Monday, February 13, 2006

The State of the Collection When I'm 'Done'

A recent inquiry to the St. Louis Room asked how detailed the finding guide would be, and if it would be possible to search by key words, people, etc. There was also the assumption in that inquiry, I think, that the work would be done sometime this summer. (A fair assumption as that was the original estimate, an estimate made, I should note, without the ability to really look over the scope of the collection. Since my position was established to be a two-year, part-time job (I work 20 hours/week). It's clear now that the preliminary work won't be done at the end of June when my position is scheduled to end.

While I began describing the collection last year, the collection is too vast for me to be keeping track of references to identify names, ideas, publications, places, dates, and all the other things that I would want noted in the finding guide For the most part, I'm putting the materials into their permanent folders and I'm indicating what it is (i.e., publication file for "Orality and Literacy in Our Times"), the dates of the items in the folder, the number of items in the folder, and an overview of the contents (i.e., off-print, typescript, research notes, and 6 letters related to the publication of the article). At the moment, more comprehensive detail than that generally consists of listing the to, from, and dates of correspondence (i.e., letter from Ong to XXXX, editor of XXXX, dated XXXX).

Why such limited information? Why am I not creating more detailed records? Time. The collection is just huge and there's only so much I can do in a limited amount of time. What I am doing is the preliminary work of organizing the material (remember, his papers came not only in file cabinets but in boxes gathered up from Ong's desks and shelves and boxes), of putting the material into categories that both reflects his own order and makes sense from a researcher's perspective (for instance, to make room, Ong sent the typescripts of his books over to the Archive in 1990 and we've decided that it makes sense for those typescripts to be reintegrated back in with their specific books), and of putting the material into permanent folders (Ong, for instance, has some folders stuffed with over 500 pieces of paper, which is much too large and occasionally leads to material becoming physically damaged). I then note what's in each folder and if it needs preservation work (photocopying of highly acidic paper or the replacement of rusting staples and paperclips with stainless steel ones) or repair. Once this is done, each folder can be given a call number and the basic finding guide can be created.

And it is only when that is done that researchers will be able to have access to the collection. Likewise, until that point, it's not wise--in fact it's quite problematic--to have a number of people working on individual sections. Too many people start rooting around in that vast amount of material without any classification system is just asking for trouble. So, again, it's a question of time. We can have the collection open to people sometime this decade or we can have a wonderfully detailed, highly searchable finding guide. We can't have both.

The thing is, once the preliminary work is done, once the collection is organized and the initial finding guide has been put together, then we can have any number of people working with the collection to refine the finding guide. I'll be long gone by then, but it is my hope, and the hope of the head archivist, to someday have people work through the collection item by item so that the finding guide can be tagged with a host of detailed information.

I should note, however, that I don't know if I'll be back for a third year, so the preliminary work might not be done when I am.

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