It’s been a while since I’ve made regular posts to this blog, which began in 2013 as a series of posts on my career transition. Let me catch you up…
Late last May I started as a program analyst at the DC Office of Public Records. The job was supposed to be primarily about planning the move of DC Archives to its new site, but so far a site has not been established, so the move is likely several months if not years away. Anyway, being there, and me being me, I decided to take advantage of the lull in activity to learn something about the operation of the place.
DC Archives has a rich history of neglect and under-appreciation. Read this 2003 Washington Post article by Sewell Chan @sewellchan to get a taste of it (not much has changed). This series of letters from officials of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) @archivists_org provides reactions from the profession, and this 2015 article by Matthew Gilmore @MatthewBGilmore provides useful updates. This DC CityPaper article from 2000 written by Elissa Silverman @tweetelissa is also revealing. Here is a Vision Paper by prominent archivist Dr. Gregory Hunter that was not easy to locate. So I will take this opportunity to archive it here!
The place is dusty and moldy, but such is the way of archives. At least I don’t have to “dress up” for work. In my first month I couldn’t take the total clutter of the supply room, and volunteered to give it an overhaul. Not exactly in my job description, but it was clearly affecting operations at every level. So I took it on, and got it done, dead rats under the palates and all. In my second month, I complained about the backlog of donated collections and scheduled records deliveries piled up everywhere and took them on. After making a list and a POA&M (plan of attack and milestones: that Navy training is the gift that keeps on giving!), I offered to “do” the largest collection, processing over 250 boxes in six different locations of the personal and professional papers of a retired (and now deceased) member of the city council that had been around for almost two years, unprocessed. It took me from July to mid-October (not counting the month we took off for vacation), but I got the initial inventory done. Now we are in the description and arrangement phase (as an aside, it helps that I’m taking a course in archives management at my alma mater (CLSC 646). Anyway, for the course we had to choose a type of archives for a lit review and site visit and I chose oral histories of foreign service offices at the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training @ADSTnews . See the paper that resulted here. I have fallen in love with oral histories!).
I wrote a sonnet that captures some of my initial impressions of the “spirit” of the place. Give it a try: https://thisismypoetryblog.wordpress.com/2017/07/22/archives-sonnet/
Back to the subject. With the initial inventory complete, I was unsure of the next step and we hadn’t at that point gotten that far in class. So I was talking with a colleague over lunch and he told me that with large collections of personal papers, one allows the main themes to emerge from the inventory, then organizes the papers along those themes in a second run. So that’s what I did. I started with about 40 themes that covered the whole collection, then consolidated them down to about 20 themes, then assigned numbers to those themes and put those numbers into the original inventory spreadsheet. Then sorted, and presto! We had a plan! (The royal “We,” mind you, it is only me). So each theme is now a group and as of today, October 27, I have completed arranging the two largest groups at the folder level. The first two groups were both large, and lucky for me, concentrated pretty much over some 70 boxes, so it made sense to move the boxes from their temporary storage on the second floor to the processing area I mapped out on the ground level (not having an adequate processing area has been an excuse not to attack the backlog, but I was new and didn’t yet know the ropes…). But for subsequent groups that are significantly smaller and less concentrated, I will change my operational model and dive boxes directly at their temporary storage site on the 2nd floor. (p.s. I had arranged the bulk of the boxes in numerical order is what I thought to be a safe place (basically where they had been for over 18 months) but in a miscommunication due to some infrastructure work, all the boxes got moved by contractors without my knowledge, losing all the numerical order. Luckily, the boxes were numbered, but it makes the task slightly more tedious when numbered boxes are stacked on top of one another outside the original order).
This weekend’s readings for class this Monday focus on arrangement and developing finding aids, so it’s pretty cool that there is this alignment between my coursework and what I am doing at work.
Simultaneously, the course requires a 50-hour practicum, which I am doing at DC Public Library. Slightly different, this project is an item-level collection where I am documenting every piece of paper in a single box and doing the complete accession using ArchivesSpace. More about that in a subsequent post…
DC Archives has a small library attached, some 1500 books on shelves (not counting several boxes of books already accessioned as archives that will need to be transferred to the library whenever a librarian can be hired). The boss asked me to draft a collection policy (since I am a librarian by trade), which we got approved downtown, so a project in the near future might be to weed out the collection and whip the library into shape.
The third part of the operations is the records center. I went out to Suitland, MD to do a one-day training at the Federal Records Center in my first month on the job. At some point we will have to tackle the big problem of storage of DC records at several federal repositories that dates back to pre-1985, when DC records were considered federal records managed by National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Our present facility doesn’t have the space to consolidate all our holdings, so stuff remains all spread out and incurring huge monthly rent expenses for DC Government.
OK. Finally, there is a local organization, Friends of the DC Archives @FDCArchives, the present iteration of which emerged from a shadowy origin about the same time as the beginning of the Mayor Bowser administration. They claim no ties to the original Friends group formed in 2006, and they behave more like a citizen’s oversight group than an advocacy group, cross-examining employees at their infrequent and unannounced meetings. Here is their Weebly website (note: not updated since November 2016) and here is a link to their Facebook page, though they have no record of official incorporation as a not-for-profit organization and again, they make no reference to the original Friends of DC Archives that was legitimately incorporated in 2006. See more here: The Founding of the Friends of the DC Archives.
When I worked part-time I missed being a part of a team. But now I am working full time and missing days off during the week to do other interesting things like long lunches with old friends, movies and museum/gallery visits with Filomena, grocery shopping when checkout lines are short, and the possibility of long weekend road trips whenever. Oh well, save those thrills for when I really retire!