Treasure Hunter and Path Maker

Posted on March 18, 2011

In the fall of 2009, I began volunteering three to four hours per week in the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) of Earl Gregg Swem Library at The College of William & Mary.  Gaining experience in any type of library is important to me as I work toward a master’s degree in library & information science (MLIS) from San Jose State University’s School of Library & Information Science which I expect to complete by December, 2011.

I have been tasked with a systematic review of the University Archives Faculty-Alumni File Collection (FA file).  I search for primary documents that are not considered appropriate for this collection.  Most commonly and intentionally added to the FA file are photocopies of wedding announcements, obituaries, professional accomplishments, activities, or any other news items published about staff, faculty, students, or alumni.  Other items found in the files include hand-typed transcriptions of information from the 19th and 20th-century Matriculation Books, notes prepared by Dr. Swem as he conducted historical research, as well as letters of correspondence between Dr. Swem and family members of alumni who share memories about alumni or former faculty members.  All kinds of items may be found in these legal-size file folders stored in eight five-drawer metal file cabinets.

I flip through each file, moving through the cabinets in alphabetical order, looking for ordinary treasures, and have found a number of 18th-century documents such as original letters, receipts, certificates, awards, degrees, photographs, and original manuscripts.  An interesting find last year was a tiny handwritten scrap of paper that happens to be a silversmith’s bill of sale for silver escutcheons, handles, and an engraved plate for the mystery-ridden coffin of the College of William and Mary’s beloved Lord Botetourt.  I removed the paper from the FA files and added it to an existing collection, Lord Botetourt Papers.

Oftentimes, I move an entire folder and create a new collection for it which is then housed in the SCRC’s secure storage area.  I create a new finding aid for the person’s papers by inputting data about the person and the items found in his or her file into the Archon collection database.  Once each record is saved, words in the finding aid are immediately searchable in the SCRC Collections Database, providing a path to the collection’s representation in the database for anyone doing research from anywhere with an Internet connection.  They can then request to see the collection by registering at the SCRC and having folders or boxes brought to them in the reading room for their perusal.

One of the best things about working with the staff at the Special Collections Research Center is that they are so mindful of the need to make descriptions of the collections findable through online searching and to encourage students, faculty, researchers, historians, writers, genealogists, and other curious citizens to visit the archives and use the wonderful primary resources that are housed here.  This motivates us to work to make every collection at SCRC searchable and available as early as possible by posting at least minimal descriptions of collections online, even if we cannot get every item’s detail into the system right away.   This quickly decreases backlog of collections that nobody would know about if one had to wait until it was fully described, and what’s the use of archives that are preserved yet can’t be found?   I am very pleased to be a part of this process and admire the culture and environment of my volunteer workplace. It has been a great pleasure learning about archives and I am grateful to the staff at SCRC for giving me the opportunity to practice and learn under the guidance of their expertise.

Mindy Gipson is a volunteer in the SCRC pursuing a master’s degree in library & information science (MLIS) from San Jose State University’s School of Library & Information Science which she expects to complete by December, 2011.