Mechanical Pencils and Audiobooks: My Introduction into the World of Processing

By Mooni Abdus-Salam, Undgraduate Student Processor

A year ago, I did not know the feeling of relief that comes along with completing the processing of a collection. I didn’t know what it meant to survey, to intellectually organize, to redact a restricted item in a collection. I didn’t know that I was capable of feeling intense hatred and love for mechanical pencils and rubber erasers. I didn’t know what it meant to have sticky notes cling to my clothes long after the work day ends. A year ago, I had no idea that I would become this intimately acquainted with Chicago history.

Today marks the end of processing the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago collection, the second collection that I have worked on here at the BMRC. My processing partner, Ben, and I have agreed that there is a hole inside of us that needs to be filled where United Way used to be. Maybe this is a little dramatic, but this collection was no walk in the park. At just over 1700 boxes (about 850 linear feet), United Way has given me insight into the more challenging aspects that come with working in archives. There were problems of space and time, numbers and words, and moments of unbearable quiet that could only be filled with copious amounts of music and World War Z: the audiobook. It was an intense process, and I had not even been here since the beginning of processing.

My first collection, fortunately, was a tamer introduction into the world of processing than United Way would turn out to be. I was assigned to work on the National Organization of Women (NOW) Chicago collection. It was substantial, but not nearly as exhaustive as United Way, and infinitely more interesting. I had the privilege of being able to organize original photos of The Feminine Mystique author and founder of NOW Betty Friedan at various events. I got to process and label documents showcasing the growing feminist movement of the 70’s. I still wish I could have kept a vintage ERA rally t-shirt. However, I could have definitely done without the speculum and “do-it-yourself” cervical exam literature that we found. With every banker’s box we perused, I felt as if I was being granted intimate access into little snippets of Chicago women’s history.

There was also a golden uterus, as shown below:

 photo golduterus_zpsc38d0c40.jpg


Don’t really know what that’s about. But, hey, history!


I am an English major, and when I applied to work as a processing intern here at the BMRC in May, all I knew was that I was in love with libraries. I was curious about what happens when a researcher pages a document for work, and especially how an institution decides what materials are qualified enough to be archived in their special collections. I only had the smallest inkling of the amount of time, effort, and patience it takes to  make collections and records ready for researchers and possibly the entire public.

Here is a short,  non-exhaustive list of things that I have learned since working here at the BMRC:

     1. The amount of jobs for people with a higher degree in the Library Sciences is limited, and you have to be willing to relocate pretty much anywhere for a job that pays at least somewhat decently.

     2. There are 3 things you need to be able to work in a library’s archives and/or special collections:

          - An intense, almost incurably addictive love of Coffee

          - An extensive music/audiobook library for those exceptionally quiet days

          - An appreciation of the dark, the dusty, and the deserted. Introverts are welcome.

3. (Mechanical) pencils are simultaneously heaven-sent and the creation of the devil.

4. Contrary to what you may believe when applying to any sort of library job, math is a skill you will be using. No, there is no way around it. Yes, it does suck.

5. Being a processing intern (not quite a library assistant, not quite an archivist) will always be a hard thing to explain. Dinner parties as well as introductions to the parents of your friends/significant others should be avoided. Actually, just make that any type of social situation.

In short, working at the BMRC has brought me closer to choosing a potential career path, one that caters to my aversion to large groups of people, and probably just socializing in general. However (and this is a big however), it also fosters and encourages my love of books and cultural history, and has introduced me to a new and exciting community of people.