Arrangement / Assessment / Cataloging / Processing

An Archive of One’s Own

Guest post written by Raquel Begleiter, Research Associate for the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML)

Libraries, books, papyrus fragments—these are a few of my favorite things. The value of each has always been obvious to me as a researcher. Until recently, though, I did not realize that archives and well-executed archival practices can also serve as invaluable tools for research.

I arrived at Dumbarton Oaks in the summer of 2012, weeks after completing my Master of Studies in Greek and Latin Languages and Literature at Corpus Christi College in Oxford. My job title, Research Associate to the Director, gave few clues as what I would be doing day-to-day. While my main responsibilities center around managing the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (established in 2010), as a Research Associate I have had the opportunity to lend a hand with Dumbarton Oaks Director Jan Ziolkowski’s own research projects. The largest and most exciting of these is a book provisionally entitled, “The Medieval Jongleur of Our Lady, Tumbling into Modernity.”

Right away, I began receiving items to scan for the project, affectionately referred to as the “Juggler.” Some mornings I would retrieve a small book, a photograph, or a pamphlet from the Director’s Office. Other days it would be a coin in need of photographing, or an oversized opera poster. The more delicate and fragile the object, the faster I tried to make the scan or photograph, so as return it to Jan for safe(r)keeping. Leaving an 18th century leather-bound volume in my unlocked office on the shelf with my Latin Grammar and piles of printed translation drafts seemed not only wrong, but also unsafe. I suspected that these materials were just as vulnerable to loss or damage on another bookshelf; shuttling books back to the Director’s Office pushed the issue out of sight for a time, but not out of mind.

New deliveries appeared at a slow but steady rate in the months that followed. At the time I was not aware that Jan had been collecting juggler paraphernalia for years already. Before long his office was overwhelmed by the influx, and he asked that I store some of the items in my own office on the Mezzanine. The stacks of postcards, old books, posters, newspaper clippings, and photographs on my bookshelves grew rapidly, and with them grew my anxiety. While I knew next to nothing about archival standards, I knew that my office would likely meet none of them.

Image 1: photographed by Raquel Begleiter

Sample of the collection. Photographed by Raquel Begleiter.

Luckily we have wonderful resources for the archival novice at the Dumbarton Oaks Archives (DOA), Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA), and Research Library. James Carder (DOA Archivist and House Collection Manager), Rona Razon (ICFA Archivist), Jessica Cebra (ICFA Departmental Assistant), and Toni Stephens (Library Assistant) were all generous with their time and advice as I tried to develop an appropriate storage system for the growing hoard in my office. I learned that office or regular plastic sleeves were to be avoided at all costs, and that my ordinary manila folders were tinged with noxious acid, which can eventually damage the items it touches. Rona shared her hefty catalogs of archival supplies with me, and I made my selections guided by a very helpful and patient sales associate, who explained the difference between buffered and un-buffered tissue paper. Tucking books into cozy acid-free boxes on beds of tissue was a great relief once I received my sizable shipment from Gaylord Archival Products.

But, as I soon learned, proper storage is only half the battle. I now have so much more respect for archivists and librarians, who bring order to the chaos of their varied collections. It was simple enough to put postcards in archival folders and small books into boxes. Each postcard, for example, has an identifying figure number assigned by Jan. This figure number is penciled onto the folder that holds the postcard, and is noted in the digital file name. The figure number and location of the folder are then recorded in a handy spreadsheet.

Things got more complicated, though, when there were several figures drawn from a single book, or two images accidentally assigned the same number. Almost weekly I had to tweak my method of documentation. It turns out that the metadata for each image should  be distinct enough to allow you to distinguish between all depictions of Mary Garden:


Metadata: 0391_Mary-Garden-Melisande_photograph; Source: Photo copyright by Davis & Eickemeyer, Issued 1908, New York.

Metadata: 0555_Mary-Garden_perfume-advertisement_floating-head

Metadata: 0555_Mary-Garden_perfume-advertisement_floating-head; Source: Rigaud’s Mary Garden Perfume, 11″ x 16″ Advertisement, Ladies’ Home Journal December 1917

I realized the importance of noting the type of source, be it photograph, frontispiece, title page, or postcard. I grew resentful of the many children’s books printed without page numbers.

Children’s book with no page numbers!; Source: Shannon, Mark, and David Shannon. 1994. Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: Putnam’s.

This is a page from Gawain and the Green Knight by Mark Shannon and David Shannon, published in 1994.

Anyone with the slightest archival experience will think all of this painfully obvious. If you had asked me, “Do you think it is important to document a figure’s source, the source’s location, and the figure’s identifying number?” I would have responded immediately, “Yes! A thousand times, yes!”  But organizing an ever expanding mountain of materials of all sizes, ages, and conditions in a useful way is far more challenging and enlightening than I ever imagined.

Soon I will be able to quickly and efficiently ascertain how many stamps we have gathered, or how many cathedrals are depicted across all categories in our eclectic collection. In the process of archiving, I have noticed imagery patterns that I may not otherwise have detected, and I have caught small, but significant errors in my records. I still I enter new metadata daily, and I am still incorporating new arrivals. It still makes me nervous that so many beautiful and rare materials are living next door (I colonized a spare office), but an archive is not equivalent to a locked storage unit across town or a safe-deposit box. There is value in the process of archiving, not just for this project, but perhaps for yours too.


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