Processing in place: discovering the records overflow in the attic

Some photos from the building attic, where overflow records from the Town Office have been stored/stashed/hidden for the past ten years. Plowing through these boxes, as well as vertical file drawers in the office, have occupied the bulk of my time since my last post here.

The “Autumn Cleaning” began in the Town Office itself, after the decision was made to purchase a new server system and  the requirement arose to clear out old file drawers to make space for the server components. Ultimately, we moved eight vertical file drawers (two sets of four each) of records to the archives, using the recently submitted records retention schedule to separate “good stuff” from garbage. The transformation and reconfiguration of the archives cited in earlier posts freed up significant space and opened the possibility, first in our minds, and later in actual space, for such a  consideration (yes, I’m taking credit for it!). Something happened in town finances and I was directed first to decrease my already part-time hours, then later, to bill the Town directly and apart from the archives salary budget for all my time spent on official town records (which had become about 80% of my time). A bit of a bait-and-switch, perhaps, and one that I would not have accepted so casually in an earlier time in an earlier career. But I watched it unfold and accepted it as part of my dues to my new profession.

I had known since the beginning of my time here about the records storage in the attic, but it was too hot during the summer months to try to tackle the project. In October, with temperatures lower, I took the attic plunge. We moved a folding table up the rickety attic staircase, along with acid free folders, Hollinger boxes, and lots of sharpened pencils. The attic, by the way, served as bedrooms in a boarding house back in the day, when the post-mistress also ran housing for single men who sere casually employed in the town and nearby. The maintenance guys tell me the post-mistress had a dog who lived upstairs, and that the ghost of the dog runs through from time to time. So far, i haven’t had the privilege of meeting up with the ghost dog!

So far I have processed eight boxes of Town Council meeting minute files, one box for every year from 2004 to 2011, and four boxes of audio cassette tapes of actual meeting proceedings. 2012 through 2015 are already accessioned to the archives (about the time an actual archivist was here), and the remains are still in vertical files in the Town Office. One thing I have noticed is that the Town Council folders have way too many duplicate copies of everything and I’ll be able to address that in my expanded responsibilities as Town Records manager. If I last.

Most of the banker boxes are filled with town business files, i.e., procurement and contracting files, employment records, and business records for goods and services . Most of them will be retired and disposed of in accordance with the records retention schedule.

Meanwhile, we are doing a pretty major re-arrangement and re-description of many of our sub-collections, reducing overlaps, consolidating subject similarities. The catalog of our holdings is a work in progress, but many of our users are happy to see the whole of our holdings in one place. Finally, in anticipation of new official responsibilities as records manager, I separated all the official “inherently government” files, folders and boxes and gave them all a separate rack in the mobile rack system.

 

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I passed the ACA (Academy of Certified Archivists) exam!

I got the email this week, just as I was pouring through a treasure trove of monthly meeting minutes from the 1920’s to the late 1950’s of the Garrett Park Civic Study Group, the local women’s neighborhood association. I felt fairly confident taking the exam and I had spent hours at the local library and on the rooftop of our building pouring through the readings and notes from Prof. Jane Zhang’s courses at CUA-MSLIS. I passed and as soon as I complete the required work experience I will be a full member of the Academy of Certified Archivists.

But the real story is the treasure trove I discovered. The women’s group was founded in 1914 but it wasn’t until the end of World War 1 that they got really serious about meeting regularly and keeping a very meticulous record of their activities. They met every month from 1917 until 1959, recording local events, holding discussions about national events, recording dues payments and expenses, and, in short, building their civil society. It’s an amazing collection of stories, data, and daily chit-chat over a most momentous time in American history. I’m hoping I can get one of our student volunteers to take it on as a project and I am thinking about doing a presentation for the county historical society annual meeting.

The items altogether were scattered across several different subject sub-collections, but when one of the town archives pioneers (she’s in her nineties now but still sharp as a tack) told me that the archives had been built originally around the collection of records of various women’s associations in town, I realized that that was the true “original order” and pulled it all into one new sub-collection. It’s what I love most about archiving: original order, provenance, and, of course, the archivist’s discretion in arranging and describing.

Different plate.

I missed the Emir Abd-elkader seminar at AU this week. I first heard about Abd-elKader, the mid-19th century Algerian Sufi sheik and international human rights advocate from my Arabic tutor in Cairo, himself a “closet” Sufi sheik (you have to be careful with religious identity in Egypt!). Abd-elkader, aka Abd-el Qadir for you Arabic purists out there, fought valiantly against the French occupation and eventual annexation of Algeria, spent time exiled in Damascus where he saved the lives of thousands of Syrian Christians, and was eventually honored for his humanitarianism in Paris by Napoleon III, in London by Queen Victoria, in Rome by Pope Pius IX, and in Washington by President Lincoln who sent him a matching pair of Colt pistols as a tribute.  A group of his followers emigrated to the U.S. and settled in a small town in Iowa, Elkader, IA, which bears his name until today. He was well known and respected among American intelligentsia and religious scholars, especially the Mormons, Christian Scientists, and evangelical groups of the mid 19th century.

My little secret is that when Emily Dickinson (whose family was part of that intelligentsia) says in one of her poems that she “never saw a Moor,” she was telling one of her slant truths – She knew of Abd-el Qadir! I’m willing to wager that Walt Whitman also knew of the Algerian Moor. Here is more information on Abd-el Qadir. Wikipedia has a well sourced article with great references and external links.

In full disclosure, I have a deeper interest in Algeria. I worked for a couple of years in my former career with the Algerians and Moroccans trying unsuccessfully to resolve the conundrum (what’s a better term for a permanent state of war) known as Western Sahara. I later learned that, unknown to us, or at least to me at the Deputy Assistant Secretary level, both the Algerians and Moroccans were making huge contributions to the Clinton Foundation to curry favor with the Secretary of State, each hoping for top level buy-in on their respective sides of the conflict. The New Diplomacy. Soft Power! Pay to play! Diplomatic efforts were a joke compared to all that high finance.  We thought we were making a difference. We thought we were saving the world. It was just about the Benjamins for the Clinton machine.

Different plate.

In the next phase at work I will shift from archives to records management and complete the records retention schedule. Shouldn’t take more than a week. Then it’s back to arranging and describing and preparing for the migration to ArchivesSpace. ArchivesSpace is an open source, web based archives information system. It is also a community of really cool archivists and IT genuises.

There are several stages to complete, and between archiving, catching up oral histories, training and supervising volunteers, and records management, all while working two days a week, I anticipate completing the whole migration project by Summer 2019, with a bit of luck, insha-llah.

Keep in touch!

Long time since last post

Yes, it has been over a month.

A lot needed to settle after the space reconfiguration. Moving things to the new shelving system revealed weird numbering sequences of accessions, odd-numbered lots, and a few other irregularities. Spent a good two days cleaning, sweeping, and scrubbing (they don’t tell you about that in MSLIS programs!). And we have had a steady stream of summer student volunteers who have been helpful with getting things resettled in a host of project-type ways.

So, the big thing this past month was the combined SAA, COSA, NAGARA conference in Washington, a couple of day-long pre-conference courses, the ACA exam (that I dare not mention in case I end up taking it again next year!), and the sessions. Don’t worry, I’m gonna give you the whole rundown. And in a month I’ll be able to link to the various presentations (and others that I wasn’t able to attend).  Anyway, here is what I did for the week:

Participation in SAA Annual Conference, August 12-18, 2018

Sunday, August 12. Command Line Interface (CLI). 9am to 5pm (day long course). I was just a bit “put off” by the technical sound of it, but it was manageable. Remember back in the pre-Windows day when we had to use DOS commands to get the computer to do stuff? That pretty much sums it up.

Monday, August 13. Completed online exam for CLI. The test, open-book, was a breeze. Mostly concepts and theory.

Tuesday, August 14. Building Advocacy and Support for Digital Archives (BASDA) (day long course). Soft stuff as one of my favorite math teachers used to say.

Tuesday, August 14. Annual Research Forum. Research Forum is always interesting. But I was dancing back and forth between presentations and the all day course I was taking. A bit of a juggling act but we managed.

Wednesday, August 15. Academy of Certified Archivists Certification Exam. 9:30 to 12 noon. Questions were pretty straight forward. Lots of opportunities to draw on project management experience from my past. Interesting questions on preservation and on security, of all things. and I learned a new word, artefactual literacy. But again, straight forward. We’ll know the results in six weeks or so.

Wednesday, August 15. Completed online exam for BASDA. Piece of cake.

Thursday, August 16. Attended Opening Plenary, featuring speeches/presentations by David Ferriero, Archivist of the U.S. (AOTUS), and Zeynep Tufekci, UNC professor. Always impressed with the AOTUS! Cool guy with lots of guts. I really like him. And Professor Zeynep was as dazzling and as informative as always. Lots of good stuff. Had me flashing back to Cairo and Damascus and other hot spots.

I attended the following sessions:
101 – Towards Culturally Competent Archival (Re)Description of Marginalized Histories
203 – From Best Practices to “Next Practices”: Documenting Underrepresented Communities through Oral Histories
301 – Archiving “Dirty Laundry”: Issues of access, Transparency, and Respectability Among Archives of Under-documented Communities
410 – Sharing Our Stories: Using Archival Collections to Develop Commemorative Events
501 – The National Archives Aims for Digital Future: Discuss NARA Strategic Plan and Future of Archives with NARA Leaders
604 – No Monuments in the Archives: Historical Records and Contested Public Space
704 – Blockchain: What Is It and Why Should We Care

More on all that when they post the slides, though some are already up at #saa18.

some photos of & narration on the move

Before the transformation:

 

After the transformation:

 

And miscellaneous:

In our previous episode, shipments of new “stuff” were all off schedule, sending my poor soul into a tizzy. In the end, it was all a matter of logistics and good weather (or, more appropriately, bad weather) events.

Two things HAD to happen. The old shelving system HAD to be disassembled (and the contents stored nearby and temporarily), and the bathroom HAD to be “dis-functioned” and “re-purposed.” And both HAD to happen before we could even think about planning a day to install the new mobile shelving system.

So, last week I began the disassembly project. After emptying the shelves along the back wall and stashing the contents wherever there was space nearby, in the hallway, on the work table and in a moved rack behind the work table, and with rubber mallet in hand, I broke down the four back wall shelving racks. Initially I proposed painting the back wall space but the painters had others projects. Meanwhile, I spoke with the boss about removing the commode from the bathroom and capping the piping and he agreed to make the connection/arrangement with the plumber.

With the back wall cleared and the commode fixture removed, I had to take off my “archivist” hat and put on my “janitor” hat. Yeah, they never tell you that in library school either! But it was cool. You do what needs to be done.

Tuesday rain was predicted at 2pm. At 11 am we moved the map chart cabinet into the new storage room and removed the door off the hinges. At about 2:05, the bottom of the clouds opened up. I went back to the maintenance shed and had a tuna sub and chips with Butch and Frank, our town maintenance crew. By 3:00 the rain ended. Butch and Frank gave me the rest of the afternoon. They laid down the tracks and built the racks for the movable shelving system. By knockoff time it was all assembled!

Thursday my goal was to get all the archived boxes off the temporary racks and into the new shelves. I had a small cart that enabled me to move twelve boxes at a time. So it took multiple trips. Luckily I had created a move plan that identified where each section of the boxes would go in the new shelves. I got about 90% of it done by lunch time and dashed to the nearby Korean diner for the Thursday special, chicken teriyaki with rice and salad. When we arrived with our take out orders the Mayor was having an impromptu meeting at our normal staff lunch table, but she offered to re-locate.

At 1:45 my summer high school volunteers arrived. I had them finish half the remaining 10% of the move, which took them all of 45 minutes. Then I set them up inserting maps and architectural drawings into the new cabinet in the new storage room and labeling the contents of each of fourteen drawers. I finished the remaining 5%, then set upon the task of arranging the contents on the shelves by accession number, frequency of use, and function (all three. This is the big difference between librarian-thinking and archives-thinking. So many more degrees of freedom!).

It was a full day. I was thrilled when 4pm finally arrived!

 

short entry – archives blues

The 15-drawer metal map and poster cabinet arrived last week, but it doesn’t quite fit the space where it was intended (always allow a 3 to 6 inch slack for tight fits, I have learned). The sliding storage unit also arrived last week, two weeks ahead of schedule, and of course, we need to move items into the 15 drawer cabinet to make room for the sliding storage unit, which is why the two week timing gap was almost essential. Note, almost.

We will work it out. I’ve seen bigger challenges in shipyards and refit facilities. Meanwhile, the show goes on. Shelf contents (mostly legal and letter-sized Hollinger boxes) must be removed and stored, old racks removed and disassembled, new racks installed on a mobile track, and Hollinger boxes reinstalled on new shelving. You don’t learn any of this in LIS graduate programs.

Bright news. Made contact with Kengar community residents. Excitement about the proposed project to preserve that history. Also passed on info about a contracting opportunity at Archives of American Art. I might have submitted a bid, but I need to keep days clear in the fall for my August Wilson study group and for ModPo Fall Seminar in addition to my work here.

Next week, photos. I promise.

Settling into a new archives job – 6/30/2018

It’s been a while since the last entry. Three weeks of basically closing out the fiscal year and shopping for archives stuff! It has been a fun, though tedious and tiresome four and five-day work week. Not exactly what I signed up for, but there are those times when a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Next week I return to two days a week. More about that later.

Physical improvements.

We replaced the ugly and uncomfortable metal folding chairs and the wooden ones with better chairs for our researchers and volunteers. We replaced old folding leg tables with nice ones from IKEA. We replaced my falling apart desk with a nice IKEA corner unit. Two new laptops, new Hollinger boxes, at least two years worth, acid-free copy paper in all the right sizes, acid- free folders to last for years, digital recording equipment for oral history interviewing, toner for the printer for at least a year, a new metal 15-drawer cabinet for maps and posters, and last but not least, a sliding storage unit for our collection! I tweeted it a couple of weeks ago here! (more photos to follow next week)

I need this X5 Storage Solutions Steel Sliding Storage System from Gaylord for my archives! pic.twitter.com/M6rHj4fode

— Garrett Park MD Archives (@garrettparkarch) June 15, 2018

All this new stuff sets several things in motion and begins the strategic planning we really need to do.

Networking.

Meanwhile, during the same period I drafted a new collection policy and made contact with Maryland records management folks about revising our retention schedules. I also met some cool archivists at a MARAC Virginia and Maryland Caucus get together in Leesburg, and more cool archivists at a Maryland Historical Trust – Preservation Maryland meeting in Hyattsville. Oh yeah, and I went to my first Town Council meeting (no one could have prepared me for the contentiousness I witnessed there) and I hosted a meeting of the Archives Advisory Committee in the archives (that was not well attended, though we convinced ourselves we had a quorum and I missed the final meeting of an oral history workshop to attend and host it).

And I completed a rudimentary inventory of all our collections, primarily to identify junk and stuff that need to go somewhere to storage. But now I know what we have. Along the way, I peeped into most of the boxes, especially the oblong and odd-shaped boxes, weeding more junk and artifacts that need a different type of home. And I spent a couple of days just cleaning and sweeping, almost like a Navy field day!

Upcoming projects.

  • The new map and poster case needs to be assembled and installed. That won’t be able to happen until after the 4th of July because I’ll need the maintenance guys to help me and they are tied up until after the 4th. Hopefully we can get that done week after next.
  • The new sliding storage unit arrives July 18. In anticipation of its arrival, the old shelving needs to be removed and their contents organized in a way to make it ready to go into the new storage system, Also, before the new storage system arrives, I’d like to paint out the space against the back wall that it will fill, since painting there will be more difficult once the new system is installed. (This is the stuff an archivist does in between archiving tasks!)
  • I’ll need to figure out where we can put the seven shelves that will be replaced by the new storage unit. Can we sell them? Can we get permission to store them somewhere to hold all the artifacts and junk previously mentioned? The second is the best option.
  • I did a preliminary inventory of the oral history collection. The majority are transcribed and catalogued, but many are still on cassette tapes that were never converted to digital audio files, and a few were converted to digital files but never transcribed. The best option is going to be to get volunteers involved in all the phases of the oral history production but close supervision will be required.

BHAG (Big, hairy, audacious goals).

  • It may have to happen on my off days, but I am fascinated by the prospect of producing oral histories from a neighboring community, Kengar. Kengar is a small all black community (well, increasingly less all black as gentrification of a minor kind occurs) wedged between Garrett Park and Kensington. How did we never include them in our archiving? How did Kensington never include them? A clear case of segregation in the archives. Nothing insurmountable, of course, it happened throughout the south and the mid-Atlantic states during America’s experience with apartheid. It may even present some grants funding opportunities. I’ll get it started on my own dime, visiting the community’s two churches, seeing if there is interest among the community for such a project.
  • On that subject, but not related to Garrett Park at all, I’ve been corresponding with a history professor who specializes in the history of religious movements, especially Muslim groups in the U.S. Folks from my youth know of my teenage interest (more like fascination) in historical figures Marcus Garvey, Noble Drew Ali, Elijah Muhammad, and that whole era. Turns out the Nation of Islam and its members are one of the few groups that has never been “radicalized” in the present era of radicalization of Islamic groups. Why is that? And does this inquiry lend itself to some oral history opportunities?
  • Boxes are in need of replacement, folders need to be converted to acid-free ones, and related or similar collections may require consolidation and re-cataloging.
  • By the end of the calendar year, I hope to have completed a draft plan to begin converting sub-collections from PastPerfect to ArchivesSpace. By the end of FY 2019, I’d like to be well on the way to completing the conversion. PastPerfect has lots of issues. Will go into more details in subsequent postings, but suffice it to say here that PastPerfect was not originally intended for archives, and the back fit was awkward at best.
  • There are a ton of office records in the attic, going back at least 14 years. But God is it hot up there! We may need to postpone until the weather is cooler, but we need to go through those files in place, pull out what’s archivable, pull out what’s required to retain by law and the retention schedule, and toss the rest.

I think I will stop here.

Postscript. WooHoo! A new business card!

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International Archives Day

International Archives Day

Posted on June 8, 2018 from AOTUS

On Saturday, June 9, the National Archives joins with archives around the world to celebrate International Archives Day, a commemoration of the day the International Council on Archives (ICA) was created in 1948. This day is dedicated to promoting the great work of archives and archivists in preserving and providing public access to our communities’ historical records and promoting access to government records for transparency and accountability.