Maintaining Order

By Brad Miller, graduate assistant

If you would have asked me last year, “What is an archive?” my response would have included the adjectives “old” and “organized.” Whether documents in an archive are typically old or new is a discussion for another time. While everyone waits in anticipation for the old vs. new documents showdown, I would like to talk about archives as places of organization.

Sometimes our expectations of archives can be carried away by our imagination, and thus our expectation of organization is changed. The dark, cavernous room riddled with candlelit cobwebs, and filled with stacks of leather bound manuscripts was the reality of centuries past. Conversely, archives as a pristine, climate-controlled repository, sorted perfectly for the needs of every researcher are far from a reality. These imagined expectations of archives portrayed in literature and film help shape our perceptions of organization. From my experience, cobwebs are usually a bad sign.


The beautifully organized papers of Albert Gore Sr.

One of the leading principles of archives is to maintain the original order of the documents, which is the style of organization chosen by the creator of the documents. The Gore Research Center is not unlike any other archives because it has received its fair share of donations that are quite unique, for lack of a better term. For example, the AGRC was generously given a large collection of horse related material from Joan Hunt. Joan must have eaten a lot of cereal because her periodicals that fill up four bookshelves were all donated in cereal boxes like the ones pictured below. (They have since been rehoused, but we kept a couple of examples)


   Joan Hunt’s “Homemade” Periodical Storage

If there is no apparent alphabetical, chronological, or thematic organization, then it is up to the archivist to impose an order that is both practical and representative of the documents. While processing newly donated material, it is important to keep notes about all the organizational decisions made from start to finish. These processing notes will help justify your decisions to the future employees of the archives and help maintain order in an environment where every set of documents has a unique organization best fit for its needs. Once the sunny beaches of retirement start calling the name of your local archivist, you will soon rely upon these processing notes to make sense of their chaos.

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