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Archivist in blue hoodie prying open dark green metal cabinet with crowbar
First and second attempt by archivist Michael Folkerts at opening metal file drawers of NAACP Records with a crowbar. Photograph by Nate Scheible.

Behind the Scenes: Sorting Part X of the NAACP Papers

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This is a guest post by Michael Folkerts and Nate Scheible, Senior Archives Specialists in the Manuscript Division, and is the latest in an occasional series that looks behind the scenes at the work of Manuscript Division staff.

In our previous blog, we discussed the difficulties involved in surveying over a million items of material to be added as Part X of the records of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Manuscript Division’s largest and most frequently used collection. With that survey complete, we next embarked on the task of physically bringing the material to the Library to sort and prepare it for processing. Here we describe that sorting process, and go deeper into one portion of the collection: the NAACP Branch Department.

Prying It Open, Pulling It Out

From our survey, we knew that the bulk of the material fell into three relatively easy groupings: the Branch Department, which oversees local chapters throughout the United States; the Legal Department, which provides legal counsel in various civil rights cases and also serves as in-house counsel for the organization; and the Financial Department, which oversees all of NAACP’s finances. Between these three departments, this would require bringing 40 pallets of material on-site to unload and sort through.

Unprocessed collection material is stored on pallets at our secure, environmentally controlled off-site storage facility, where the material rests on elevated shelving, wrapped and labeled for preservation purposes and ease of transport. One pallet holds anywhere between 20 to 40 boxes. Aided by the Manuscript Division’s collections manager and the Library’s Collections Management Division, we began ordering pallets, which staff unloaded as they arrived. During the survey, we had labeled each box and described its contents on an Excel spreadsheet, along with the name of the NAACP department to which we thought the material belonged. We decided to limit our initial focus on the Legal and Branch departments, and placed any boxes belonging to those departments on separate tables. Materials belonging to other departments were set on a different table to sort through later. Financial material was returned to off-site storage to be dealt with at a later time.

Of course, not everything can go smoothly and according to plan. One major issue we had was that a number of boxes on the pallets weren’t really boxes at all, but rusted filing cabinets. We had no way of opening these during our survey, so we needed to go through them as they arrived to determine their contents. That required crowbars, which we used to pry open the cabinets and pull out the material. Thankfully, our Preparation Section is well prepared for such eventualities.

After several weeks of unloading pallets and moving boxes around, our first phase was complete and we were ready to dig deeper. With the financial material sent back off-site, this left us with materials from the NAACP’s Legal Department, Branch Department, and an assortment of other departments to arrange. Still, we couldn’t just begin processing right away. Though we’d identified many boxes during our initial survey, plenty were still mysteries to us, which we needed to review more extensively to ensure, at the very least, that they didn’t contain material related to the Legal or Branch departments.

This is where a rough idea of a collection’s arrangement scheme usually begins to take shape, and as we continued to sort, material began to be placed into defined series and subseries. What started as a mix of material outside the scope of the Branch and Legal departments ultimately resulted in groupings representing the Education, Program, Armed Services, Economic Development, Labor, Training, and Voter Education departments. While we were in no position to begin processing all of those other series, sorting them ensured that we knew we had no more material to add to the Legal and Branch Departments and could begin the actual processing. Furthermore, it gave us a deeper understanding of the workings of the NAACP’s various administrative functions and operations across the organization. With this knowledge in hand, we could finally begin to start physically processing large portions of the collection!

Large formica tables piled with white and brown cardboard boxes.
One of several tables filled with boxes of NAACP Records awaiting processing in the Manuscript Division Preparation Section. Photograph by Mike Folkerts.

The NAACP Branch Department

The NAACP’s Branch Department provides a good representation of the work that goes on throughout the organization. Over 2,000 local chapters of the NAACP represent cities and counties throughout the country and internationally on U.S. military bases abroad. The Branch Department oversees the regional directors and state conferences, who guide and train local branches to ensure the organization’s mission is carried out at the grassroots level. In addition, the Branch Department at the time these documents span, the 1960s through the early 1990s, oversaw the Membership, Life Membership, and Youth and College divisions. These divisions all participated in membership recruitment, with the Youth and College Division also overseeing university chapters of the NAACP. The Prison program, which oversaw the establishment of local branches for willing and participating inmates, was also administered by the Branch Department. With so many duties for one department, we had our work cut out for us when we began processing this series.

Following a similar arrangement scheme as in previous parts of the collection, we knew that this series would contain multiple subseries. Each subseries would represent the divisions and functions described above, with a general office file representing the administrative functions of the directors, Gloster B. Current and William H. Penn, Sr. Of these subseries, the largest was the geographical file, which contained material related to all the local branches. We sorted many boxes containing geographical materials and put them aside. Our initial challenge would then come in the fine sort of loose material housed in approximately 40 boxes, which looked as if filing cabinets had been physically dumped into them. Before any processing could begin, we would need to review and sort those boxes item by item.

We will not lie to you, reader: this is exactly as time consuming as it sounds. But sometimes it is also the only way forward. We first sorted through material relating to the geographical file, our largest subseries, grouping all local branch records into boxes labeled with the states in which the branch resides. We then decided the fastest and easiest way to go through unsorted boxes would be to remove anything pertaining to local branches and add it to the geographical file. Once that was complete, several of our colleagues could continue processing further the sorted materials. With 40 boxes to go through, it would take too long for us to match each local item to its state as we uncovered it, so loose material relating to local branches was put in a box to be matched later by our archival technicians. When we finished our sort and had no more material to add to the geographical file, the technicians then began processing all the local branches within each state.  One technician would process all the branches in each of their assigned states.

Labor intensive though this was, this kind of item sort did help us develop knowledge about the operations, functions, and people who worked for the NAACP’s Branch Department. It slowly became easier to identify groups of records and determine what should go where. After several weeks of going through items one by one, we were able to place many boxes of material in other subseries, and we were left with a more manageable chunk of records for a second sort, which we could then finally arrange into the collection’s general office file. As we did that, other archivists and technicians could begin the work of processing the other subseries.

Along with seven other archivists and technicians, we were able to make short work of this large series. The result, after several months, has amounted to another 163,000 items added to Part X of the NAACP Records. It’s also brought us one step closer to completing the one-million-item-plus addition.

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  1. I would like to be kept abreast of this endeavor.

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