This post was written by Lana Mason, Processing Student Assistant. Lana has an Associate of Arts degree in Fine Arts from Piedmont Virginia Community College. She is currently studying Art History at George Mason University. Lana is the recipient of the University Libraries Student Assistant Scholarship for the 2018-19 academic year.
When I first began working at the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) as a Processing Student Assistant, I knew I was interested in archival work as a field, but didn’t have a clear idea of what it all entailed. Archivists don’t really have much of a pop culture presence or a prominent position in society, so I didn’t have many preconceived notions about the field. I did have a lot of confusion about the few terms I had heard, though, and was hoping to find answers to my questions. And I did—I got all my answers and then some, and really quickly realized the few conceptions I had of things were inaccurate and that, more importantly, I knew absolutely nothing at all.
One of the few assumptions I had about processing and other archival work was that it would quickly become tedious. I worried that working on the same project for an extended period of time especially would become mind-numbingly dull. Processing can be time-consuming and labor-intensive, and I wondered if leafing through paper after paper day in and day out would get repetitive (and exhausting.) However, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that—at least for me personally—that hasn’t been the case. Why? Because while working I’m also learning, and I absolutely love that. I didn’t anticipate the amount of knowledge and familiarity with topics I’d pick up while reprocessing collections. The processing process (for lack of a better word) forces me to consume the knowledge contained in the collection, and it just naturally sticks with me. After all, for the collections I’ve reprocessed, I essentially have scanned—if not read thoroughly—every single item included in them. This just forces a lot of information I’ve read to not only come to me but to stay with me as well. There’s something interesting in even the blandest collections—I just have to look for it as I go along. The diversity of the projects I’ve worked on has also helped keep things interesting. Although it took me over six months to reprocess the George Mason University Office of University Relations Newsclippings and Press Releases Records (R0004), I’ve also been able to enjoy working with several different, less intense projects. The first collection I worked with here, the Chester McCall Papers (which I wrote about here,) as well as the Medical Slides collection (C0272) I have just finished digitizing have allowed me to work with many different types of materials on differing subject matter. Some are more technical and some are more digestible, which has helped keep it all fresh.
When I started at SCRC, I had never really considered how technology factored into archival work, and what level of fluency would be required. I was aware (from reading the job posting) that I’d be working with Encoded Archival Description (EAD) to create finding aids. I didn’t know what EAD was, and I didn’t know what a finding aid was. The combination of such unfamiliar terms together suddenly made me feel like a fish out of water—what was I getting myself into? I wasn’t a coder! I had only the barest experience with HTML and CSS and had taken a coding class on Python and Basic years before in high school. Luckily for me, the finding aid is a very straightforward concept—essentially just a description of the contents of a collection—and EAD isn’t terribly complex at all. With the help of a manual and the ability to reference other finding aid codes, putting a finding aid together using EAD is a (relatively) painless process.
The only technical topic I had really considered was digitization, and I quickly learned how complex a process digitization can be, and why it’s not as ideal for preservation as I once thought. The most outstanding thing I learned about the process is that digitization is tremendously time-consuming. For the Medical Slides collection I just digitized, each set of 1235mm slides took well over 30 minutes simply to scan—the high DPI required for preservation copies of such small items forces the scanner to take an eternity on each. And the Medical Slides collection contains over—or only, depending on how you look at it—400 slides! Because of that time cost alone, it quickly became obvious to me why archivists have to be selective about what they choose to digitize. My experiences thus far with digitization have also called my attention to the fact that file formats and digital technologies become obsolete quickly, and are actually quite fragile. With all these things combined, my vague preexisting expectation that everything could and should be digitized was quickly replaced with the understanding that practicality is the most important consideration.
Overall, while I didn’t have many preexisting notions of what archives and archival work were like, I quickly learned the truth of the matter. When I first came to SCRC I hoped that I’d simply be able to get a taste of what the field was like, so that I could better understand if I wanted to pursue it as a career path or not. Luckily, I’ve been able to get more than just a taste—I’ve learned so much. Of course, learning all that I have has opened my eyes to how much more I still need to learn to become proficient in this work. However, I’ve discovered I truly do enjoy it, so I look forward to the learning left to come.
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