Happy International Archives Day! In celebration I will answer a question posed to be a few months ago. What was the most difficult part of your job?
Since, my work is comprised primarily of processing the Allan Blank Papers Collection I thought I would focus today’s post on the most difficult aspects of processing for me.
Some Archivists find that organization is the most difficult part of processing; creating order from vastly different artifacts for ease of use. Shaping a collection first begins by opening every box and making an inventory. Next, finding the patterns between the documents to divide the collection into searchable Subject Headings. Determining how to divide the collection means an Archivist must place themselves in the shoes of a researcher, who might not have a background in the matter they are studying. Keeping the organization simple and logical is imperative.
Other Archivists would say the hardest part of processing is learning an individual’s writing style. Handwriting from the 1700s is drastically different from current cursive. For a comprehensive example, just check out the Declaration of Independence. Word usage has also altered over time. Eighteenth century slang for gloomy thoughts was ‘Brown Study’ (yeah, I probably would have never figured that one out). These are historic examples modern researchers encounter, but even contemporaries can present difficulties. Most problems occur with individual idiosyncrasies in language and distinct methods of shorthand in private writings.
For this particular Archivist, it is a little of both. When Allan Blank’s work was moved out of his home after his death, it was the insurance agents packing it into boxes, not historians. Each box I open is filled with dissimilar items, packed for efficiency, knowing nothing of possible research. Meaning: scores and sketches are intermingled, CD-Roms can be found at the bottom of a box, and the worst is finding a page to a score that was accidently crushed between notebooks. Therefore, I inventory, rehouse, and flatten. Creating organization is difficult when beginning from chaos. For the Allan Blank Papers Collection, the current subject headings are: Original Compositions, Plays and Operas, Sketches, Work as a Composer, Work as a Teacher, Audio Recordings, Artifacts and Oversized Materials. These may change in the future, or be expanded upon as needed.
I quickly learned to decipher Allan Blank’s handwriting and ask for help from co-workers when I can’t figure things out. Luckily, context has given me clues to Mr. Blank’s shorthand style. Allan Blank was fond of abbreviations, often when it came to identifying instruments. In the example below: WWQ stands for Woodwind Quartet, Fl for Flute, Ob for Oboe, Cl for Clarinet and Bsn. for Bassoon. As Mr. Blank aged, his handwriting became shaker, but his music notes remained as precise as ever.
I try to empathize with the researcher as much as possible when dividing the collection and to remain respectful to Allan Blank’s work. Processing is taking a person’s paperwork and making it easy of researchers to find and study. Sometimes it is simple, but most of the time it is complicated. However, when you ask this Archivist what is the best part of the job, my answer will always be processing!