When I first went for an internship in archiving, I didn’t know what to expect. I more or less understood what archiving was, I knew its purpose. But as far as its nature as a profession, I was pretty much clueless. “Oh, they just look after old documents. Like librarians or something,” I’d say. “Yes, but what do they do?” Future Me would ask? I don’t know exactly how I would answer, but I’m sure it would be wrong. But I have learned a lot since the long, far off time of mid-2018. And I lot of it would surprise spring 2018 me, who was far more naïve in this whole archiving thing.
What I didn’t understand before was how dynamic archiving is. I described the work to Gene as “creating order out of chaos,” which is absolutely a part of it. But to do so, you have to think like not just a librarian, but a detective, a historian, and an administrator. Archiving also contains the DNA of warehouse worker, scribe, and rodent exterminator (still convinced there was a mouse in there somewhere). The sheer variety of tasks was unexpected, even while working on a single collection. The MountainTrue Papers contained letters, newspaper clippings, maps, photographs, slides, posters, flyers, pamphlets, and probably some forms of paper communication that I have no name for. Here there be dragons indeed.
Even outside the MountainTrue collection, there were several, unique things I got to do. I counted stamps for a folder, and I moved entire collections around to make room for MountainTrue, as well as moved a few shelves. I like getting up and moving, so that was always something I enjoyed. Gene and Colin would occasionally space a different assignment into my work on the MountainTrue Papers, I assume so I didn’t get too bored on one thing. Or they just had something they needed done.
I think my favorite part was the sense of accomplishment whenever I had finished processing a folder and completed a box. I completely forgot to do this before I left, so at some point when I return from winter break, I may have to pop in and take a photograph of all the 50something boxes on the shelves of Special Collections. It was a sight to see, and I thought to myself, “I did this.” There were moments that were frustrating, and there were moments that were tedious, but I got most of it done before I had completed my hours, and I can look at all those boxes, and the documents they contain, and know that I had something to do with it.
The sense of accomplishment was also helped by the fact that the subject matter they contained was important to me. I’ve always been a big supporter of environmental causes, which was essentially the main theme of this collection. Late 20th century environmentalism in Western North Carolina. There is definitely something extra to this sort of thing when it’s something you feel strongly positive about.
I also liked the idea of handling old documents and knowing that they were “hopefully” going to be preserved for a long time. Granted, these weren’t exactly ancient documents, they were never from anywhere earlier than the 1970s. The bulk of it was from the 1990s. But that was sort of nostalgic, because I recognized a lot of those old typefaces, and the physical, processed photographs. In many cases, I could see why we moved on, but it was still nice to see them again. It’s like meeting an old friend from high school who you never particularly liked, but it’s been a while, so you’re still happy to see them. Until they remind you why they got on your nerves. With digital cameras, the fact that you don’t have to develop them means that you can get rid of a failed picture immediately. I saw a few failed photos here, and thought to myself “man, they had to wait for that?”
I enjoyed some of the strange things I’d find in the collections, that I presume were there unintentionally. One time I found a leaf. Just a leaf. Who knows how old it was. I also learned that rubber bands get kind of nasty after a while (or maybe my initial impressions were correct, and it really was 20-year-old pasta). And at one point, I found something embedded in one of the folders. The shape was like a flatworm, the color was like a flatworm, it had a raised surface. But I don’t have any idea how a flatworm would get embedded in a folder. Frankly, I have absolutely no idea what it was, I never figured it out and just tried to extricate it from my mind because it was disgusting and terrifying. Some things are better left a mystery.
Most of all though, I liked working with Gene and Colin. Really, they were terrific. Gene was incredibly warm, always quick with a joke, and good at explaining the basics of my tasks. Colin was also quick with a joke (must be something to do with the altitude on Ramsay Library’s second floor), and always helpful whenever I had a question. And I often was confused. I was working with someone else’s organizational system, and it wasn’t always clear how they wanted it organized. I’m sure it made perfect sense to them, but I had to figure out what. Over time, I became confused less and less until I could usually figure these problems out on my own.
The most common problem I had was in properly classifying a folder. Sometimes, there really didn’t seem to be an actual order to the documents, thematic or chronological. So, when it came time to label that folder, I would have to find some commonality. Were all of these documents signed off by the Department of Agriculture? Do they all seem to center around a specific project (as an example, a project stopping an unnecessary road from being built through Pisgah National Forest?). That’s when I would have to think like a detective. Follow the little details to some sort of conclusion.
Regardless, a seeming lack of order was one of the low points for me. The other low point was probably the tedium of going through photographs. Not only were many of them unlabeled (creating familiar frustrations when there was no perceivable pattern), but there seemed to be an infinite number of them. But it was worth going through them, because you get that satisfying sense of completion when you finish a sleeve of photographs, and then a folder, and finally a box. And then you could add that box to the growing collection on the archive’s shelves.
Overall, I think this was a very positive experience. And it was a learning experience. I learned the theories behind archiving as a concept, and I was able to hone my detail orientation, organizational skills, pattern recognition, and experience with digital databases. These are all very helpful skills, especially the last one in today’s increasingly digital world. It is also always incredibly nice to get experience within my field of history, and to gain a better understand over what all history encompasses. And it does encompass a considerable amount of subject matter. I looked through some of the other collections, and there were things related to religion, sociology, science, environmental science (my collection!), politics, and more general history. I already knew that history encompassed so much which was part of the appeal to me, but it really does give you a broader perspective to see it all collected in one place. I really enjoyed working in Special Collections, and I would recommend it for anyone hoping to gain experience in this kind of thing (and of course, credit hours).