Journey of an Archive:
Accessioning, Archiving, and Cataloging
Last issue, we met incoming objects in the Harry Ransom Center basement, where they are inspected for mold and bugs. Once they pass muster, boxes travel on to the accessioning and cataloging departments on the fourth floor.
"I'm responsible for not losing things," says Liz Murray, a manuscripts accessioner at the Harry Ransom Center. Sounds simple enough, but let's put the magnitude of her job in perspective: If you were to look at one item from the Ransom Center collection every ten minutes, you would do nothing else for around 856 years—and this doesn't account for the Center's potential acquisitions between now and when you got up to stretch your legs sometime in the year 2860. For Murray and other archivists, not losing something means knowing its whereabouts so precisely that patrons can be provided with a detailed roadmap to the collections and the good chance of completing their research in far less than several lifetimes.
The raw material lands in the fourth-floor accessioning department in conditions as varied as creative personalities, from neatly labeled folders to what can be politely called a jumble. Murray, with the help of a fluctuating staff that includes part-timers, volunteers, and interns, eventually imposes order on even the most chaotic arrivals, packs the papers in archival boxes, sends any distressed material off to the Center's specialized conservation departments, and then records basic information about each "acquiring event" in two linked databases.
Since hatching these databases in 1994, Murray and her colleagues have processed more than 300 linear feet (measured in running shelf space) of manuscripts each year. (Murray credits some "dear people" with retrospectively entering the Center's acquisitions prior to 1994, pulling information from log books, card catalogs, and a single printout from an ancient, long-deceased database.)
"You have to be a little obsessive compulsive to do this kind of work," admits Joan Sibley, head of the department of archives and visual materials cataloging. Psychological temperament aside, what else fuels these archivists' apparent unflagging enthusiasm, even after years of such meticulous work, performed amid the continuous arrival of more and more work? Both women credit a kind of sanctioned voyeurism.
"You see the life of another person flash before your eyes, and it is stunning," Murray explains. "You discover the problems that they had and how they solved them, both literary and personal. Take David Douglas Duncan. We start with his papers right out of high school and run through the present. He's 91 and has led a very full life. It takes your breath away."
This potential for discovery also drives catalogers, who are charged with delving even deeper into the collections. While going through one of the boxes from the Norman Mailer collection—an estimated 900-box behemoth that has taken two years to catalog—archivist Jennifer Hecker was thrilled to find a letter to Mailer from Truman Capote "in his little tiny handwriting like his little tiny voice" about his struggles writing In Cold Blood: "I'm working steadily on my book about the murder case in Kansas, but it is very difficult, especially since I have to keep battling my own emotional involvement."
With letters like this lurking in the archives, it's clear why correspondence is considered the heart of a manuscript collection and, due to the cross-referencing involved, by far the most time-consuming to catalog. Publisher Alfred A. Knopf's collection, for example, which boasts a staggering 1526 boxes representing more than 52,000 correspondents, took three full-time catalogers two years to process and generated a 1,500-page finding aid.
The upshot are friendly finding aids, each a wealth of information that includes a biography, indexes of works and correspondence. These aids are comprehensive enough to be intriguing in and of themselves. In the folder list for Tennessee Williams, for instance, this author's penchant for re-titling his plays, sometimes working through real clunkers before hitting on memorable winners, is illuminated. Somehow, The Richest Earth This Side of the River Nile lacks the biting resonance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Ditto, for Carolers, Our Candle! rather than The Glass Menagerie. Or how about Go, Said the Bird! instead of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Once the finding aids were added to the Ransom Center's website, some collections become self-generating, eliciting the donation of more material. Take the ephemera on New Atlantis, an island republic founded by Leicester Hemingway, Ernest's brother. An intern who was writing her senior thesis on utopias cataloged the comparatively modest collection: one box containing the independent nation's fish-hook-based currency, postage stamps, constitution, and handwritten cookbook. "I'm amazed at the number of people who've been interested in it since it's been online," says Sibley. "They contact us saying, 'You know, I was a citizen of New Atlantis, and I have some stuff I'll send you.'"
And these ex-citizens can rest assured that their donations, once they arrive at the Ransom Center, won't be lost.