Monday, 4 March 2013

Week 38: Providence of Provenance

In my 26th week at the Mayme A. Clayton Library and Museum, I picked a paint color for my exhibit, started gathering data for the Dr. Mayme A. Clayton Collection of African American History and Culture, and discussed a master plan of moving collections around within the building.

Audio Assault is still moving along within the budgetary and staffing constraints of the museum. Out of four shades of red, I chose “blood ink” as the backdrop for the exhibit. I watched for two days as Arturro, the painter, transformed our antiseptic white walls into a warm and inviting exhibit space. 

After last week’s directive from the Collection Advisory Board, I decided to make a chart and start filling it in with top level data about each series in the Dr. Mayme A. Clayton Collection of African American History and Culture. It struck me that none of the archivists before me saw the need for this information. My predecessors went straight to item level inventories for the collection which resulted in disparately formatted spreadsheets for some collections and no information about others. For example, we are very proud of our book collection, and have cataloged close to 10,000 titles but should a researcher come to MCLM looking for a book on agriculture or the fine arts? The answer is, probably not. My analysis reveals that over half of our books fall into two Library of Congress Classification subclasses, History of the Americas (E) and Language and Literature (P). The DACS fields that I am focusing on for the series levels are: scope and content, extent, date, subject headings, and locations. The sixteen series that I identified are photographs, posters, cultural artifacts, sculptures, visual arts, Mayme’s Papers, manuscripts, pamphlets, brochures and ephemera, scrapbooks, serials, rare books, general books, sheet music, CDs/Albums, VHS/DVD, and Film Archives. The last few days have been veritable scavenger hunts in the collection as I open boxes and take notes about the highlights and major descriptors of each series.

Larry and I spent two days this week walking through the museum and talking about strategies for getting a better handle on the collection. In every processing space there are piles of materials that are not labeled or not clearly labeled. Many of the piles are evidence of the work of volunteers who have left, and no one really knows what was supposed to happen to those items. It was difficult to focus on strategy instead of just sitting down and trying to sort out the problem in the moment. As an archivist, my biggest concern about the previous methods of accessioning new materials was the lack of concern for provenance. There is a very specific story related to the accumulation of items by Dr. Mayme A. Clayton who passed away in 2006. Ebony magazines donated from 2010 should not be lumped in with her collection. This is why I took time over the last few weeks to flesh out an appraisal policy and collection summary that would help us determine from the start, how a new accession should be described. There is a still a lot of work to be done in consolidating the spreadsheets and determining the provenance of the collections that we have, but we determined that moving all of Mayme’s materials into the same space would help to sort out some of the confusion. The small courtroom, where I am currently working on Mayme’s papers was the location that we agreed on. My information on extent will be especially helpful as we determine how much shelf space we will have to install to make the entire collection fit. The goal is to move “properly archived” materials into the new space, so there is plenty of work to do while the space is being prepared.        

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