Thursday, September 27, 2007

If it's Thursday, this must be Temple

We've just started at our next site, Temple University’s Special Collections. Subject matter-wise, it's one of the more abrupt shifts in the project: after nearly two months at the Academy of Natural Sciences surveying the papers of ornithologists, malacologists, ichthyologists, paleontologists, and just about every other flavor of natural history "-ologist" you can think of, we're now immersed in the records of leftist and counterculture organizations like the Socialist Review and Liberation News Service, among other topics.

This is also the first place we've been where a significant number of the collections we’re surveying are housed offsite. (Luckily for us, "offsite" in this case means a building that's a five-minute walk from the main library, so we can still avail ourselves of Temple's many food trucks.) The warehouse doesn't quite have the rarified atmosphere of some of our other stops, or one that conforms to the idealized representations of archives in movies and literature as quiet, dark-paneled nooks -- it's kind of like working at Home Depot, except that instead of 2' x 4's and plumbing fixtures there are boxes upon boxes of incredible manuscript collections.

I think this kind of shifting – of atmosphere, of subject matter, of routines, of personalities – is beneficial to us and to the project in a lot of ways. It shakes up our preconceived notions and we get to observe all the different ways people do things, benefit from their differing perspectives on many of the same types of issues, and understand why they collect what they collect. If we got too entrenched at one place, we might start to see things through only one lens, or expect things to work only a certain way. (Of course, one doesn't need to physically change sites as often as we do to maintain perspective; mental shifts – accomplished by going to a conference, visiting a colleague’s repository, or keeping up on professional literature and listservs – go a long way.)

It certainly isn't as comfortable as coming in to the same desk, coffee cup, and co-worker faces every morning, but it definitely makes us informed about (and open to) the complexities of our field, which should help us keep complacency at bay when we eventually settle back into a less nomadic work existence.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Taking the show on the road

I just returned to the office after a couple weeks away for various professional and personal activities. The major professional activity was attending the Society of American Archivists conference in Chicago, where I exhibited a poster on the survey project (captured in miniature below – please click and save it if you’d like to see it in its full 44" x 28" glory).

SAA 2007 poster for PACSCL survey

I gathered up a raft of business cards and talked with lots of people about their particular collection situations. Both coasts are represented in my followup pile, as are a number of the states in between. There are plenty of university archives and academic special collections in there, but also private historical societies, museums, religious institutions, schools, professional organizations and a funding agency.

Talking with people at SAA emphasized to me once again the similarity in the issues so many of us in archives and special collections face, regardless of the types of institutions we work in, the kinds of collections we hold, or how long our programs have been around. In some ways this can be a touch disheartening – if so many of our issues are so common, shouldn’t we have figured out some kind of solution by now? – but in many more ways it’s very encouraging, because it means we can learn from and help each other.

Special thanks to everyone who stopped by, and to John and Jenny for continuing to work down the mountain of Philadelphia area surveying while I was in the Midwest.