By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist
So, you recently donated a collection of papers to the Chemung County Historical Society. First off, thank you. It is only thanks to the generosity of folks like you that we’re able to have the amazing collections that we do. Hopefully by now you have returned the deed of gift, but you may be wondering just what we plan on doing with your donation. Well, sit back and let me explain. The end goal of archiving is not to preserve history, but to make it accessible. Everything I do is geared towards making it easier for researchers to find what they’re looking for.
Step one is to take the collection and organize it in a sensible fashion. When organizing a collection of documents, standard archival theory prioritizes two principals: provenance and original order. Provenance refers to a document’s creator or source. The idea is that things created by the same person, business, or organization should all go together and things made by someone else should go somewhere else. Pretty simple, right? The principle of original order basically boils down to using the organizational scheme established by the creator instead of wasting time coming up with a new one. If the creator alphabetized their papers, I leave them alphabetized, and, if they had them in chronological order, I keep them that way instead. It’s only when I get papers without any discernible order that I impose one.
|I might have to impose some order on this one
Step two is housing and labeling. Documents get stored in folders, folders get stored in boxes, and boxes go on the shelves. Each folder has to be labeled with the name of the collection, folder and box numbers, and a brief description of the contents. Each box is labeled with the collection name, box number, shelving location, and a brief description of the contents. All this labeling may seem really tedious, but it’s the only way I can tell boxes apart when I’m searching and make sure I put things back in their proper locations once researchers are done using them.
|I label my boxes so I can tell them apart.
The last step is to create a description of the collection, also known as a finding aid. A good finding aid provides researchers with a summary of the contents of the collection and the context to understand what any of it means. For example, take the Beers Family Letters which, as the name implies, is made up of letters to and from various members of the Beers family. In addition to listing the various letters, the finding aid explains how the letter writers are related to each other and places what they’re writing about in historical context. We post our finding aids on our website so that researchers all over the world can find what they are looking for.
And that, dear donor, is what I did with the papers you gave us.