Saturday, 29 December 2012

Week 28: Southern Farewell

In my 16th week at the Mayme Clayton Library and Museum, I took time off from the museum to attend my father’s memorial service in Gaston, North Carolina, talked about job opportunities in the special collections at Savannah State University and participated in a meeting with a film producer for the licensing of photographs for a Richard Pryor documentary.

Beautiful staircase in one of Savannah's historic squares

My father grew up in, Gaston, a small town in Northampton County, North Carolina. To get there for his memorial service, we had to fly to Raleigh, and drive around 100 miles through country roads. Once we got there, spent a few days with my grandparents and other relatives and said our final goodbyes; we wondered what to do next with our rental car in this interesting region of the country. We decided to visit a few other cities; among them was Savannah, Georgia. In Savannah, we decided to check out Savannah State University. I had seen a librarian job announcement from them a few months ago and thought it might be a good idea to introduce myself, just in in case they were still looking at applicants. Savannah State University is a historically black college that has been absorbed for the Georgia State University system. The library was very quiet because most students had already left for winter break but luckily there was one serial librarian in the building. I explained my current situation and how I had seen the job posting and asked if there was anything that she could share about their hiring patterns or practices.
Dinner with friends in Charlotte, North Carolina

I found out that they had filled the position a couple months ago but the administration moves slow in getting new hires on board and removing the vacancy information. This librarian had graduated from Queens College and worked in law libraries for years before landing this job. She said that it was difficult to find a position in this market but one strategy that she employed was to send her resume to anywhere that she wanted to work and in some cases she did get call backs and interviews. When it came to the special collections, this librarian did not have much information, she said that there was not an archivist on staff; all of the librarians worked to provide access to the archival materials. She was not able to answer my questions about accessions, scope, or EAD finding aids. Instead she walked me upstairs and showed me the museum, special collections reading room and introduced me to the library assistant that monitored the space. When I explained my situation to her, she gave me her card hoping that I would be a resource for them! After looking around, I could see that the special collection could really benefit from an archive specialist. They could use someone to do research and bring more exposure to their materials. In their defense, they have digitized a lot of their materials and made them available online.

I thanked each of them for their time and advice. The fellowship allowed me to approach the situation from a confident position. I wasn’t a volunteer looking for someone to give me a chance, I am an employed archivist that had demonstrated my worth in Chicago and Los Angeles; I believe that my next employer will be eager to have me on their team. 

Of course the airports were a madhouse with the holidays right around the corner, but I refused to give up my seat for vouchers or take a different flight because I had a meeting with “Richard Pryor” on my scheduled arrival date. Over the past several weeks I have been working with Grace, a production assistant for a new Richard Pryor documentary on some images that we had of the comedian. Dr. Clayton in her awe-inspiring wisdom had collected many of the photographs from the archives at Sepia magazine, when it was discontinued in 1983. From my time in the Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) photograph archives, I can attest that these images are much smaller in quantity but comparable in quality and rarity to the JPC collection. As a result of the divided nature of the Sepia photograph collection, the MCLM has retained all rights to the images that we possess.

I had already made low resolution copies for Grace, she shared them with the producers, and they would get back to us on which images they wanted to move forward with licensing agreements. After a number of emails, Grace and one of the producers, Sarah, came to the museum on Friday afternoon for a meeting with Larry and me. The success of this meeting was the perfect example of teamwork. I greeted our guests, took a little time to get to know them better and discuss the strengths and context of the photographs that they were interested in. Larry joined us after a few minutes and explained what he was hoping to gain from this transaction and to their pleasant surprise; it was not a large paycheck. We talked about screening the documentary at the museum as a part of black comedian series. Larry has the vision to see how a favor could be more valuable than a dollar as we strive to establish ourselves in the community. 

I was instructed to follow up with the Grace on the type of reproduction that they will need, and quote a price that covers our cost, plus 40%; which is a steal for them because of the amount of freedom and flexibility that they will have with the images. I am excited to be a part of such an amazing project and grateful to learn from an experienced negotiator.

The Mayme Clayton Library and Museum will be closed from December 23 until January 3. I’m off to Tucson, Arizona to spend the holidays with my sister and niece. I hope you all have a happy holiday and joyous New Year’s celebration. 2013 is going to be big, I can feel it in my bones!

Week 27: A hallway full of Black Power

In my 15th week at the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum, I participated in a professional development call with staff members from the Virginia Historical Society, put the final touches on my new processing space in the small courtroom, and mapped out some ideas for the “Listen, Whitey” exhibit.

On Tuesday, I joined a conference call with my fellow fellows to listen as Dr. Lauranett Lee and Paige Newman discussed their work at the Virginia Historical Society. They spent most of the call describing their database of slave names, “Unknown No Longer” and which factors they considered in its creation. Dr. Lee talked about the outreach opportunities that the project has enabled. She believes that descendants of slaves and slave owners will better understand the circumstances of slavery with the data that they have collected. The Virginia Historical Society has also improved its relationships with other Virginia libraries and historical societies through collaborations with the Unknown No Longer Database. Many genealogists utilize the resources at the Mayme Clayton Library and Museum and my knowledge of this database will increase my ability to help them with their research.

The small courtroom in the museum has officially been taken over by the Mayme A. Clayton Papers. All of the boxes are set up on tables for easy filing. There are no giant piles of unsorted materials in any of the corners. The series are physically separated in space with chairs so that five people can potentially work at the same time. I have my laptop computer set up near the makeshift sorting tables so that I can also work on blogs and evaluation summaries in between the processing of the papers. I am closer to the museum entrance so I can easily move to the reception area to answer phones or greet visitors. The new space is lovely, and I am hoping to recruit some extra volunteers in January to keep moving the project along.  

A few weeks ago, Larry explained that we would need to change the permanent exhibits throughout the museum. We plan to rotate the materials in the room which displays the range of items that can be found at the Mayme Clayton Library and Museum. The “great” room which currently houses the art of local artist, Ben Caldwell will be replaced by our collection of Jacob Lawrence artwork. The hallway that currently houses the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Los Angeles photographs, the riots in Watts photographs, the community paintings, and several movie posters, will be removed to make way for the “Listen, Whitey” exhibit. I have been selected to design and implement the “Listen, Whitey” exhibit which is centered on a same titled book by Pat Thomas that discusses the black power albums which were recorded between 1965 and 1975. Larry’s idea is to locate the albums that are referenced in the book and creatively display them with supplemental materials from the collection, listening stations, looping videos and text panels which tell the story of what these artists were trying to express. The concept is very straightforward, and now I am trying to work out the thousands of details that flow from this simple concept. I am reading the book and writing down as many questions as I can as the ideas come to me. This is an amazing opportunity and I am looking forward to putting together an exciting exhibit.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Week 26: Easing on Down the Road

In my fourteenth week at the Mayme Clayton Library and Museum, I continued to clean up the Mayme Papers processing room, spoke to a researcher about the LGBTQ collection, and monitored the progress of the duplicate book project.

The winter cleaning project continues in the area that I use to process Dr. Clayton’s personal materials. As I went through boxes over the past three months, I put aside materials that I did not feel belonged in the collection. These materials had piled up in a corner of the processing room and I spent this week sifting through it. I filled three more large garbage bags with broken, damaged or indecipherable materials. I also filled three shelves with materials that could be re-purposed within the museum. I imagine that we can cut old manila folders into call slips for the books that we catalog. The folders were the biggest group of supplies, followed by blank printer paper and envelopes. There are also labels, dividers and binders that we may be able to use in the future. The last group of materials is full of the items that I want to remove from the collection but need approval from my executive director. I have boxed them up and placed them in another area of the museum. There are 18 boxes that fit this description. My work to clear up the processing space could not have come at a better time because we are working with a film crew that wants to shoot in the space within the next couple of weeks. It looks like my entire operation will be moved into the small courtroom before the end of the year. This is a larger space, which will allow me to easily sort materials for the remainder of the project.

Materials recommended for de-accession

Surplus office supplies removed from Mayme's papers

On Friday, we had a researcher drop in to check out the LGBTQ collection. This was problematic because the collection is on deposit and it is not processed at all. Luckily, the donor of the collection, C. Jerome Woods was available to speak to the researcher over the phone. Mr. Woods said that he would come to the museum in a few hours and see what he could do for the researcher. I had done a survey of this collection earlier this year so I was curious to see what kinds of questions that someone would have about the materials. Mr. Woods and the researcher talked for about an hour and when they were ready to go look at the collection, they invited me to join them. This was when I learned that this researcher had been to New York City, Chicago and San Francisco looking at archival collections that dealt with the black LGBTQ experience. He does not have a research background but he has an idea to use a travelling exhibit to establish a connection between all of the repositories that he had visited. He echoed the sentiments from many SAA conference presenters of using social media and art to challenge the notion that archives are stuffy places that don’t have a broad relevance. I admired his enthusiasm but emphasized that it would take a lot of work on his behalf to initiate something like that. I showed him the work that I had done with Mayme’s Papers as an example of the intellectual control that we hope to gain over Mr. Woods’ collection in the next couple of months. He expressed an interest in volunteering to help me process the collection. We exchanged business cards and plan to connect at the first of the year.

The book duplicate project is easing along nicely. There is a part of the project that everyone can get into. For example, Greta is very efficient at working in the spreadsheet, Michael and Irene like to work in the stacks, and Christal can spend the day working at her own pace from the stacks to the computer. One of the products of the project is a surplus of empty banker’s boxes; Carol and I spent two hours on Friday breaking down boxes for more compact storage. We have about 38 boxes left to go through in the book room and another 24 left in the volunteer area. We have filled 19 boxes full of true duplicates. I am hoping to ship them to Better World Books or make them available for our patrons to purchase.   

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Week 25: Winter Cleaning

In my thirteenth week at the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum I re-organized the Mayme processing room, presented to an auction house representative, and served as a greeter for a HistoryMakers interview.

On Saturday, I thought it was time to reassess the use of space in my Mayme processing room. The amount of boxes full of processed materials was swelling, and I did not have enough space for them on the desk tops. I knew that would need to access every box as I might come across an item that fit into them, so I decided to place every processed box on the floor and just bring a couple to the desk as I needed them. I also needed to have a more clear system of sorting so that anyone would know where to pull from when they were ready to file items away. I brought in a large garbage bag and tossed all of the old folders, empty folder boxes, and rusty office supplies that I had come across. The items that I had identified to be moved to other parts of the museum, I finally moved them to their new location. I also vacuumed the floor and moved the superfluous chairs out of the room. Next week, I will probably sort out my de-accession mound. The materials are either too damaged, duplicates or office supplies that could be recycled into our day to day usage. Overall, I feel that I am at a halfway mark in the processing of this collection and I wanted to clearly see what I am working with. As this year winds down, I will have a clear mind and workspace as I tackle the remainder of the project.

The woman, who came into the museum last month to pay for a traffic ticket, thinking that we were still operating as a court house, returned this week. The first time we met Sandra, Larry told her about the museum and she said that she worked for an auction house that may be interested in our rare books and manuscripts. This week Sandra brought the director of Botham’s Auction House, Dr. Williamson, and they looked through our materials. I spoke with them about our process of not calling a book a duplicate until we had two identical copies on the shelf. I shared how we had been working on this project for weeks and saw the auction house as a means of de-accession rather than a lucrative revenue stream. She told me more about the business of rare book sales. I learned that the value of books has remained solid throughout the turbulent economy. The value of many books lies in the dust jacket that they are enclosed in. At the turn of the century, many librarians assumed that the jacket was just packaging and tossed them, leading to a scarcity of the original jackets in the world. They are very valuable today, more than the book in some cases.  She examined the titles and made some notes on the 7 boxes full of books that we had compiled.  She said that she would do a preliminary analysis and be in touch with the next steps.

MCLM lent its courthouse to the HistoryMakers for the taping of a new interview. Matthew Hickey was the videographer and Larry Crowe was the interviewer. I told them how they felt like celebrities to me because I had come across their names so many times as I filled out evaluation summaries. They are a very likeable team, and it was fascinating to know that they were the duo responsible for Dr. Clayton’s HistoryMaker interview back in 2004. They were impressed by how far the collection had come since they had seen it at the house in the West Adams neighborhood. This week, they were interviewing Dr. Patricia Bath, a pioneering ophthalmologist. I stayed at the museum until 7:30 to give them enough time to set up and conduct the life arc interview. Dr. Bath was so regal in her mannerisms; it was an honor to meet her. Matthew and Larry really enjoyed working in the museum; they said it was quiet and dark enough to optimize the quality of the production. I appreciate how their presence increases the exposure of MCLM and I would be happy to host them again. 

Week 24: Not beyond my scope

In my twelfth week at the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum, I worked on the book project and assisted with a mailing campaign. This was a short week because of the Thanksgiving holiday.

The book project at MCLM is very tricky for me to get excited about based on the reasons that I chose archives as a profession. To me, the value of a collection resides in the organization and preservation of items that cannot be found anywhere else. The books that we are working with are very valuable and represent a wide sampling of black history and some of the titles are obscure, but they are mostly available in regular public libraries. Our books cannot leave the building, and some of the editions are not in a suitable condition for serious perusing. As a researcher, I would rather check out the book, take it home and spend a few days going through it than making an appointment to sit in our facility. 

After all of my intensely principled thought of what is truly archival at MCLM, I put myself in the shoes of the first people encountering the collection in the garage. Everything was jammed together and difficult to identify, it was probably easy to recognize “books” as a discrete and easy to describe part of the collection. Copy cataloging books applies organization to a significant part of the collection and moves materials out of the way so that we can delve into the other collections that reside in MCLM. At the end of the day, I will give all that I can to the book project so that we can move on to the elements that are more interesting to me. At this point, we have finished identifying and describing the rare book duplicates, and we are tweaking a workflow that will enable us to tackle the duplicates in the general collection.

Working on a very small staff with a very ambitious executive director seems to mean that there is no task beneath my skill set and no task beyond my skill set. The former was demonstrated this week. I spent hours with volunteers, making copies, folding reply cards and letters, and stuffing them into envelopes. I entered address data from all of our sign-in sheets into Excel. I made evening runs to Office Max when we ran out of toner for the printer. I took everyone’s lunch order and drove to the restaurant to pick it up. I learned how to use a ruler to make sharp folds without injuring my thumb. We are hoping that this membership mailing will generate some income for the museum. The volunteers were very enthusiastic about the efforts because they had been pushing the staff to make this happen for years. As I am working in Mayme’s papers, I have 3 boxes full of her mailing lists and contact sheets; it is ironic that MCLM had not continued with her commitment to communicate with her supporters. I believe that it will be a worthwhile project in the future to follow up with Mayme’s contacts and see if they would be interested in getting involved with the current iteration of Dr. Clayton’s vision. At any rate, by Friday afternoon, 800 envelopes were stuffed, addressed and ready to be sent to the post office, we will see what our efforts will yield.