Working in a design archives offers a special opportunity to see most everything that has come from a single designer: not just the big hits, but the experiments, the things that never made it to print, the obscure gems. For anyone who’s ever wondered (and I’m sure there are legions of you) what is involved in turning a donation into an organized, useful resource, here’s a glimpse behind the curtain.
First off, when a collection arrives, we survey the materials, with an eye toward maintaining the order imposed by the creator.
Original order is a basic tenet of archival description; it ensures materials are kept within the context they were created and, hopefully, reveals something about their source. Along those same lines, archives will almost always keep materials together from a single creator – a principle of archival organization called provenance. Materials from different creators are generally not intermingled, even when they share a common subject. Thus, when you visit an archive, you should not expect to find everything on a single topic arranged together.
Are you still awake? We’re almost there! Once we’ve arrived upon a general scheme of organization, we re-file materials in archival folders and boxes and create a guide to the collection called a finding aid. The finding aid will contain information about the creator of the materials, a summary of the collection’s contents, and a description of its arrangement. The finding aid will then list (in varying degrees of specificity, depending on the repository and the nature of the collection) the contents of all the boxes and folders in the collection – that’s the container list. Our finding aids tend to be extremely detailed and operate at the item level. For instance, the Milton Glaser Collection finding aid (a whopping 146 pages) lists every sketch, piece of original art, poster, brochure, etc. in that collection. The Heinz Edelmann finding aid is significantly less daunting (just 6 pages), but that collection is much smaller and is composed of just posters and books; still, it does list every item we have.
Materials are stored in boxes or flat files in closed shelves accessible only to archive staff, a measure necessary to preserve both the physical condition and arrangement of the collections.
See, the work of an archivist is nearly as glamorous as you suspected.