One Box of Wonder

Our guest blogger is Wendi Watts, secretary for MTSU Faculty Senate.  

Whether processing dozens of boxes of old files is severe punishment or an opportunity for a treasure hunt is all in how you look at it. If you meet another willing treasure hunter along the way, it helps.

This summer I’ve started a project working with the Albert Gore Research Center to process and organize the MTSU Faculty Senate’s archive. I dove in without having a clue how big the project was. Luckily, I jumped in with a gang of enthusiastic, patient historians and archivists who taught me what to do and to focus on one box at a time. I let the archivist pick the boxes to work on. Creates an element of surprise.

Each box has been like jumping in a time machine and getting to know some of the past faculty senates and presidents. Most of the boxes have one or two years of files in them, so it’s fairly consistent.

One day, I was finishing a box and the archivist brought out a new box to see if I wanted to tackle it next. When we removed the lid, it was clear we had something strange. There were files with mysterious names like “The ‘W’ Investigation” and “Streakers,” dozens of loose pieces of paper, and files with dates from the 1970s to the mid-2000s. It looked like the last box you pack when you are moving and you decide to throw in whatever is still left.

I wasn’t sure about tackling the new box because I had been lulled into contented filing bliss by my current box, which was already well organized, comprehensive, and neat – the complete opposite of the new box. I decided that, like going to the dentist, it’s better to just get it over with it.

What I didn’t know was that I was about to go on an adventure.

It seemed like every file in the box held something unexpected and revealing about the history of the senate. Because most of the files were unrelated or unconnected in time, processing them was slow. I had to spend time looking at each one for clues to put the papers in context to create an accurate label for the folder. The farther I got into the box, the more illogical it seemed that these folders and papers belonged in the same box. The only connection was that they dealt with the faculty senate.

About half way through the box I hit a stack of loose papers, never a good sign. As soon as I pulled them out of the box I knew what they were – the first official documents of the senate and probably no copies (digital or otherwise) anywhere else. Remarkably, most of the papers were in good shape. But now, my work slowed to a crawl. Because these documents were going to be necessary to piece together the founding of the senate, I needed to organize them chronologically, get all the papers in order, and figure out how best to divide them into folders. Sometimes dates were immediately evident. Some took sleuthing. Working with treasure hunter/archivist Donna Baker, we dug up enough clues to point us in the right direction for more investigation in other collections in the archive to document the founding of the senate.

Another folder, titled “The ‘W’ Investigation” was about the use of the letter grade “W” before there were guidelines set by the university and TBR. It was a good reminder that what many things that seem mundane and commonplace today might have a more interesting start than we imagine.

Then there was the “Streaker” folder about an incident in the 1970s when several students streaked across campus. A look in the past issues of Sidelines shows there were several times streakers struck campus, usually with large crowds of onlookers.

Folder after folder was a new discovery that revealed itself only if you slowed down and spent some time with it. Donna had to take measures to preserve several of the documents that had aged badly, even brought out the mask and gloves as we got into some of the older documents that were a little funky smelling.

What I realized as I finished up the box was that even though it hadn’t looked like fun, and there was a lot of work involved, it ended up being a terrific adventure. While that collection of folders still doesn’t make sense from a filing and organizing stand point, it provided a much more interesting glimpse at the history of the senate. Instead of a nice chronological narrative, it was a jumble of the mundane, controversial, and historically significant. That one box of wonder was definitely better than a trip to the dentist.


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