Chugging Along: My Year Working in SCRC

This blog post was written by Chris Babbitt, Processing Student Assistant and C-SPAN Digitization Project Assistant. Chris holds a Bachelor of Arts in History with a minor in Economics from George Mason University. He is currently pursuing an M.A. in History from George Mason University.

I started at Special Collections Research Center almost a year ago on the processing team. This felt like a monumental step for me, having only worked in food service and retail before. This was my first office job—my first professional job. I was excited to be leaving behind the normal, front-facing work in favor of back-of-house office work. With this excitement came trepidation—what if I wasn’t good enough? Archives had been an interest of mine for a while, but what if I didn’t like the work or my co-workers didn’t like me? Career field changes—or in this case, beginnings—are scary for anyone. Fresh out of undergraduate, going into graduate school, and just starting my professional career, the world was full of possibilities and that was the scariest part. I would learn the process and the challenges of being an archivist, but also find the meaning in the work. 

Truth be told, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect going into my first day at SCRC. As a historian, you only ever see the final product of an archivist’s work—documents arranged neatly, assembled and placed into pristine record boxes. What you don’t see is this process. My first collection, the one I was hired to process, was the Ronald J. Fisher papers.  Fisher was a professor and activist who worked in the field of conflict resolution. Processing a collection is as much analysis as it is clerical work. Records need to be assessed for their content individually and collectively, finding patterns to use in assembling series later on and in envisioning who the person was in their professional life. The Fisher papers presented their challenges; it was a relatively big collection dating back to the 1960s and ending in the early 2010s. However, it was also beginner-friendly—the boxes were clearly organized and labeled, individual folders inside the boxes were ordered. I tend to do things slower the first time through, so going through the 13 total boxes took weeks, but it was a learning experience at every turn, and it helped me feel confident in the process of morphing an unkempt collection into a polished final project. I came out of that project feeling ready to tackle the world as a future archivist. 

I did a few smaller projects after that such as the Doug Nelms photographs of the early days of George Mason University (then George Mason College) and the Virginia Lampe papers. These collections helped me focus on specific archival skills; for the Nelms collection it was photo identification and preservation, and for the Lampe collection it was collection arrangement and clarity. These projects helped me prepare for the largest and longest project I’ve worked on yet: the Charles Lietwiler transportation collection, which I started in October 2019. There were numerous challenges which arose during this project. First, the documents had no recognizable order to them. Part of a processor’s job is to arrange the records coherently, so this lack of order isn’t entirely uncommon, but it did lead into the second challenge: over 50% of the collection consisted of slides and photographs of nondescript or unlabeled transit systems. While archivists won’t always be able to identify everything in a collection, there should be a reasonable effort. According to an assessment written by the donor, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, there were over 3000 visual pieces in the collection. There was only one way to solve this: a lot of squinting and trying to go through pictures to find identifying objects. I looked for street signs, business names, and destinations signs on trains and buses. It wasn’t easy at all, but after several weeks I finally had identified every slide box in the collection. The last challenge was, due to the sheer number of archival-quality slide boxes needed for this collection, we needed to make additional orders for supplies, which prolonged the project. These kinds of delays are unforeseeable and unpredictable. Supply shortages are an often-faced challenged by archivists. Nevertheless, throughout months of squinting and waiting, I completed the project in March 2020 (just narrowly before quarantine).  

Image from the Charles Lietwiler transportation collection, Subseries 4.1, C0324, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

On top of processing work, back in January, I had joined SCRC’s C-SPAN records digitization project. This is a project which had gone through many different stages before I joined, but we’re approaching the final stages of digitization right now. My role was digitizing the viewer mail – essentially taking high quality photos of the mail so they can be uploaded and published online later. Since quarantine, I’ve primarily been focused on redacting personally identifiable information (PII) in these letters. The main challenge of working on this collection has been the grind; it’s an extremely large collection, so even performing the step of taking photos of the mail takes months. This is inherent in the size of the project—a collection of this size takes a significant amount of time. This experience has been an extremely helpful for my personal development, which is what drives me. Other projects didn’t extend into the digital realm, and these kinds of skills are very helpful in the modern career field for archivists 

One of the best parts about being an archives worker is seeing the project through start to finish. In cases like the Lietwiler collection, it can be hard to visualize the finished product, but that only makes that product more worthwhile. Taking chaos and making order out of it to enable future research is the greatest reward the job offers. As a historian, I know how useful a well-arranged collection is for research. Being able to do this for fellow researchers and add another neatly organized collection to the stacks is what has driven my work for the past thirteen months. 

Becoming an archivist is something which has intrigued me ever since I came to SCRC during a class trip in my undergraduate program. My tenure here has helped me learn skills which I will use for a life time, and feel more confident in continuing on in this field or even in transferring to another.  

Featured image: Charles Lietwiler transportation collection, Subseries 4.1, C0324, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.

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