909-1970, and you can also check out my CLIO entry.

New Intern Expectations

Technically speaking, this is the last internship I will ever do as a student. The more I think about it, the more I am stunned that this part of my life is (finally!) coming to an end.  As part of my last semester concurrently earning my MLIS and Certificate in Archives and the Preservation of Cultural Heritage Materials at Queens College, I am taking what is known as the Internship Course. As required by this course, I had to find an internship on my own relating to my field of study (in my case, archives), and set out an Action Plan detailing what was expected of me and what I was expected to learn throughout the course of the semester. Over the course of the next few months I will be working on collections from the Missionary Research Library Archives and the William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library Archives and will be evaluated by how well I am sticking to the Plan and developing skills that will help further my future career.

Then when I started here at Burke two days ago, Brigette mentioned something interesting to me. She said that out of all the students she had as interns so far, I was the one who was the furthest in her studies. When I looked back on it, I realized she is right. Not only have I completed all the coursework required for my Certificate, but I had also come from a background involving a wide variety of archival internships. Processing everything from museum exhibition posters to a portion of Timothy Leary’s files at The New York Public Library, I have had my fair share of interesting exposure to what the “world of archives” has to offer. I wondered, would my expectations of the internship be different because of all the coursework and experiences I have had?

The more I thought about it, the more I thought that, yes, they would be different – but on the other hand, I also feel that on some level I am just as fresh and new as someone who has just begun their archival studies and has no idea what area of the profession to pursue. For me, it’s always been processing. I love discovering something new each day as I sift through a box or do research on an individual or organization – it’s almost like putting a puzzle together or solving a mystery! But so far, none of the internships that I have held have given me the opportunity to finish out a collection from start to finish. I have never known how it feels to put together a finding aid, to crack open a box for the first time and wonder “what in the world am I going to do with this?” I have always started on collections in media res, so I am really looking forward to seeing the collections I work on through to the end. It’s the skills that I intend to build processing these collections – among them critical thinking, writing, and a stronger grounding in archival theory and practice – that I hope will translate to a future processing job after graduation.

So far, I am holding firm in my dedication to being a processing archivist. As I have already mentioned, I love the mystery and puzzle of it all, the feeling that you never quite know what you are going to see that day. Having been working in reference for the past couple of years, I know that is not the place for me – at least not for the majority of the time, though I know it is just as important for archivists to have these skills as well. But who knows? Only time will tell over the next few months at Burke. I guess I (and you) will have to see if anything changes by then!