Thursday, July 19, 2007

Finding the skeletons in your closets (and basements and desks and drawers)

Most collectors are accustomed to finding what they want in less than glamorous places. Archivists and manuscript librarians are no exceptions. The basement, the attic, the garage, the abandoned office building and the self-storage unit are work environs almost as familiar to us as the processing table and the reading room.

When I visit participants in this project to determine what they want us to survey, I find people will often begin by showing me sets of nicely labeled and orderly archival boxes in well-lit stacks. This is the "socially acceptable" portion of their backlog.

But when I press and ask "Is there anything else?" that's when the real adventure begins. Suddenly I'm being led into dark basements where towers of ancient liquor boxes and loose and often grimy manuscripts dwell. We're crouching under desks and pulling out keys for locked cabinets that haven't been opened in years. We're looking at items of unknown provenance brought in by predecessors and problem collections that have been sitting on the "I'll get to it someday" shelf for decades. As Rebecca Johnson Melvin, the head of the manuscript unit at the University of Delaware's Special Collections pointed out, oftentimes these collections have been around so long that we almost don't see them anymore. It's as if they're part of the furniture. (Funnily enough, we actually did survey a piece of furniture last week, a wooden cabinet with, what else, slides inside.)

Almost everyone in the project has found more for us to survey than what they originally intended, and often they uncover even more while we're onsite surveying. I think, and participants have told me, that seeing what we do, being "forced" to revisit holdings when selecting collections to survey, and having a few more hands and minds available to the cause makes facing this portion of the backlog more palatable. These are the skeletons in these institutions' closets, but they're not all that scary upon closer inspection.

For the last three weeks we've been surveying the most extensive skeleton yet. Samuel Moyerman was a Philadelphia manuscript and memorabilia dealer who sold collections up and down the Eastern seaboard. When he died, a good deal of his inventory remained unsold, and in 1972 the University of Delaware Library received two moving trucks full of it. Over the years the staff have been able to process a great deal of it, but significant unprocessed caches remained, including a pile of boxes that were on the floor in a corner of their vault whose only finding aid was a brief typed list taped to the wall. What made this particular pile so daunting was that it wasn't just one collection, it was over 100 collections, most with discrete but somewhat uncertain provenance, with dates ranging from the 18th to 20th century and subject matter that ran the gamut from wigmaking to the health of prison inmates. Given the press of other responsibilities and projects, finding a way to tackle this group of material had seemed challenging at best, but the survey project provided an opportunity to finally meet the challenge head on.

Thanks to the efforts of the intrepid Anita Wellner, Rebecca, the surveyors and a small band of UD interns and staff who were willing to get their hands dirty (literally), there is no longer a pile of Moyerman material at the University of Delaware. Instead there are 110 survey records and dozens of other materials which the staff plan to integrate into existing collections or process in the very near future. Information on the contents of that pile will soon be available in a publicly searchable database and ready to be included in MARC catalog records and collection-level EAD finding aids with the use of a few simple tools and macros. It's one of the most rewarding aspects of this project to me, seeing nagging problems addressed and "hidden" collections made more accessible.

So, what skeletons are lurking in your closets? Don't worry, you can fess up anonymously if you want.

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