Where are they now? Part II

Written by Sarah Newhouse on July 27th, 2012

The last time this blog heard from me, I had finished processing the papers of Dr. Stella Kramrisch at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In that blog post, you can tell that I’m a little surprised that the processing went so well. I thought it would be complex to reconcile two different phases of previous processing that had separated a collection into two physical groups.  I can laugh at that now, because it turns out 1-year-ago-Sarah had no idea how complex processing could really be. (Oh, little baby archivist, just you wait.)

Since I left the Hidden Collections project, I’ve worked on two projects at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (which participated in the CLIR grant but alas, I was not part of the team that worked there). The first was as project archivist for the Digital Center for Americana Project, Phase II. Both phases of this project had, at their heart, the drive to create access to the collections at HSP through digitization. Phase I focused on collections relating to the Civil War and Phase II on collections that documented immigrant families, individuals, and communities in the Philadelphia area. I feel especially lucky that I got to work on this project given the subject matter. Many researchers know about HSP’s treasures – and there are some amazing things in those holdings, believe me – but fewer researchers know about these collections that document the immigrant experience or represent minority groups. The history of the Philadelphia area is mostly a narrative of Western European families who, yes, were all immigrants themselves, but very well-documented immigrants. So I’m happy to be adding to the richness of that narrative by making collections of less well-documented minority and immigrant groups accessible to the public.

The project involved some MPLP and some full processing. Collections had to be arranged, described, housed, inventoried, conserved, and digitized. Some collections received full digitization, like the beautiful 18th and 19th century bound volumes in the Abraham H. Cassel collection and the tapes and transcripts in the Balch Institute’s South Asian Immigrants in the Philadelphia Area Oral History Project.  Others received “signpost” images, meaning that I selected items for digitization that represented the contents of the collection. This was actually a bit of a challenge, because I had to resist the urge to digitize the most unusual, amazing, or funniest items in a collection and just digitize things that wouldn’t mislead a researcher as to the collection’s contents.  So, for the Athena Tacha papers, rather than digitize a letter from one of Tacha’s famous artist friends, I chose one of her many letters to her family in Greece.

One of the biggest challenges with this project was the language barrier. I can read some German (but don’t ask me to speak it), as well as Japanese, Latin, and a tiny bit of Spanish, but this project also included Greek, Swedish, and French, languages that I had zero experience with. Luckily, I was able to fall back on the skills of two interns who were natives of Sweden and Greece. Without their help, the finding aids for these collections would have been a lot less informative and the processing experience a lot less fun. The interns had different levels of archives experience, so I relied on them mostly as translators rather than processors. But even our clever Swedish intern, who spoke German fluently, was stumped by some of the spidery, 18th century German handwriting and syntax we encountered.

Working on the DCAII has given me a deep respect and thankfulness for the work that Holly and Courtney did on the PACSCL CLIR project. Transitioning from a student processing intern to a project archivist had a very, very, very steep learning curve. But luckily I had some understanding coworkers who created a support system of archivists, conservators, and digital technicians, all willing to put up with my mistakes and answer my questions (although in hindsight, one of my biggest mistakes was not asking more questions). Coordinating moving collections between three departments was difficult, as was getting used to budgeting my time on a project for which I had to keep track of and participate in processing, conservation, and digitization tasks. I also managed interns, ordered supplies, blogged, helped organize an exhibit, helped arrange a talk, and generally tried to look like I knew what I was doing. (As the internet says: fail.)

Of course, I would not be where I am now — happily processing the papers of the Woodlands Cemetery Company at HSP — if I hadn’t been selected as a student processor for the Hidden Collections project. This project and others like it are truly wonderful ways for archives and LIS students to get their feet wet in the processing pool. Especially if they’re managed as well as we were, with readily available guidance and frequent on-site supervision, processing interns gain not only skills they’ll need for those first few jobs, but the confidence to use them.

For further reading, here are some links with information about the projects I’ve done since Hidden Collections:

HSP’s Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.hsp.org/

HSP’s finding aids: http://hsp.org/collections/catalogs-research-tools/finding-aids

HSP’s archives blog, “Fondly, Pennsylvania:” http://hsp.org/blogs/fondly-pennsylvania

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about the DCAII and its collections, Woodlands Cemetery, or my experience with the PACSCL-CLIR Hidden Collections project. snewhouse@hsp.org


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