Processing a Collection

Posted on
March 15, 2011

One of the neat things about working at the SCRC is the sheer variety of projects we oversee. Last time, I told you a bit about the rewards and challenges of putting together an exhibit, but, recently, I got to try my hand at another major part of archival work: processing a collection.

I began by skimming through all the materials in the box, taking general notes on content and format to help me later as I wrote a formal finding aid. At first, I couldn’t understand why the SCRC had even bothered acquiring the Molly Elliot Seawell Papers. Atop the stack of materials were letters she had written in the early twentieth century to her nephew’s wife, Belle, about the most mundane aspects of daily life: weather, health, births, deaths, etc. However, as I read further, I discovered that Miss Seawell was not your average turn-of-the-century woman.

Molly Elliot Seawell (1860-1916), as I began to realize, authored dozens of books, essays, and newspaper columns in her lifetime. Critical reviews included in the collection indicate she was known equally for her romantic characterizations as for her conservative position on the women’s suffrage movement. Furthermore, she was a descendant of U.S. President and William & Mary graduate John Tyler. Alongside her personal letters, professional records including letters she wrote to editors and publishers as well as copies of contracts she made with Harper & Brothers will help researchers form a fuller picture of this historical figure. Some of my favorite letters reveal the deliberations behind her authorial decisions, like how to cite her name in publication (for British editions, she chose to use only her first initial to disguise her gender).

Once I had a better sense of the extent of the collection, I could begin to consider both its intellectual and physical arrangement. Often, the types of material will point to obvious series titles (i.e. Correspondence, Photographs, Scrapbooks), but I felt it was also important to distinguish between her personal and professional records, because those two sides of her life rarely seemed to intersect in the documents. Next came re-housing the materials in those special archive-safe folders and writing a finding aid. Lastly, I entered the finding aid into the SCRC’s online database and scanned most of the collection so researchers will have digital access to it. I hope students and scholars alike will find use for what’s left of Miss Seawell’s fascinating historical footprint.

Leigh Soares is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2010-2011 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.