Behind the Scenes: Good Things Come in All Kinds of Packages

This is the first in an occasional series that looks behind the scenes at the work of Manuscript Division staff.

When researchers visit the Manuscript Reading Room to consult our collections, they are most likely served archival containers filled with neatly organized acid-free folders, identical except for the numbers on their labels, containing precious historical documents. They request these archival boxes after reviewing a finding aid, the guide to the collection that describes its contents and provides a list of the folders contained in each box. What they do not see is the many hours of work conducted before the collection is made available for research use.

Papers received in footlockers and wooden crates. William H. Tunner and Margaret Ann Hamilton Tunner Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The archivists, technicians, and catalogers of the Preparation Section are responsible for arranging and describing the personal papers and organizational records acquired by the Manuscript Division. There are many stories to tell about the processing activities that make the often disorganized, dirty, or smelly collections accessible and ready for research.

A glimpse behind the scenes at the start of this process reveals containers that are much more varied in size, age, and condition than the standard archival boxes presented to researchers when our work is complete. The reasons for this are as varied as the circumstances surrounding the creation and acquisition of each collection. Before they landed here, some manuscript collections may have been shipped directly from the offices where they were created, while others spent years stashed in a closet, attic, or basement, or perhaps stowed in a garage or a barn. As a result, they arrive packed in anything from file cabinets and storage containers to liquor boxes and trash cans.

We often encounter manuscripts in receptacles that are vestiges of the lives and times of the people who created them. Some papers of military officers arrive in footlockers. Letters, diaries, notes, photographs, and keepsakes may still be in the worn suitcase, dress box, taffy box, or plastic bag where their owner kept them safe or perhaps put them away, only to be forgotten. We find book drafts inside boxes that once held the blank typing paper on which they were written and work papers in the very briefcase used to carry them to and from the office.

On the other end of the spectrum, in collections generated in recent decades, we find piles of floppy disks and CDs that hold documents in digital formats. Even when labeled, the pieces of digital media usually offer very little initial information about what type and how much material they contain. Digital archivists must use special tools to unlock these hidden details.

We usually don’t know the backstory on where materials were stored before they arrived here, but if collections spent long periods of time in a damp basement, a dusty attic, or a dirty barn, the effects of those less than optimal conditions are obvious to the experienced archivist. Dirt, mold, rusty paper clips and staples, evidence of insects or rodents, and a musty odor help tell the story. We also know from experience that forty cats in a house definitely will leave their mark on an individual’s papers!

Archival boxes neatly arranged on shelves.

A processed archival collection ready for researchers. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The contents of containers will reveal varying levels of organization. One box might hold a run of file folders from the drawer of a file cabinet, while another box may be filled with the heaps of loose, unidentified papers that had been piled atop the file cabinet.

We will be very familiar with the contents of a collection when our work is done and we place the nearly identical archival containers on storage shelves and store the born digital files on servers, ready and waiting for researchers to explore. At the very start, however, it’s hard not to feel a bit of hopeful anticipation and excitement, similar to a child on Christmas morning, as we open each container to discover what treasures it might hold. We hope for papers that are organized enough to help us understand how the documents were created and used. We hope they prove to be in good physical condition and the handwriting on them is legible. We hope the material provides interesting details and unique information researchers will value. We know there will be surprises, and we hope most of them are good ones.

In future blog posts, archivists and technicians will share stories about the complex process of analyzing, arranging, preserving, and describing collections, which occurs once we remove the manuscripts from whatever box, trunk, plastic bag, or bundle in which they arrived.

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8 Comments

  1. lentigogirl
    January 20, 2022 at 9:22 am

    Thanks for the inside peek. I feel much better about my filing practices now.

  2. H. R. Kells
    January 20, 2022 at 12:08 pm

    A fine introduction to this important and interesting work. I am lucky to have a family archivist who works over all the things I send to her…..she sounds a lot like the author of this piece.

  3. Henry R. H.
    January 20, 2022 at 1:01 pm

    Looking forward to future stories about the individual collections. I have never once considered the smells of the archives. I hope the aromas are not too unbearable.

  4. Cheryl Lederle
    January 21, 2022 at 7:28 am

    I appreciate the general insights into the work that goes into preparing a collection, but this made me laugh out loud, in the best way: “We also know from experience that forty cats in a house definitely will leave their mark on an individual’s papers!” Nothing more needed to be said there…

  5. Margaret R
    January 21, 2022 at 1:53 pm

    What a nice peek behind the curtain, and the comment from the person who shares your last name was cute. Keep up the good work!

  6. Sara Duke
    January 22, 2022 at 7:46 pm

    Laura, we have had an exchange about cat box archives, but I still think the day my heart started racing because there was nicotine all over the art was an experience not to be forgotten! (I was using Conservation’s fume hood because of the odor, but not wearing gloves because the art’s media could rub off. Instead, something rubbed off on me!

  7. Susan Korycan
    January 25, 2022 at 4:11 pm

    I love Helen Thomas’ carpet bag. It seems so “Helen”.

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