Student Perspective: Unveiling Mysteries through Processing

By: Amara Andrew

My palms were sweating, my heartbeat was racing and I felt like I was about to pass out. I was a nervous wreck when I was first approached about processing a collection for the archives. All that passed through my mind were questions like: what exactly is processing?, what if I mess up the entire organization of the archives while completing this project?, how was I able to fool them into believing that I was responsible enough to handle this? Even though I retained some very basic knowledge about the interior operations of an archive, thanks to a past internship, I still felt very much unprepared for the task at hand. After talking over the logistics of processing with one of my supervisors, however, I felt more engaged (and dare I say, excited?) for the new project that lay ahead of me.

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Feeling like David taking on Goliath right about now.

You know how when you’re either reading a book, watching a movie or are engrossed in a TV show and you become more attached to the characters than you thought you could be? Well, that’s exactly how I felt once I finished processing the Center for Book and Paper Arts Artists’ Books Collection. I felt as though I personally knew Marilyn Sward and Barbara Metz (the founders of the Center for Book and Paper Arts) and even some of the artists through the notes and documents that we have here at the archives. It felt as though we were all drinking buddies.

The portion of the collection that I finished processing was for our very own Center for Book and Paper Arts. It was a series of Artists’ Books that were created by our extraordinarily talented CBPA students and faculty as well as works that were created by world renowned book and paper artists. It’s funny because before I was asked to process this collection, I had already been looking through these boxes out of curiosity when I was lurking around the archives. It was as though I was constantly being pulled back to them. Spooky. These books are absolutely beautiful, though, since each one has such an individual personality and unique look. Even though, as an Art History major, my field deals with the practice of looking at and discussing art, rather than making it, I was truly inspired when looking at the different interpretations people had as to the concept of a book.

One of the first things that occurs when processing a collection (after washing your hands, of course!) is to become as familiar as possible with these items because they’re going to become your best friends for the next few weeks (Sorry, Jackie!). In total, my processing project took about 2-3 months with me completing my finding aid a week before finishing up my undergrad (talk about stress). The funny thing, though, was that I was a lot less stressed than I thought I would be. Now, how in the world did that happen?! Well, foldering (putting the items into archivally safe folders) and then organizing these items actually helped reduce my stress levels. It is a very rhythmic, repetitive process that is surprisingly similar to meditation in that it still requires your attention, but in a less aggressive, urgent way than other everyday activities. Worrying about your finals? Process a collection! Boy/girlfriend trouble? Process a collection! Just quit smoking and want to punch something? Process a collection! But I digress…

By now, you are probably wondering what the hell a collection even is. It is basically just a group of materials with a common theme that are combined together. Seems simple enough, non? No. Collections can range in size from a few folders to a sea of boxes. Thankfully mine was only 12 boxes or I certainly would have needed a lifeguard to pluck me out of that ocean of information. It can get somewhat confusing after digging through the mountain of objects at your feet and, unless you have a memory that would make an elephant blush, MAKE SURE YOU TAKE HIGHLY DETAILED NOTES! You know how I said earlier that the objects in the collection would be your new best friends? Scratch that. Your notes are now your best friends. These will be your salvation as you begin to construct your finding aid in the future.

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Everyone’s a critic… especially Spot.

Another friendly piece of advice is respect des fonds (Ayyyy). No, I’m not talking about The Fonz, I’m talking about des fonds. Respect des fonds basically just means respect the natural order in which a collection came to you. Of course, you can shift things around if you need to, but at the end of the day you have to think about what is going to make the most sense in terms of the collection’s ultimate purpose. The archivist is, more or less, a storyteller. Their job is to notice the main theme or pertinent historical nuggets that can connect items together. They are supposed to tell that collection’s story as historically accurate as possible. While this is what we strive for, we are still human so mistakes can and do happen. Such is life.

As I now get ready to head to graduate school at UIC, I am caught reflecting on all the times and valuable information that I have obtained here at the College Archives. I am truly happy to not only have gotten the chance to process a collection, but to have also had the chance to work at the Columbia College Archives & Special Collections.

If you’d like to view the Artists’ Books in this collection, read through the finding aid, make an appointment, and let us know which pieces you would like to study!

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