Processing is the Process of Processing

Clifford Odets and Margaret Brenman-Gibson, circa 1950s
Margaret Brenman-Gibson Papers, Box 15

I started working at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library as a processing archivist in August of this year. It's been just four short months and already I've seen some amazing things. But before getting to a few of the goodies, let me tell you a little bit about what I do day in and day out.

Aside from managing the reading room a couple of hours a week, which is often full of eager researchers, I mainly process archival collections. Processing is the process of processing large amounts of information into findable units. It entails organizing, weeding, foldering, re-filing, and re-boxing often times messy papers.  It also means describing those now not so messy papers so that eventually a researcher will be able to find what they are looking for both in the reading room and from the web. I describe the collection both in the analog, as in writing on a lot of folders and labeling a lot of boxes, but I also describe the collection digitally using all sorts of fancy programs and software like Oxygen, the Archivists' Toolkit, and Voyager. It's funny, since coming here, I'd say I am mastering the art of processing the mid-range collection. Not large, not small, just somewhere right in the middle, say 40-50 linear feet. Processing a collection can take anywhere from an afternoon to several years, depending on the size and the level to which the collection is going to be arranged and described. Typically, these 40-50 linear foot collections have been taking me about a month from start to finish.

The first collection I tackled was the Thomas Whiteside Papers (MS#1545). Whiteside was a journalist for the New Yorker for over 45 years. He wrote on all sorts of topics, most famously Agent Orange. Somewhere in his correspondence I found mention of Whiteside's notoriously messy desk. This messy desk was easy to envision as I opened each box and found a jumble of files and loose documents. I find that by the end of processing a collection, you either sort of admire or are vaguely irritated by the person and the files they kept. I really did grow to love Thomas Whiteside despite the mess. The reason I liked this collection though, was that it was fun to piece back together in some sort of meaningful way, the organization of a career. I ended up arranging the material pretty much as it was found, which was grouped around each article or book that Whiteside wrote. I put the files in an alphabetical order. And we now have a neat little outline of the writer's career.  My favorite little snippet from this collection was a short congratulatory letter to Whiteside from Andy Rooney. You can see for yourself, but it tells a little more about Rooney then it does Whiteside!

Andy Rooney letter, 1978
Thomas Whiteside Papers, Box 10

Following Whiteside, I got to do something a little different, which can be referred to as "accessioning as processing." I won't go into the finer points of this, but basically, it means taking in a new collection, which is called accessioning, and sort of minimally arranging and describing the materials in such a way that they become immediately available, never entering the repository's backlog of unprocessed collections. The collection I worked on was the Howard "Stretch" Johnson Papers (MS#1634). It was pretty small and already in good order. It was sent to the RBML from Stretch's daughter who lives in France, and it came in these perfectly cute French boxes. I hung on to those boxes for a long time, before finally recycling them. Contrary to popular belief, we archivists do like to throw things out. Stretch was an interesting figure. He was both a tap dancer at the Cotton Club in Harlem during the 1920s and a communist. Unlike a lot of communists who later go on to say that their affiliation with the CPUSA was a mistake, Stretch was really proud. His collection is full of wonderful material: ephemera, photographs, letters, and drafts of his autobiography. Below is a pamphlet he wrote, originally published by the National Veterans Committee of the Communist Party.

The Negro Veteran Fights for Freedom!, 1947
Howard "Stretch" Johnson Papers, Box 3


The next big project I took on was processing the Margaret Brenman-Gibson Papers (MS#1635). Brenman-Gibson was the biographer of American playwright Clifford Odets. The collection consisted mainly of her research files for the biography. It was very neat and well organized all be it stored in a variety of liquor and beer boxes. For the biography, Brenman-Gibson corresponded and interviewed all sort of famous actors, directors, and playwrights, all family, friends, and acquaintances of Odets. While most of the correspondence is brief and deals with recollections of Clifford Odets, it was exciting to see Marlon Brando's signature, Elia Kazan's stationary. There was even a short note from someone I wasn't expecting, author Anais Nin.

Anais Nin letter, 1972
Margaret Brenman-Gibson Papers, Box 6

Clifford Odets, in addition to being a playwright, was also a painter. In 2006, the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery on West 57th Street in New York, hosted an exhibit of Odets' work called, "It's Your Birthday, Clifford Odets! A Centennial Exhibition." The New York Times did a nice review of the show. Odets was friends with Brenman-Gibson and her husband, William Gibson. I'm not sure for how long, but from the correspondence in the collection, it appears that the three were in touch for the last 10 years of Odets' life, from the early 1950s through to 1963. Odets would send the Gibson's letters outlining his work and describing his personal life. You can really get a sense of his personality through these letters. Occasionally there would be a drawing or doodle. His son sent them the small painting below, which I can't help but think is a little treasure within the already rich collection.

"Lily Pond", Clifford Odets, 1958
Margaret Brenman-Gibson Papers, Box 15

I'm eager to begin my next project, which is processing the Gregory Mosher Papers, and excited to share some minor tidbit that I find, which hopefully will provide a window into that collection and also into what it is archivists do.

The finding aids or guides to all of the collections mentioned in this post can be found on our website by searching the Archives Collections Portal, or by following the links provided.

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