Making Sense of Chaos

William & Mary Commencement Program, 1926Tasked with processing the Rosina Bowers Papers series of the Hamilton Family Papers, I opened two boxes of photographs and papers as one would expect to find them in someone’s home, rather than what you would expect in the stacks of an archive. I had two initial reactions to the yet unprocessed collection. I felt privileged to work with such intimate family items, but overwhelmed. Ordinarily, when processing a collection, an archivist considers the original organization of the collection upon its arrival. So how does one go about processing two boxes of undated, unidentified photographs and personal papers that lack any organization?


I separated out different types of materials into subseries—photographs, correspondence, and personal papers—and arranged them chronologically. A few, thankfully, had a year or even an exact date written on them, but the majority did not. As such, I had to make educated guesses about the approximate dates of photos and papers. While processing the series, I spent the most time and effort dating photographs. Late nineteenth-century photographs were easy to distinguish from mid twentieth-century photographs simply by analyzing the photography itself. Sometimes an odd clue proved helpful. For example, a sign advertising Polarine motor oil and a quick Google search led me to label a photo as "circa 1910."

Photo, circa 1910 - Rosina Bowers Papers, Box 3
Photo, circa 1910 - Rosina Bowers Papers, Box 3

However, such helpful clues were few and far between. I relied primarily on clothing and hair to assign approximate dates to photos. I am certain I made mistakes; while some materials only required a cursory glance to assign it to a decade, there were others I puzzled over for a long time before giving it my best guess. It feels insensitive for me to speak of the “disorder” and “chaos” of personal family papers and photographs. I, myself, have old and undated photographs in boxes in a closet in my apartment, including a shoebox full of materials from a high school trip to Germany. In it are photos, pamphlets from places I visited, postcards I bought but never sent, and even a few receipts. Were the shoebox plopped in front of an archive assistant a century from now, he or she might consider it a nightmare! This reminded me that even I have chaotic “collections”, which allowed me to get past my initial frustrations and to engage with this collection as both an archival assistant and a human being.


Mark Mulligan is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2013-2014 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.