Visit an Archives

Kenny Martin

Info 256

Visit an Archives


For my visit an archives assignment I toured the Stanford University archives, which is composed of three main divisions: Special collections, rare books, and the university archives. My tour guide was Daniel Hartwig, who is one of the university’s archivists. During my tour I saw the area where rare books are shelved, the lab where media such as cassette tapes are digitized, and also the room where materials are stored until they are sent to the archive’s off-site storage facility. Hartwig estimates that roughly 95-99% of the archive’s collection, which when put together measures roughly 30,000 linear feet and is composed mostly of paper documents, is located at their off-site facility. The items that remain at the archives on the Stanford campus are heavy-use items and items that are very fragile, because they would be put at extra risk by transportation. Some of the really neat items to be found at the archives include the Eadweard Muybridge photos of a horse in motion that contributed greatly to motion picture technique as well as some of Charles Darwin’s original books (these are locked inside of display cabinets). In addition to the off-site storage facility, there is also a technical services, processing and cataloging facility located in Redwood City. I thought it might be a challenge for the archives to have so much of their collection off-site and also their processing staff and materials as well, but Hartwig said the process for transporting items has been streamlined to such an extent that it is not actually much of a bother. Among the three sites and multiple departments, the archives averages between 15-20 staff, who all work roughly the same hours, which is manageable for the operation and maintenance of the collections but Hartwig wishes there was more money for increased staff. A lot of the funding for staff positions comes via grants, which pay for positions for two to three years at a time.

The archive’s patrons are fairly evenly split between two groups: The students/faculty, who use the facility during the school year, and the external researchers, who predominantly come during the summer months. A large portion of the collection is open for anybody to use, regardless of whether they are a student or what their credentials are. Even materials located off-site are available for viewing granted the person requests the item(s) by email or phone a few days before their visit. On certain days of the year, non-students and non-researchers are allowed access to materials that are not normally open to them. The archives has approximately 2,500 collections and approximately 500 of them are available to browse online. These include practically all of the photos, much of the audio visual material, many contemporary documents, and the university’s student newspaper. If you follow this link you will be able to browse all of the 10,910 collections (within each of which there are usually 10 or more individual items) available to you in your home:

Hartwig says the archives retains the original of a document if there is value to keeping it, such as if there are not many copies of the document or if the original might be needed to produce additional copies in the future. An example of originals the archives does keep is reel to reel cassettes, and an example of what they don’t keep is CDs.

The archives gets its material through a combination of donations from the university offices, departments, and retired faculty members, as well as through actively seeking photographs and documents from student organizations. Hartwig says it is via the latter method the archives is able to fill in gaps in its collection, and to also add to their collection an aspect of student life and culture through the years. For the most part, the university archives organizes its collection according to provenance, meaning items are grouped together depending on who they belonged to. However, there are a few collections organized in various other ways, such as subject, theme, and format.

The archives contrasts with the history collection at the public library I work at because its focus is on preserving and collecting items, whereas at my public library there is a much greater focus on promoting the collection and trying to connect the collection to people’s interests and daily experiences. Both the university archives and my public library are making decisions for their collections based on their users. I think it is neat that the archives offers access to such rare and useful material for aiding in research, and since they are located on a prestigious university campus, being a part of Stanford University, their collection fits with the needs of their community. At my public library the history collection would not be worth investing time in if we were to offer the same type of materials as the university archives, as our patrons are primarily people looking for entertainment and solutions to problems with things such as taxes or their electronic devices. To me, the university archives matches what I have always conceived an archives to be, which is a place with lots of rare and old books and official documents It is also worth noting the archives fits the definition of an archives much better than the history collection at my local public library does because the archives has collections of items from individuals (persons, organizations, etc.) whereas the items in the public library history room come from many different places and cannot be grouped according to provenance. Instead, it is much more useful for the items to be grouped by topic.


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