Student Perspective: Exploring the Archives

Since I began working at the Columbia College Archives and Special Collections early last semester, my friends and family have asked me what I do here. When I say, “Sort, digitize, and maintain collections,” usually the response I get is an uninterested, “Oh, okay, how much do you get paid?” Without explaining what exactly that entails, it seems like people lose interest pretty quickly. So I figured it might be easier to put everything into perspective and explain what I’ve been doing at the Archives by talking about some of my recent projects.

Material Sorting: In the process of collecting items and records for an archival collection, the first step after accessioning the items is to sort everything into its correct record group. Although most of the material we sorted was fairly recent or uninteresting (meeting minutes, budget plans, emails, and memos), there were a few standouts. Like an admission ticket to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, an obscene amount of printed screenshots of Columbia’s web pages from the 90s, and a course description for an astrology class offered at Columbia in the 70s (and why each of the twelve houses affect you!)

astrology course

“Each of us has all twelve signs of the zodiac within us.” A course description from Introductory Astrology classes at Columbia in the 1970s.

Organizing Collections: While the sweatiest, this was also probably my favorite project. The Archives and Special Collections recently moved to our current office and storage space at 619 S Wabash Ave, and we’re still settling in. Now, I’m talking about moving an entire archival collection, so it’s been quite a long process to get everything organized, even after the initial move itself. A whole bunch of boxes and collections were out of order and we’ve have been putting them back in the right place. I mean boxes weighing anywhere between 2 and 50 pounds. It was tiring, but I really enjoyed it; getting to handle and explore our collections is a cool way to discover interesting material. Especially Book & Paper Arts, where the duck people painting lives.

duck people

An art piece from the Book & Paper Arts collection.

Sherwood Music School Digitization: This is the project I worked on the longest. I worked with my fellow student Evangeline on digitizing the definitive set of Sherwood correspondence violin lessons from 1937-1946. We scanned them, processed them, and turned them into readable PDFs, which were then uploaded to the Digital Commons and made available to the public. Not going to lie, besides an illustration of a man with five arms, it was a pretty uneventful project, but seeing the PDFs online and accessible to anyone was super rewarding. Being able to provide these rare documents to anyone in the world really puts the work we do into perspective.

violin man

“The Correct Positions of the Right Arm in Bowing” a.k.a. The Man with Five Arms, from the Sherwood Music School Violin Lesson Books.

As far as college jobs go, as an Art History major, I think I could’ve done a lot worse. So, yes, when my roommates ask me what I do at the College Archives, scanning old documents and sorting boxes does sound pretty mundane. But really, it’s not so much about what I do; it’s about the cool stuff I can find while I do it. It’s about sharing what I find with the world. To explore our collections and see what we’ve digitized and made available to the public, visit Digital Commons.


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