Archival Field Fellowship – Town of Tewksbury

The Archival Field Fellowship is a pilot program from the Roving Archivist Program debuted in October 2019.  This new offering increases hands-on assistance to Massachusetts repositories and provides emerging archivists with professional experience and mentorship. In 2019-2020, six institutions representing a diverse cross-section of archival repositories are hosting field fellows. As the fellowships are completed, field fellows share reflections and insights about their site experience on the MA SHRAB blog.  This program is funded through support from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. This is the third post in a six part series.

Author: Katherine Philbin

Tewksbury, MA Town Hall

Like politics (at least as famously described by Bismarck), archival processing can be viewed as “the art of the possible”.  How much is truly achievable given the time and resources at hand? What would be great, but simply isn’t realistic under the circumstances?  When do you play it by the book, and when is it time for a little creative flexibility? 

When I learned that I would be working for the Town of Tewksbury for my Archival Field Fellowship, I felt very fortunate that SHRAB had been able to assign me a site within reasonable commuting distance of my home in southern New Hampshire.  On the other hand, I was nonplussed to learn that I would be processing a collection of building plans. By that point in my fledgling career, I thought I had managed to encounter a reasonable variety of physical media, everything from cased photographs to manuscripts on parchment.  But no building plans. No blueprints or architectural drawings of any kind. No paper documents whose size could be measured in feet rather than inches. And in this case, physical organization and proper rehousing was central to the project. Historically, the plans for buildings owned by the Town of Tewksbury had simply been rolled up, rubber-banded, and piled several layers deep on shelves in the town vault.  Many of the items were crushed, tattered, or faded, and finding any particular one would be a frustrating and lengthy task. The collection needed help: but was I the right person to give it? How was I going to do a good job?

Plans for Tewksbury Town Hall, 1919 (Roll 3.1)
Plans for Heathbrook Elementary School, 1956 (Roll 1.1)

Fortunately, I had many factors operating in my favor.  My hosts in Tewksbury proved to be kind, thoughtful, and highly motivated to provide the best care possible for the public records in their charge.  Town Clerk Denise Graffeo and Assistant Town Clerk Michelle Sullivan had set up working space, a laptop, a printer, and a basic set of office supplies for me before I even arrived,  and throughout the process they were always cheerfully available to answer my questions or provide feedback on my ideas. Secondly, I had an excellent starting point in the original site report created by Roving Archivist Rachel Onuf in 2016.  Finally, of course, I had my LIS education from Simmons. Unless you are really, really not paying attention, it is almost impossible to graduate from library school without learning one very important skill: how to find solid information on just about any topic. Thus, armed with recommendations for the handling of blueprints, diazotypes, and oversize documents from sources ranging from the Northeast Document Conservation Center to Harvey & Mahard’s Preservation Management Handbook, I buckled down to my task:

  • In an ideal world, documents large enough to cover half of a conference room table are best stored flat, in special filing cabinets fitted with large, shallow drawers.  In this world, it simply was not practical for the Town of Tewksbury to purchase these large pieces of furniture and make room for them in their records storage area.  
  • In an ideal world, the next best choice is to roll oversize documents onto the outside of sturdy archival storage tubes no smaller than four inches in diameter, wrap them in acid-free paper or polyester, and tie the rolls closed with flat cloth tape before shelving.  In this world, the right kind of storage tubes only seem to come in three-inch or six-inch sizes, so smaller than recommended, or alarmingly large given the thickness of many of the plans and the dimensions of the available shelving. I chose the three-inch size (buffered or unbuffered as appropriate for different printing processes).  
Wrapped sets of building plans, as shelved in the town vault
  • In an ideal world, I would have been able to use the cardboard roll storage boxes that the Town already had in stock as an extra layer of protection for the wrapped sets of plans.  In this world, many rolls were too large in diameter to be boxed. Eventually, after consulting my clients concerning the relative value of shelf space versus other considerations, I deliberately refrained from boxing others.  
  • And finally, in an ideal world, orders of archival supplies would always arrive when originally expected.  In this world, with one six-pack of polyester sheets on backorder, I repurposed the same-size acid-free paper that came as packaging with prior shipments of polyester as temporary wrapping for 4 of the 65 rolls in the collection.  Labels and instructions for rewrapping have been left behind for use when the delayed package makes its appearance.  
Acid-free packaging paper as temporary outer wrap

One very simple finding aid and one more-or-less logical shelving arrangement later, I found I had completed the project on time, and to my clients’ satisfaction.  The finding aid (or user guide) meets their needs all the better for being brief and straightforward. The shelf arrangement divides the plans into categories that make sense to the Town Hall staff (school buildings, public works buildings, police and fire buildings, etc.) and departs from chronological order only for reasons of shelf length or safety: no one should have to bench-press the giant set of plans created for Tewksbury Memorial High School in order to get it down from the highest shelf.  And the new housing for the plans is tidy in appearance; easy to open, reclose, or replicate; and far safer for the collection than the original storage approach.  

All in all, a successful collision between theory and reality! Or, in other words, just the kind of learning opportunity that a new archivist needs.  

Once again, I am grateful to Denise, Michelle, and everyone at the Tewksbury Town Hall for their warm welcome and evident commitment to public service.  My very sincere thanks as well to SHRAB and to Dr. John Warner, who agreed to supervise my work so that I could complete this project before the end of 2019.  Thanks once again, and best regards to all!  

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