This post is part of the Student Experience series, which features current and former archives students as they reflect on graduate school, internships, and early career issues. If you would like to contribute a post for this series, please email me.
Guest poster Olivia Shea is a recent graduate of St. John’s University. Here, she discusses her work she has been doing at the Historical Society of Frederick County, MD, reorganizing the ephemera collection by catalog number.
Imagine: You are in a grocery store. You are looking for a particular brand of the latest-and-greatest-sure-to-add-ten-years-to-your-life bottled juice product. There is only one problem. You have no clue what aisle the product is in. Is there a section for bottled drinks? Is there one for health foods? Or, did it somehow manage to steal some real estate in the produce section? Now imagine that every product in the grocery store is hidden behind manila envelopes, with only the respective categorical organization of each product being shown. It may take quite a while for you to find the product you want (and after all, those antioxidants are essential!).
This is the issue I have faced while reorganizing the Ephemera Collection at the Historical Society of Frederick County, Maryland (HSFC). The Ephemera Collection, as of approximately two years ago, was organized entirely by categories. Though objects in the collection have been cataloged, the physical organization of these objects relied entirely on how previous archivists interpreted the item. And this, understandably, can lead toward a lot of confusion. Take this ephemera item, for example:
This is a student report card for Miss Emma Ritchie from the Frederick Female Seminary, circa 1869. It is one of our many prized possessions in the Ephemera Collection. Given the following categories, which folder do you think this would be filed in?
- Frederick County Schools (Folder 1)
- Frederick County Schools (Folder 2)
- Frederick County – Misc.
- Schools – Misc.
If you answered (4) you are correct! This object was found in the ambiguously titled “Schools – Misc.” folder. Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the dilemma I have faced over the past year and a half.
In January 2015, I began sorting the Ephemera Collection. My method of sorting involved manually going through every ephemera item description in our catalog, guessing which categorized folder the object would most likely be in, finding the object, and refiling the object according to it’s given call number. If this does not sound tedious enough, I should add that many of the object descriptions in the catalog contain only one word. For example, several items in the Collection are only described by the word “brochure”. Not very helpful when you are sorting a collection that contains over 4,000 objects. I can confidently say that I have handled and analyzed every single object in the Collection.
Now, let’s briefly look back at that school report card. The call number for this object is EPH1125. After refiling the Collection, this object is no longer in the Schools – Misc. folder. It is now safe and sound in a folder titled “EPH1120 – EPH1126”. And this is, what I have learned, the beauty of call numbers. They are precise. A system of subject categorization has simply not been manageable for a collection as extensive and diverse as the HSFC Ephemera Collection. Hence, why I will forever wax poetic about the importance of the call number.
Once I have tied up some loose ends and formally completed my sorting (i.e. figuring out which “brochure” is which). I will begin updating our catalog and accessioning new items into the reborn Ephemeral Collection. This experience has been both a lesson in endurance and an introduction to the world of cataloging ephemera.
Olivia Shea is a graduate of St. John’s University’s MS Library and Information Science program, where she concentrated in Archiving. She is currently employed by the Frederick County Public Library System.