A Tale of Two Endings

Artists’ rendition of a fight over the good microspatula.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the end of a long journey towards a master’s degree, and it was the end of a steady (if small) paycheck. It was freedom from pulling staples, but the loss of access to fascinating content. It was the end of writing reaction papers and made-up case studies, but the end of having a role in a fascinating future.

You get the idea.

I’m not one to butcher Dickens lightly, but here it seems applicable.

Over the next few weeks I reach the end of my journey towards a Master of Library Science degree. That’s kind of a big fucking deal. I returned to school five years ago after being laid off from corporate job, determined to get at least my bachelor’s and figure out something I wanted to do when I grew up. The end of the undergraduate journey was extended by deciding I needed to go to grad school, but here we are, at the end of the line. No more classes, no more grades, time to get back to the real world.

Except over the past two years I’ve been working in the real world too. After doing various internships and volunteer gigs, I landed a paid gig as a student assistant in the University Archives. There I’ve been working on processing, reference requests, and writing blog posts. Through the people I met there, I took on a second gig, my “field study” or capstone project. There I was working (unpaid) on some of the policy and data cleanup issues around the repository’s move to the ArchivesSpace platform. These two jobs will end with graduation, and I’m sad about that, but for two different reasons.

Fully processing a collection as I was doing at the University Archives is hard work. Particularly with a collection that had no discernable original order. The set of papers our team was dealing with had been saved from a campus attic, stuffed into records center boxes and rushed to the archives. So in addition to removing staples, flattening, and creating access copies, we also try to arrange chronologically and exert some form of intellectual control over the folders. This means that almost every piece of paper in every box is handled and has eyes on it. There’s a reason this collection was accessioned in 1994 and is just now nearing completion. It’s hard, and it takes time.

But man, is it satisfying. And enlightening. Our team jokes that we collectively know more about this particular president than anyone else alive, and that’s probably true. I’ve gotten to write about some of the cool stuff that we’ve found in the collection, including a letter from Ty Cobb, a review copy of what was to become Sports Illustrated, and a weird ice cream recipe. Being knee-deep in this collection lets us share with potential researchers the reasons they should come check it out. And on the side, i got to research and write about a particularly gratifying project on the integration at the university.

But the future, man. All that experience in dealing with collections from accessioning to processing set me up perfectly for pondering how we could tear it all down. The legacy data system we had was just awful, and needed to be replaced. So I sat down with it and compared it against ArchivesSpace technically, and worked on how to translate the data. But I got to talking with my supervisor and we started to think bigger. Changing your data management system opens up the possibility to change all of your processes, or at least to look at them critically. Instead of just pondering your accession process, what about shelving? The processing manual? The default language in your finding aids? The very structure of your finding aids? What could possibly be more fun than tipping the entire boat over?

It’s over now. I’m out, there’s not enough funding to keep me on either project after graduation. I shall never be at such a perfect intersection of the past and future again, and that’s sad for me. I think I’ve made a mark, but the inability to see these two fascinating projects through to the end stings. I suppose this is a metaphor for life in the archives, isn’t it? We’ll never finish, because if we do the profession is finished too.

The next chapter is still hazy. A summer of great change is ahead. Stay tuned.

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