By Amy Berish, Kanisha Greaves, and Emeline Swanson
One of the professional development opportunities at the RAC this summer was the chance to participate in NEDCC’s online Preservation 101 course. The objective of the course was to create an executive summary for a collection in our own institution. While many people took the class individually, Amy, Kanisha, and Emeline joined forces to create a robust final project and collaborate across departments: Processing, Reference, and Collections Management, respectively.
Throughout the course, NEDCC preservation specialists Danielle Spalenka and Sean Ferguson held interactive webinars that covered topics like building and collections environment, caring for paper collections and multimedia collections, reformatting and digitization, and emergency preparedness. The course also included assigned textbook readings and a workbook.
For our final project, we chose to create an executive summary for the Kenneth Chorley papers. Kenneth Chorley was a conservationist who worked directly with John D. Rockefeller, Jr. on matters regarding the historic preservation of Colonial Williamsburg, Grand Teton National Park, and the Jackson Hole Preserve. It only seemed fitting to help preserve the materials of a fellow preservationist! While most of the correspondence in the Kenneth Chorley papers is in decent condition, there are piles of oversized scrapbooks and a few audio reels that could use a little TLC.
Our goal throughout the course was to produce a document that could guide our preservation efforts with the potential to serve as a proposal for a more detailed preservation plan in the future. Our summary outlined short-term, mid-term, and long-term preservation priorities for the Chorley papers. We ultimately decided to first propose the collection as a potential digitization project to the RAC Digitization Advisory Board, then rehouse the collection and its scrapbooks, and eventually fully digitize the scrapbooks.
At the end of the course, the three of us debriefed and documented what we learned. Coming from different departments, some of our takeaways were department-specific, such as being preservation-conscious during processing, and understanding that “collections environment” expands beyond the vaults. But what was most interesting was that there was a common thread. We collectively agreed that the biggest takeaway was understanding the importance of collaboration and information sharing.
Despite combining our knowledge from different departments, we noticed that there were still preservation-related questions we couldn’t answer, such as specific facts about the building’s history, environmental monitoring, and security. These particular focus areas, along with a few others, proved to be the most challenging since they required us to dig for information we wouldn’t typically need to know to accomplish our daily tasks. We quickly realized that, in a larger-staff institution like the RAC, certain information can become compartmentalized when staff is divided into departments. Understanding the daily tasks of our colleagues helps bridge the gap to better methods of preservation. For example, working with Facilities and getting acquainted with the building’s structural history helps us understand any dangers posed to collections and how environmental conditions are impacted by the quirks of an older building.
In other words, the RAC makes a strong effort for everyone to collaborate across departments and understand each other’s work in relation to our own, but fully understanding how the HVAC system works and how snakes slithered into the sub-level hallway might still remain a bit of a mystery, and that’s okay. Every archive has its history of problems. The key is having a support system that encourages collaboration beyond the bubble of our daily routines, such as the opportunity to learn from this course. Preservation requires everyone to be on the same page. When that pipe leaks or a wind-storm hits, institutions that are preservation-conscious encourage everyone to barrel out the water when the time comes, regardless of their department.
We should be conscious of how our work affects both researchers and other archivists alike. By taking this course as a team, we have developed a strong understanding of our own roles and contributions. The importance of sharing information and understanding the responsibilities of all members on staff is key because we can never know too much about our institution and its functions.