At the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum archives, one of an archivist’s primary jobs is the processing of collections. There aren’t many new collections being donated to the Truman Library anymore, however, archivists are constantly reprocessing old collections in order to make them more accessible and to preserve their contents. I recently had the chance to reprocess a manuscript collection, the Michael M. Davis Papers.
I had nothing to do with arranging the collection, which had already been arranged, and therefore skipped steps that would normally occur during processing, such as researching and surveying the collection or enacting a processing plan. My first task was to stamp every document page with a stamp to signify the Truman Library’s ownership. I believe this is done to protect the collection from theft. I then began reprocessing the collection by focusing on preservation methods. This can be arduous, but also very crucial. I carefully examined every page for major tears, rusty staples, acidic paper, and folded pages. I replaced rusty staples with new ones or paperclips and unfolded pages that were folded. The next step was to photocopy original documents with tears and acidic pages and replace them with the photocopies. The damaged originals are stored in a parallel folder for preservation. I won’t go into every detail for determining which documents need to be photocopied and replaced, but they are numerous and can make your head spin. Every time I became confident that I had mastered the preservation methods, I would either discover a mistake or learn about a new rule I was unaware of. It took over ten hours to finish preserving a single box, which demonstrates how much work is devoted to preservation. My final task was to write the finding aid for the collection, which I look forward to sharing next time.
Thus far at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum archives, I’ve learned that the two most important principles guiding their archival work are the continual preservation and protection of their holdings (the document and photo collections the library owns) and the accessibility of their holdings to the public. Today I want to focus on the steps taken to protect holdings. As a new intern, one of my first tasks was watch a thirty-minute training video that portrayed the archive as the “guardian” of many of our nation’s priceless documents and photos. Unbeknownst to me, there are those who would steal documents to make a quick profit, thereby ensuring their inaccessibility to the rest of the world. As a precaution against this behavior, the entire staff’s duty is to protect the holdings they have in their possession. For example, staff members, interns, and volunteers cannot leave collections they are working on alone for any reason, whether it’s to use the bathroom, get a drink, search for a coworker, etc. Unless a coworker is present to look after the holdings, the holdings must remain with the interns at all times. Interns also have more limited access to the holdings than the regular staff. As an intern, I can’t go into the “stacks” (where the archival collections are stored) and grab a collection without a staff member present.
One reason behind these immense protection measures relates to making the holdings accessible to the public, because if someone steals a document then no one will ever have access to it again. As a “guardian” of the Truman Library’s holdings, I take this aspect of my job quite seriously and consider it an honor to be given the opportunity and responsibility to be left alone with these documents and photos. I’m very fortunate to have the chance to work with original materials relating to Harry Truman’s presidency on a daily basis.