Assessment / Hagia Sophia / Preservation / Processing / Robert Van Nice

Detective Work

Sometimes, working in an archive feels like being a detective.  In addition to organizing and understanding the materials in front of you, an important part of archival processing is trying to figure out what happened to a collection before you started looking at it. Sometimes, this is easy.  Usually, archivists are involved in the process of packing up and transporting of a collection to it’s new home. So, if it’s a recently acquired collection, ideally you will know if it has been packed according to the order it was originally stored in.  Or, if it’s an older collection, you might have a previous finding aid that will explain whether the materials have been re-organized and which standards were used.

Unfortunately, the Van Nice collection is fairly old (the collection was given to Dumbarton Oaks in the 1980s), and we lack many records from our predecessors.  With many of our collections, sometimes it can be a challenge to figure out who processed which papers, according to what standards, or with what overall scheme in mind.  This is understandable–archival standards for both processing and record-keeping have evolved over the years, and our archive in particular has endured many regime changes and physical re-locations in recent decades.

When I was first introduced to the collection, it was already in numbered archival boxes, and some (but very few) of Van Nice’s original folders had been replaced by new, acid-free folders. So, some amount of processing had already occurred, but it is not clear when or by whom.  We also don’t know whether the order of the materials now reflects the original order of Van Nice’s, or if they were reorganized at the same time as they were re-boxed.

Boxes from the Robert L. Van Nice Collection

Why does it matter? Well, archivists are constantly trying to strike a balance between preserving the “original order” of a collection, and making it as accessible and navigable as possible to researchers. Sometimes, the original order and organization of a set of papers can be valuable information in and of itself–someone studying the creator might be interested in how they manged their own materials, or why certain materials were kept together.  However, if that original order is not particularly…orderly, and particularly if the collection is very large, then most researchers (and archivists) may actually be better served by having the collection tidied up so that they can actually find what they are looking for.

In my experience with the Van Nice collection, the folders inside the boxes have been a very important source of evidence for figuring out how much this collection has been handled by previous archivists and whose material is actually there.  It is usually easy to tell when a folder has been replaced based on the handwriting (Van Nice has very recognizably neat handwriting), and the color/condition of the folder itself.  In addition to new folders, the collection also contains some material belonging to other people, such Van Nice’s professor and mentor William Emerson.  Again, looking at handwriting, labels, and folder-type is often very helpful in sorting out what is what.  Here is a small sampling of the different types of folders and labels I’ve run into:

New, archival folders containing photographs.

Old folders, labeled in Van Nice’s handwriting.

A different labeling system we believe to be from William Emerson’s papers.

A further labeling system, again most likely from William Emerson’s papers.

An as-yet unidentified label.

I’m getting down to the last ten or so boxes in the assessment process, and although I’ve learned a lot about the different components of the collection, I still have a few unanswered questions.  The presence of new folders dispersed throughout the collection occasionally makes sense, (as when photographs have been separated out, or “loose material.”), but some have left me wondering whether individual pieces from the collection have been pulled out and rearranged.

Of course, we will probably never know the full story.  Really, the most important thing moving forward is to decide how we want to do things, and how we can make our decisions as clear as possible to researchers and future archivists caring for this collection.


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