Survival Guide for Processing a Big Collection

By Elise Zerega, (recently graduated) Undergraduate Student Processor

There were many changes in my transfer from DuSable Museum of African American History to the Chicago History Museum one year ago, the most significant being the size of collections. At DuSable, I processed twelve archival collections varying from one box to sixty. Then I went to the Chicago History Museum’s offsite storage in Broadview and jumped in on a collection that ended up being 888 boxes. Surely the one following that beast wouldn’t be such a momentous task, I deluded myself into thinking. I was kind of right, it was only 268 boxes. It was a new learning curve to process large collections as opposed to small, intimate ones like the ones found at DuSable. So what follows is a brief annotated list of how to make it through processing a larger collection with your sanity still intact.

1.    Piles. Whereas small collections require looking and re-looking at every piece of material to get the most out it, large collections are all about figuring out how to organize. Piles suddenly become your best friend: ones that make perfect sense to you but to the passerby look like chaos. Then you realize to you they look like chaos. Then you realize it is in fact, chaos. So you reorganize and re-pile boxes and folders and papers until that miscellaneous pile becomes larger than the rest of the piles slowly encircling you and you try and organize that pile into all your other piles. There is just a lot of piling going on. And a lot of convincing yourself that what you are doing makes total sense.

2.    Background noise. This piling, I mean organized and orderly process, as you may be able to see, can be slightly maddening. To dull the voice in your own head, I suggest listening to the voices of others. It has to be engaging enough to make you forget you are only organizing box fourteen out of seventy two, but not so engaging you have completely stopped processing and realize you are only on box fourteen out of seventy two. Podcasts and classical music have this balance down. So when you start your own collection of a hundred plus boxes, tune in to some Pop Culture Happy Hour or Peter and the Wolf and imagine you are one of the PCHH gang or Sasha the Duck, because really, who doesn’t want to be Sasha the Duck? You get to have oboes as your musical character.

3.    Sweatshirts, scarves, blankets, parkas. My internal heating regulation system, or my thermoregulation (yes, I have taken science classes!), yells at me every day before I leave for work, no matter the time of year, to wear a sweater and bring a scarf. Because archives are chilly. If you would call the South Pole chilly. To prevent your body from shutting down due to hypothermia, always come prepared. It doesn’t matter if you end up on People of the CTA as the girl wearing a parka in 80 degree heat. In the archives, you’ll be the smart cookie wearing enough clothing to shield her from the sub-zero temperatures.

4.    Erasures. The larger the collection, the more mistakes you’ll make. A series that starts off as Family Papers will inevitably become Personal Papers only to be changed back to Family Papers which will then get folded into a completely new series. If you are working without an erasure, you are making a bold statement and I admire your confidence. If you are working with a pen you are an idiot. And don’t think that that dinky little erasure at the end of your pencil will suffice, because it surely will not. Quality and quantity people. Related to #3, the band Erasure can also serve as good background noise. A little synthpop goes a long way.

5.    Lead. Lots of Lead. Because you will be using a pencil a lot and pencils require lead. Lots of lead. This lead will also break at the most inconvenient of times, so bring your patience hat as well (or get really good at making an exasperated grunt sound like a pneumatic cough so as not freak out those working around you).

6.    A good teammate. Whether she or he is there to discuss the finale of Downton Abbey, or as the only person who will understand what you are complaining about when you say your box has thirty folders to title, or to ask where in the world you put a bag of souvenir rocks you found in a collection, a good teammate is irreplaceable. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to work for a year with archivist extraordinaire Katie Obriot, along with the various Chicago History Museum staff. Now I am off to work with another fantastic graduate archivist, Beth Loch, on the Vivian Harsh Research Collection to put some of my large collection survival skills to good use, because clearly my sanity-saving guidelines worked on this processor.