Behind the Scenes: Surveying Part X of the NAACP Papers

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.

The contents of one of the less organized boxes from the NAACP addition consisting largely of loose paper and other files which we needed to survey.

When recently surveying the contents of a large addition to the records of the NAACP, Manuscript Division archivists found some boxes less organized than others, a typical discovery when processing any collection.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has been a major force in the fight for civil rights for more than a century. With hundreds of thousands of members and a long and storied history, it is not surprising that the organization’s records have become the Manuscript Division’s largest and most frequently used collection. The records of the NAACP currently consist of approximately 3 million items in over 8,600 containers. The key word being “currently,” since the division is in the process of adding significantly more material to the collection’s existing nine parts. Due to the organization’s ongoing work, the Manuscript Division periodically amends and expands the collection as new material is received from the NAACP. This blog is the first of several planned posts by the two lead archivists, Michael Folkerts and Nate Scheible, who will describe the planning and decisions made in organizing Part X of the NAACP Records.

When processing any collection, determining the scope of the unprocessed material remains the archivist’s first task. This work entails reviewing the accession records that are created when a new collection or addition thereof is received and accessioned by the division. It also involves consulting with the historians responsible for overseeing the collection. After reviewing the 31 relevant accession records and consulting with division historians and our collections officer, we learned that there were 66 pallets of material for review. Anywhere from 20 to 40 boxes can fit on a single pallet, but the exact box count had been unknown, as portions of one large accession had been partially processed over 25 years ago.

One of several aisles in the Library’s Cabin Branch storage facility, housing pallets of collection material from the Manuscript Division and others.

One of several aisles in the Library’s Cabin Branch storage facility, housing pallets of collection material from the Manuscript Division and other units.

With an understanding of the scope, determining logistics becomes the second task. The division’s Preparation Section can only receive 5 or 6 pallets at a time due to limited floor space and the need to coordinate with our colleagues in the Collections Management Division (CMD) to transfer the unprocessed material from the Library’s offsite storage facility to our work areas in the James Madison Memorial Building. Transferring pallets from offsite must be scheduled so as not to interfere with CMD’s delivery of processed collections requested by researchers. We also need to be mindful of the amount of table space available so that all of the division’s archivists and technicians who are processing this and other collections have room to work. The only sensible solution was to survey the material first where it was being held at the offsite storage facility.

A collection survey is essentially a review of what is in the boxes in order for archivists to develop a feel for any possible arrangement and to prepare for any conservation issues. In a secured area at the storage facility, members of the Library’s CMD staff helped move the collection to and from its shelved locations daily, as we unloaded, reviewed, and reloaded boxes on the pallets. Since the material we were surveying is an addition to the NAACP records, which is arranged into series by the organization’s various departments, we sought to identify material by their originating department. Initial collection surveys are generally not this thorough, but in an effort to accommodate our limited processing space at the Library, we needed to dig deeper than normal at an earlier stage. Ideally, an archivist would have their entire collection onsite to begin sorting and processing. Since this was not possible for us, it was important to identify the contents and origins of every box so that they could be requested from offsite in logical chunks. This way we would know that all the records of a particular type were onsite before beginning to process them.

We began the survey by unwrapping each pallet and assigning numbers to each box. These numbers were useful for bringing material onsite, as the numbers enabled us to identify quickly the material and the department to which it belonged. After numbering the boxes, archivists unloaded each box and looked through the material, recording descriptive information, possible arrangement, conservation concerns, and any other notes worth recording. This process began slowly and at first required intensive study as information was gathered about the type of material. As we gradually developed a familiarity with the materials under review, we could more easily identify the functions of different departments within the organization and the departmental origins of the materials. After a number of days, the review process moved along more quickly. For example, after reading through memoranda and reports in many boxes, we recognized which boxes likely belonged to the NAACP’s Branch Department. The Branch Department typically oversaw membership, youth and college chapters, and local chapters of the NAACP. Other material was quickly identified as originating from the Legal and Financial departments. Nearly half of the material reviewed originated from those three departments.

The surveying workspace for the archivists, where pallets were loaded and unloaded. On shelves about the concrete workspace are numerous shrink wrapped pallets containing parts of the NAACP records and other collections.

The surveying workspace for the archivists, where pallets were loaded and unloaded.

As material became increasingly easier to identify, most boxes required only a brief review to determine their origin. Material from the Financial Department, for example, contained numerous boxes of daily membership reports, which were easily recognizable. Some boxes, though, take longer, especially when they are overflowing with loose material and lack folders. We also needed to review the boxes to check for any conservation issues such as mold. Thankfully, these records, beyond some dust, remained in good condition. After three weeks, we finished our survey of more than 1,400 boxes of material. With the collection survey completed, our next steps are to determine which records should be prioritized for bringing back onsite to the Madison Building.

Future blogs will highlight the first steps of sorting, processing, and managing the team’s work as Part X of the NAACP papers progresses along.

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