Sunday, August 19, 2007


Note: I began my Archives Practicum at the Oregon State University Library Archives last week and did some preliminary examination of the James A. Sewell Photographic Album . I am keeping a journal listing my activities and an annotated bibliography. I am also writing down reflections about what I've learned.
Two of the most important things I learned this week was how easily it is to become distracted by details and to spend time unwisely searching for what may not exist. There is a tendency to want everything perfect and exact and it can be taken to an extreme. Do I measure the size of the photographs and describe them each in words in exquisite detail? How long and how far do I search to find out who the subjects are? How important is it to determine the provenance? I am curious and so I want to know everything possible there is to know about who James Sewell was, where he came from, and what happened to him, what he looked like, who the people are in the photographs, why he kept such an album (and why did he include a lone photograph of what I determined was a chrysanthemum?) Questions lead to more questions and to still more questions and time passes.

As a student I might have the time to delve into all these questions and search for the answers, but I wouldn’t have that time as a working archivist. Elizabeth showed me a box of documents which were in folders with sturdy, typed labels but there not non-acidic. Will they be re-foldered? No. There is nothing to show that they are being damaged where they are now. It would take a fair amount of labor to re-folder them all. When she said that my hands being to itch. I wanted to reach in there and start re-foldering, boring as that task might be. I wanted everything perfect.

In the introduction to Understanding Archives and Manuscripts, O’Toole and Cox state that the primary goals are preservation, organization, and access. The goals are not beauty and perfection. I will need to remember that.

As Greene and Meissner pointed out, if researchers do not know that a collection even exists because no one has yet had time to do a perfect job of processing it and making it available, then what’s the point? It may as well not exist at all.

My goal, then, is to provide enough information about the Sewell photographic album so that researchers know it exists and can access it. It may well be that they will have the answers to some of the questions I seek but have no way to discover. It may also be that there are no answers.