By Rachel Pawlowicz

When you work in archiving, you get to deal with quite a bit of information. You’ll learn about the place you’re working, the people who are (or were) important to its development, people in the community, and the way its politics have developed. But that’s not all you learn- not by a long shot. So what else do you learn? Well…

1) There is a fine, but very visible, line between attentive record keeping and hoarding.
Coming across files with receipts is normal. You’re required to keep receipts for a certain period of time anyway, and you can’t be sure the last time someone saw that file. So when you come across a file with vehicle repair receipts from 1988 it’s not a big deal. It may well be the case that whoever owned that file retired in 1990 and no one’s looked at it since. When that same file has receipts for six rakes and three hedge clippers from 1960, though, that’s when you know whoever owned that file was perhaps an “over-saver.”

This was in a file with maintenance reports from
the late 1990s. That makes sense, right?
2) You start to feel like you know people you’ve never met.
You do a lot of reading when you’re archiving.  A lot of that will be correspondence—notes, memos, emails, meeting minutes, and the like. After a few days of archiving a particular project, you’ll be able to tell who wrote what based on their handwriting.

You’ll also get a feel for people’s personalities. Some people are open and friendly. They’re happy to be talking with people regardless of with whom they’re speaking. Some people are more staid. They keep things more professional, but polite. Some people are much more exacting. It’s not necessarily a bad thing—they just want to make sure that things are done correctly.

You will find yourself thinking things like “Typical Mark,” and knowingly shaking your head when you’re reading notes between him and other staffers.  Conversely, you’ll also catch yourself thinking, “Geeze, Hal was in rare form when he wrote this!” or “Bill must have been really upset to be so blunt about this. Yikes.” All the while, you’ve never met any of these people. Not once. They retired 30 years ago.

3) You will have no idea what any of these people look like. And it will make you frustrated with photographers and long-since-retired staff members.
I’ve gone through more than a thousand backlogged, unarchived photos since May. That’s not an exaggeration. I have seen thousands of people’s faces at a bunch of different events and in candid shots. Ninety-nine percent of them have no identifying information. That’s also not an exaggeration.
So all those people from #2 that I feel like I know?  I have no idea what they look like. Consider this: Matthaei-Nichols, in its various forms, has had 23 different directors and acting or interim directors throughout its history. There are formal portraits of 6 of them in the records room. I know what 3 of them look(ed) like. And that’s the directors. It doesn’t include curators, groundskeepers, greenhouse managers, docents, people in visitor services, interns, volunteers, researchers, guest speakers, other staff members, or visitors.

No names on the back of this snapshot.
are you?
So Mark, Hal, and Bill? I know I’ve seen photographs of them. I just didn’t know it was them.

I’ve gone through packages of photos from events in the 1960s. Not only was I not here then, but neither was anyone else that’s here today. The institutional memory of those events and most (if not all) of the people involved in them are gone. It would have taken the photographer or a staff member 5 minutes to jot down some information on the back of those photos.

It will frustrate you to no end to think about that when you’re trying to input metadata about those photos and the best you can do is give it a 5-year date spread based on clothing and hairstyles.

4) You will get dirty.
Have you ever cleaned out an attic, basement, or closet that you haven’t been in for a while? You come out of it covered with a fine layer of grime from all the years of dust that have built up on the boxes, right? That’s what happens on a daily basis when you work with old papers and books. I’ve left work with dirt smears on my face, cobwebs in my hair, old ink staining my shirt, and so much red rot on my hands that it looks like I stuck them in a bucket of rust (red rot is what happens to vegetable-tanned leather when it’s stored in high humidity).

This is red rot. You’re going to have
a fun time getting it out of your clothes.
Photo courtesy
5) You’ll be upset about not being able to save everything
Sometimes there’s just nothing that you can do. You’ll come across a carbon copy from 1953 that’s too faint to read anymore. Maybe you’ll try scanning it and changing the contrast or inverting the colors to see if you can get anything from it. You still can’t read it.

Maybe it was in a file that had correspondence about an event that led to the disintegration of an inter-departmental relation. You know there was something on it before. It might have even explained what actually happened that caused the problem.

You’re never going to know, though.

That can be hard to deal with. It will make you want to tear out your hair, but you can’t change the fact that ink has faded or worn off over the last 60 years.

You have two choices: you can send it somewhere else to see if they have tech advanced enough to pull that information or you can throw in the towel. Either way, you weren’t able to salvage the information on the document.

Pictured: the formula for eternal life.

Chin up! At the rate humanity is producing information and records, you’ll have a never-ending stack of things to work through. You can’t win them all, right?

Besides, you have a whole bunch of people that you’ll never meet to become friends with. Back to work!

Rachel Pawlowicz, from Sylvania, Ohio, just completed her first year in the Master of Science in Information program, focusing on archives and records management. Rachel is excited to work with the Matthaei-Nichols staff to digitize records and help facilitate membership at the Arb and Gardens.

Rachel Pawlowicz