Lessons from a Novice Archivist by Elise Zerega, Novice Archivist.

By: Elise Zerega (BMRC Processing Intern)
  • People choose to save some pretty random things.

As a current history student, I find myself wondering what, if anything, I should be saving for future historians. Sometimes doing archival work, you wonder, why would anyone think this would be necessary to future historians? Dr. Margaret Burroughs, founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History, saved three to four copies of nearly every piece of correspondence sent out with regards to The Friends of the Elam Home Foundation. She saved scraps of handwritten notes dispersed throughout folders of letters, minutes, and bills. I don’t mean this to sound disrespectful because it is a genuine contemplation that is worth thinking about when processing. Why did Burroughs feel it was important to keep three copies of every solicitation letter?

  • Thank goodness people choose to save some pretty random things.

A lot can be revealed by what someone feels should be saved, what should be kept as clues for those who didn’t live their life. For example, Metz T.P. Lochard, the editor and editorial writer of the Chicago Defender for forty years, saved twenty boxes worth of newspapers and clippings. That’s not including the multitude of press releases and reports which were also saved. Going through box after box and envelope after envelope, it becomes clear that a) Lochard was a pretty intelligent fellow and b) he must have loved the news and commenting on it. It’s one thing to know from aline in a finding aid that he was an editor and editorial writer for forty years, but another to see it newspaper after newspaper.

  • Archivists are researchers with unlimited scope.

I believe that any subject in history, any time period, culture, or people, can be fascinating if taught well. I ache at the thought of having to choose what to narrow my interests down to should I choose to study history further. Archivists don’t have to choose. Anything from ancient maps to American sheet music can be researched, and archivists get to do the initial go-through of it all. Ever since studying history in high school I have learned about the pan-African movement, but I had never heard of Captain Harry Dean until processing at the DuSable Archives. My studies could have continued too, without any knowledge of this intriguing character that helped to colonize Sierra Leone. I count myself lucky that I got to spend a week processing his collection, and you can be just as lucky now and spend a day going through it at the DuSable Archives.  

  • It can be very difficult not processing collections down to the folder using More Product, Less Process.

While doing my own research and using various archives, I am spoiled by the level of processing already done by many institutions. While processing new collections I try to keep in mind what I value most as a researcher. This aspect, tied with my love organization, makes it difficult not to detail what everything is and where it is. I understand the idea of not doing the researchers work for them, but sometimes I feel like a parent who just wants to spoil their kids a little bit, give them the finding aids I had when I was just a researching tyke. It also feels natural to organize as far as a collection can be organized, to separate check stubs from receipts instead of labeling it all as “Financial”. However, what I crave more as a researcher than a detailed list of my work done for me is access to as many historical documents as are out there.

  • Thank goodness MPLP allows to not process down to the folder.

Who hasn’t felt the intense joy associated with leafing through letter after letter of nothingness to finally come across exactly what you were looking for? Well if you haven’t, I assure you it is a wonderful moment worthy of every squeal and subsequent glare from fellow, more established, researchers. The process of seeing what is in a collection is like the greatest hide-and-go-seek game ever. What any good researcher wants is as many sources as possible to play hide-and-go-seek with to make a complete argument. As a processer, MPLP is also a great lesson in self-discipline. No, not every Chicago Defender has to be catalogued, especially if it means that none of them can be used due to backlogging.