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In Archives, what you first see is not always what you get

October 17, 2008



Stepping into the processing area of the Biddle Law Library Archives, one can easily be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of great collections stored there–especially when one’s previous archival experience amounts to two cartons processed over the period of a four-month semester!  However, I’m up the for the challenge.  As Jordon indicated in his previous post, the collection I will be organizing are the papers of Richard V. Wellman, Director of the Uniform Probate Code.  And this is only a tiny fraction of what is actually in the archives.  (More after the jump.)

On first glance at the pile of large, unopened packages that had been mailed to the Law School, I felt a sense of trepidation.  There were almost twenty boxes in front of me, stacked around my work area, some of which were over forty pounds!  On closer examination of the boxes, Jordon and I determined that there were two questions we had to answer before plunging into the boxes themselves: Are all these boxes actually part of Wellman’s papers, and what is the actual order of the boxes?

The first was the easier of the two queries.  The majority of boxes had been clearly labeled with the initials “RVW,” announcing that they were the Wellman Papers.  But there were some other boxes that were sent with the Wellman shipment by a colleague of Wellman’s, since both were members of the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL).  What was at first a little confusing suddenly became clear: these were two separate collections.

Our second task, on the other hand, was a little more difficult, because boxes were labelled with two sets of numbers.  One label was on the packing slip, while the other label was handwritten on each box. 

I speculated that the handwritten label was the more accurate of the two sets of numbers, and the number on the shipping label was just the order the boxes had been processed at the postal office.   After a little investigative work of his own, Jordon informed me that as boxes of papers are shipped to various locations, they sometimes accumulate up different, and often contradictory, classification systems.  For this reason, it makes determining the “original order” of the papers a challenge.

RVW-labels.jpgSo after all the heavy lifting–of course with the aid of Jordon, who was showing me the ropes–I cracked open what I thought was Box 1.

RVW-open1.JPGTo our surprise, we found that there was a smaller box.  It was about the size of your standard records retention carton–the ones that you typically see many people use when storing files. 

RVW-open2.JPGMy hope was that the other boxes would yield similar results.  It would definitely make it easier to measure size of the collection.

RVW-open3.JPGThe steps involved for a preliminary assessment are straightforward:  go through each carton, folder by folder, noting titles, folder number, content, date range, and any additional notes.  Not every document needs to be examined at this stage–we just want a basic overview of the contents in order to keep track of the materials, and to get a feel for the order in which the materials have been organized.  This step is called “accessioning.”

Given the quantity of materials I have accessioned thus far, you really get a feel for the extent to which Professor Wellman was involved with the creation of the Uniform Probate Code.  This process should reveal many interesting items in the collection, which I will share with you from time to time.