Eyeing the Iconic: Physical Archiving for Nascent Collections

In an ideal archivist’s world, the goal would be to emulate the efficiency and organization of a collection like the Rachel Carson Papers at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. This collection includes notebooks correspondence, clippings and photographs divided into three sections.

  • Series I. Writings
  • Series II. General Correspondence
  • Series III. Personal Papers

An archivist might not always have control over the order in which pieces are added to a collection however, which can make it difficult to arrange objects and materials efficiently. Archiving potentially iconic collections can be a difficult task, especially if content is still being produced and collected.

Here is some advice to make your work a bit easier:

  • Take a deep breath and prepare to be adaptable.
  • Keep an eye out for indicators that you might need to catalog objects in their original order.
    • Determine if archive materials are still being produced. Is there a fixed amount of content, or is the author still publishing books and writing letters? Is the artist still painting or expanding into a new medium?
    • Don’t assume there will be designated space for staging materials. You may not be able to group similar objects together before cataloging. This scenario is even more prevalent in locations like New York City, where the cost of square footage is at a premium.
  • A private vault is preferable to shared storage when dealing with a potentially iconic collection, and you will want to partner with a reputable archival warehouse vendor that provides a climate-controlled facility. Be prepared to educate your clients or colleagues on “archival storage” if needed. It costs more than traditional storage for a reason.
  • There are many choices for inventory tags, and different object types require different treatment. Paper and metal tags can be affixed to certain physical objects, but it’s not advisable to use them on tracing paper sketches, for example.
  • Physical assets can have multiple associated identification numbers, so it’s crucial to capture all of that, for example:
    • Collection Catalog Number (also known as an Accession Number)
    • Digital ID/Reference Number (generated by a DAM system)
    • Inventory Number (generated by the warehouse’s system)
  • Try not to treat physical assets as separate from digital Any taxonomy you create should take both into account. This way, both types of assets have the best possible findability for those who use the archive. Also note that if you are working with an archive that is being built from scratch, the taxonomy cannot be fixed from the start and will be ever-evolving.

Some collections have the initial appearance of being modest or small in scope, but have the potential to be truly iconic. Keep your eyes open to the full potential of your archive, and create a scalable framework for preserving its legacy in the long term.

In February of 2013, Julie Maher (MS, LIS) and Alice Merchant (MS, IKNS) teamed up to create Asset Atelier. Specializing in physical and digital archiving for iconic collections, Asset Atelier provides related services by guiding the client through the entire life-cycle of a project, including assessing, cataloging, preparing physical archives for digitization, as well as planning, customizing and implementing of DAM solutions and processes. Asset Atelier is adept at translating and simplifying complex projects for different audiences and is dedicated to providing clients with the absolute highest level of service. Asset Atelier is honored to be trusted with such valued collections and the ability to help clients share the legacy of such collections to a broader audience. Both partners also serve on the Board of Directors for the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York, Inc. (A.R.T.).