A Few Minutes with an Archivist

By DANIEL ANTION posted 05-15-2012 08:55


One of the attendees at our recent AIIM New England event in CT was Jennifer Sharp. I’ve been following Jen on Twitter for quite some time, I was very happy to see her at the event, and I thought it might be nice to consider “records” management from a different perspective.

Jennifer Sharp is Project Archivist at the Connecticut Historical Society. She is finishing up the second of two, two-year NHPRC grant funded projects, cataloging the CHS's backlog of manuscripts and account books. A native of Glastonbury, Connecticut, Jennifer holds a Bachelor's degree in History and Russian Studies from Colgate University, a Master of Science in Information from the University of Michigan, and a Master's in American Studies from Trinity College (Hartford). Between undergrad and grad school, Jennifer had a seven year detour as a COBOL developer at The Hartford. If you can't find her in the archives, she is probably out on her bicycle.

Dan: You said that you are trained as an archivist and a records manager, but your work with the CT Historic Society is quite different from what most of us think of as records management. Can you give us the bird’s eye view of how you work with your ‘records’?

Jennifer: While I do have that training, I am not currently working with records, per se. Most of the collections we have at the Connecticut Historical Society are personal papers. There are some corporate records but, with one major exception, they are from defunct organizations. Since they are no longer active, my work focuses on preserving them (both papers and records), and creating and maintaining access for the public. The records of the CHS are the major exception. We are still an active organization, constantly adding to our institutional archives. Those are handled by my colleague. During graduate school I did work with university records, which is what you think of as records management.

Dan: You commented (on my SharePoint Stories blog) that “that with unique manuscripts I really don't have to worry about version control” – Do you have times where you are dealing with versions of documents? I’m thinking about drafts of important documents that might have been preserved.

Jennifer: Yes, there are definitely times when I will find drafts of a document. The decision as to which will be kept is usually made on a case-by-case basis. As we process collections we have to determine what will be of most use to researchers. If a collection has 10 drafts, and only 3 have significant alterations, the remaining 7 could quite possibly end up in the recycling bin (we've gone green, we used to trash them). Sometimes we will only keep the final copy. This is all because space is an issue. We can't keep everything.

Dan: In our world, the digital record is usually tied to the digital content. As I think back to when I visited CHS, you have a ton of stuff on display, including a lot of information about the items. How do you store the information about the items you have?

Jennifer: At the CHS we have a couple different ways of storing information about items. For example, if you were to donate your camera, a collection of prints, and a journal describing your photographic adventures, each would be treated differently. The camera would join the museum collections. There might be a paper folder with a copy of your deed of gift or similar correspondence (we are still very analog), but there would also be a digital record created in our content management system, The Museum System (TMS) by Gallery Systems. TMS has a web publishing component, eMuseum, which we use to make object data available to the public. Prints are kept in the graphics collections, but are cataloged in TMS, too. Many of our photographs have also been cataloged in Connecticut History Online (CHO). CHO uses CONTENTdm, which has a slightly different format for cataloging. Finally, the journal. It would find its home in the library collections (at the CHS we distinguish between museum and library, and in the library half we then have books and manuscripts). A journal, being a single item, wouldn't require any processing, so we would immediately create a record for our online catalog. Yes, in the days of yore this would have been the card catalog. Same data, different format. We actually still have paper cards printed and keep them as our shelf list (analog backup). With large collections a catalog entry is not sufficient for recording collection contents. For these we create finding aids, or guides to the collections. A good example of the difference between a catalog entry and a finding aid is the Jeremiah Wadsworth business and commissary records collection.

Dan: As I think about the previous question, I start thinking about all the other attributes you must care about, like size, shape, value, condition… this sounds hard; my head is starting to spin, do I have good reason for that?

Jennifer: Yes, you do. See long winded answer above. :)

Dan: When we talk about information management, we often talk about preserving and transferring knowledge to the next-generation of employees. Your time spans dwarf those that I deal with and your mission seems part preservation, part education, part theater and part anthropology – are those fair observations or am I missing the point? How do you incorporate all of that into your records management?

Jennifer: Yes, I would say those are very fair observations. I think for the most part we are like any other organization. We have different departments and keep different records from all, for the same reasons you do. From the education department we might keep a brochure on school programs. The exhibition department provides the archives with all of their research, lists of objects used, etc. Our object research files in the collections department contain all the provenance we can gather. We certainly can't capture it all, but we get a good selection. While your insurance company may not have been in business as long as the CHS, The Hartford Insurance has been around even longer than us!

Dan: If, in the future, you wanted to prepare an exhibit about American Nuclear Insurers (the company I work for) what would you like to see us preserve?

Jennifer: What will tell the story of American Nuclear Insurers? Perhaps photographs of the founders. Copies of policies the company signed with Babe Ruth (partially kidding, but The Hartford has one). Exhibits need to be visually appealing, which isn't always a characteristic of the most information-filled manuscripts. People are always interested in prices, specifically how much less things cost back in the day.

Dan: @CyclinArchivist – You inspire me to ride as I see your tweets about having ridden (n) miles in a relatively small amount of minutes. Has cycling always been a passion?

Jennifer: I have been on a bike in one form or another longer than I can remember (see photo). It wasn't until I was in college that I started riding longer distances. My father had started joinEarly Days on Bikeing his friends for longer rides while I was in high school, and he was my influence. I bought my first good road bike in the spring of 2000 and have been racking up the miles ever since. That was also the first season I commuted to work. Even through grad school, I haven't missed a season since. I'm not sure when it became my identity, but everyone knows I ride. I go to conferences in other states and get asked if I rode there. I like to get out on my road bike (I also have a hybrid) at least once a month. I had no problems with that goal this winter. I didn't start riding with a group until three years ago. I have never raced. I don't want that type of competition in my life.

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