Life at work

Halfway through the final pass and three quarters through the entire process, it is probably a good time to assess the work left, pat myself on the back about the progress, and start to jot down some content and scope notes and lessons learned from the project.

My involvement in the Jim Graham Papers project was an incidental event. As part of preparation for the Mayor’s late June visit, I offered to identify all the piles and rats’ nests of unprocessed collections occupying space in the various corridors and corners of the place. Then, being Navy-trained, I proposed a timetable for working through the assembly of clutter, a POAM if you will (Plan Of Attack and Milestones).

Jim Graham had only recently passed and it made some sense to me that his collection should be the first one we attacked. So there were 18 boxes in one place, and 13 boxes in another, and on and on, and before we knew it, we identified well over 200 boxes.

Late in July, I wrote this sonnet –

There are no spirits lurking in the aisles
and corners. Just cartons of documents,
​details of lives. Whether well-lived or ill,
these papers tell the story – marriage, birth,
land acquired, taxes. Death. It’s all there.
No need for the rattling sound of zombies –
ghosts of events yet to come – in graveyards.
Might this be the judgement we fear? The words
and deeds, archived records we leave behind
won’t deliver us to any heaven –
or hell. It’s just a mirage, this image
of hereafter we’ve been trained to accept
as truth, the certain object of our faith:​
​d​ried, folded, faded, in a dusty box.

By the time I finished the first pass, I had generated over 30 boxes of emptied three ring binders of various sizes that we trucked to surplus property, many with the fancy steel hinges. All together I removed a couple of boxes of office supplies that got entrained in the mix, along with a few boxes of unmarked duplicates of various documents (the marked duplicates we kept!) and some unidentified children’s toys. And there was that stack of Whitman-Walker Clinic folders and documents and AIDS-related books we separated for deposit with the GW collection that focuses that part of Graham’s life in DC.  And that was the first pass.

It is worth noting that I began the project armed only with librarian logic, but in August I began Archival Management, a CUA graduate course that met at the Library of Congress, and in late September, I began my practicum in Special Collections at DC Public Library. As I actually learned how to process a collection, I suppose I got better at it. Let’s hope so, anyway. In the arrangement phase, it appeared clear to me that the later boxes made much more sense and were better organized than the early boxes. I hope we corrected for that slight imbalance in the second pass.

In the arrangement phase, speaking of which, I initially came up with 37 categories of records and documents by subject. But I knew that 37 was too many, and as a former colleague used to say, “if you have too many foci, you lose focus.” So we consolidated categories that made sense, ending up with nine (9) general series, that included correspondence, Council service, budget approval, Metropolitan police, education, OIG reports, artifacts and plaques, photos and slides, and newspaper articles. The bulk of the collection would end up in series 2, Council service, which would include the committees Graham chaired over his sixteen years on the City Council, and which would map out both the sequence and the progression of remarkable influence he was able to establish during his ascent to and subsequent fall from local power. But we will save that for the biographical note.

Series #2 Subseries #6  (committee chairmanships) is proving to be a real challenge. I am making constant and real-time tradeoffs between original order, committee subject and chronology.  We are looking at 25-30 linear foot boxes total and so far I’ve broken it down to three overlapping tranches, 1998-2006, 2004-2011, and 2008-2014. But beyond this, it will all be downhill. Truly. The light at the end of the tunnel is what sustains me.

 

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