The C-SPAN Chronicles: Part I – A Processing Primer

Brian Lamb and SCRC Staff, September 2016. Copyright GMU University Libraries.

Hello one and all! My name is Amanda Brent, and I am the C-SPAN Papers Project Archivist here at GMU’s Special Collections Research Center (SCRC). I began my journey at SCRC as a volunteer, then intern, then Processing Assistant, and now I have been given the opportunity to work as the C-SPAN Project Archivist, tasked with processing and eventually digitizing the C-SPAN papers. This collection has been through some processing – making the job somewhat easier – but “inheriting” a collection from previous processors comes with its own host of unique challenges, some of which were obvious when I first surveyed the collection, and some that were not. This post will guide you through a few of my challenges in processing this collection – and processing in general – but first, a little bit of background on C-SPAN and Brian Lamb.

Brian Lamb and Manuscripts and Archives Librarian, Liz Beckman, in the stacks – September 2016. Copyright GMU University Libraries.

C-SPAN (Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network) was founded in 1979 by Brian Lamb, with the aim of televising sessions of the U.S. Congress and offering broader access and coverage of public affairs events. Lamb was an integral part of the development of C-SPAN, and having been a White House telecommunications policy staffer and Washington bureau chief for Cablevision magazine, brought valuable experience and insight to the job. Lamb became renowned for his many interviews and interviewing style, particularly on his show Booknotes (1984 – 2004). Lamb currently hosts the show Q & A on C-SPAN, and his strong and singular influence on the network continues to this day. C-SPAN itself has expanded over the years, covering live gavel-to-gavel floor proceedings of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, public affairs events, congressional hearings and history programming. (Source: C-SPAN.)

This collection – created and donated by the C-SPAN Corporation – is large in breadth and scope. The numerous materials include correspondence, photographs, books, press releases, clippings, viewer mail, regalia, audio-visual materials, exhibit objects, and regalia (and more!) totaling to roughly 170 boxes.

C-SPAN records in the stacks.

Additionally, GMU houses all of the books covered in Booknotes, donated by Lamb in 2011, which can be found in our catalog. Processing a collection of this magnitude is no easy feat, and the C-SPAN papers went through many hands before reaching me. Luckily, this meant that some of the baseline processing was done before me – but what does that mean exactly? Let me break it down.

From Left to Right: Dean of the Libraries, John Zenelis, Brian Lamb, and Manuscripts and Archives Librarian, Liz Beckman, September 2016. Copyright GMU University Libraries.

When processing any archival collection, the processor’s first step is surveying the collection. What kinds of materials will you be working with? What kind of condition are they in? Will they need reformatting due to damage or fragility? Once this has been established – which can take days, weeks or months even – baseline processing can begin. This includes re-foldering documents into acid-free folders, removing rusted fasteners such as paper clips or staples (at one’s discretion – see Greene and Meissner’s seminal archival theory “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing” ), locating dates on undated folders, and labeling folders consistently and in the most useful way for researcher access. This may include briefly surveying the contents of each folder to ensure the folder’s title is correct, and potentially expanding the title to include date ranges and key words/subjects that may have been left out. The goal of this step is to essentially make the collection simple to handle (for the processor, Research Services Coordinator, and future researchers) and to ensure the collection is housed using materials that will last indefinitely and will not cause further harm to the materials.


Example of a box that needs re-foldering, re-labeling, and inventorying, but is undeniably colorful!

Example of a completely re-foldered and labeled box mid-inventory. Like true love, it’s not the outside, but the inside that counts.

During this stage, the processor can further survey the collection for information to include in the future Finding Aid. One can explore questions such as: What are the bulk date ranges? What types of materials are present? What subject does the majority of the collection cover? For example, a collection may technically have a date range of 1900 – 1950, but it would be prudent to include that 80% of the collection originates from the 1930s. This kind of information facilitates better access for future researchers and staff membersMoreover, a box list inventory is created throughout this stage, which is a critical step in Finding Aid creation. To concurrently inventory and process saves on time, rather than returning to the box list later in processing.

My desk full of C-SPAN materials.

Once baseline processing has finished, arrangement can begin. This is undoubtedly the most challenging step of processing an archival collection. When I process collections, my goal is to make the collection as accessible and understandable as possible. What arrangement would best suit this collection? In its original order, chronologically, alphabetically, or by subject? How many series and subseries will the collection need? Part of the challenge is the duality of arrangement – the processor must arrange the collection physically and intellectually, or in other words, determine how this collection will be organized on paper, and how that will translate physically. This is why surveying the collection and taking the time to examine it during baseline processing is so important.

Even though some of the baseline processing and inventories had been done before I inherited it, my survey of the C-SPAN Papers left me with the impression that doing my own comprehensive inventory would be the most prudent course of action to ensure that I fully understood the collection. This process has been time consuming, but also absolutely necessary. Having about 40% of the collection re-foldered and labeled was an immense help, but did nothing for me arrangement-wise. Needless to say, gaining intellectual control over the collection was paramount, otherwise I would be almost blindly arranging the collection. As I get further into processing, I am slowly but surely developing an arrangement strategy. It is not fully formulated, nor will be for some time, but I am expecting to complete this initial processing stage by the end of spring so I can begin arrangement at the start of summer. There is still much work to be done before a Finding Aid can be created and the collection can be digitized, but much like building a house, proper and thorough processing is the strong foundation a collection needs before it can be usefully accessed.

Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment of the C-SPAN Chronicles in May: “Unique Finds – Processing is Like A Box of Chocolates: You Never Know What You’re Gonna Get.”

Follow SCRC on Social Media and look out for future posts on the processing of the C-SPAN Papers on our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. To search the collections held at Special Collections Research Center, go to our website and browse the finding aids by subject or title. You may also e-mail us at or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have questions. Appointments are not necessary to request and view collections.