This post was written by Abbey Maynard, Archivist-in-Residence at the Labor Archives of Washington in Seattle, WA.
In early September, I began my work as NWA’s first archivist-in-residence at the Labor Archives of Washington (LAW). The paid internship centers around completing a project that the applicant and the host organization jointly proposed. The purpose of this residency is two-fold: 1. To offer upcoming and new professionals with paid career development opportunities to apply knowledge in archives, libraries, museums, or a related field; and 2. To provide an opportunity for archival organizations to work toward the long-term goal of eliminating unpaid work within the field.
The proposal LAW and I collaborated on was for creating and implementing a processing plan for the RIDGE Records, a recently donated collection that highlights forestry and land-use activism in the state of Washington from the late 1980s to the mid 2010s. The collection is of high anticipated research value because of RIDGE’s coalition model of activism, which brought together labor unions and citizens, land use, and environmental activists. Though the organization was not successful in winning all of its demands or its resulting court case, RIDGE did win important concessions from the developers and was successful in demanding union construction jobs on the resulting projects.
When we applied for this grant back in February, our plan was for me to spend a majority of the time physically and intellectually arranging the collection and processing the electronic records. Without routine physical access to the RIDGE Records due to COVID-19, we had to make a lot of pivots in our initial plans.
I am happy to report that the changes in our plans have resulted in some deeper insights about what some of the benefits of remote processing may be. In just about two weeks of part-time work, I was able to do a lot of preliminary quality assurance work on the inventory and complete a processing plan for the collection without ever stepping foot in the archives. In fact, I don’t even live in Washington State anymore– I relocated to Iowa in mid-March due to COVID-19.
To say that this work was done entirely remotely, though, is a bit of a misnomer. Our obstacle for remote processing is not so much “no access” as it is “low access”. My supervisor, Crystal Rodgers, can visit the archives for a 90-minute time slot about every two weeks. As a result, this creates a need to budget our time and carefully prioritize what material to consult in-person. Building capacities and strategies around the limitation of the 90-minute window has been a key component for completing this processing plan. As part of this strategy to shrink the list of material Crystal needs to consult, I’ve explored a few other, perhaps less conventional, options for gleaning information about the RIDGE records from other avenues than the collection itself.
We are very fortunate that the collection’s donors are communicative and interested in being involved in processing the records. Ellie Belew and Doug Kilgore were both RIDGE board members who donated the records. They also contributed to a podcast interview on RIDGE by Labor Archives Head Conor Casey as part of an upcoming podcast. In addition to filling in some of my own gaps in knowledge about RIDGE, the podcast interview was especially insightful because Ellie and Doug spoke directly about their records in addition to the organization– which was a fruitful site for developing series and subseries for the collection. Doug speaks about a “fabulous collection of newspaper clippings” that tell a story about how the work of RIDGE was reported on locally, and a larger story about the cumulative effects of timber practices and how they were not always accounted for in how agencies evaluated them. Doug also speaks of a group of records in the collection that contains the litigation from their appeals to protect land from development by the Suncadia Resort as well as Doug’s own negotiation notes leading up to the litigation.
Doug Kilgore has been incredibly helpful in another crucial way. I connected with him through email the first week of the residency to ask if he could help figure out some of the abbreviations and acronyms in the folder headings of our RIDGE inventory. Not only did he provide answers to nearly every abbreviation and acronym question, but he provides some additional historical information about the organization that will go on to benefit the updated biographical and administrative history. By the beginning of week two, I was able to nail down much more refined and informative folder headings as a result of Doug’s contributions. Every single one of Doug’s explanations directly leads to one less folder Crystal will need to consult in person!
Another contributing factor for our success in developing a remote processing plan is a fabulously-detailed first iteration of inventorying done by a LAW volunteer, JoAnn Keenan. The inventory JoAnn completed for the collection back in 2019 included many thorough descriptions of each folder’s contents. Under pre-COVID circumstances, the information she captured would perhaps not have been as important because we could refer to the records to confirm their contents. But because of our low access capabilities, these detailed notes play an important role in determining the series for the proposed processing plan by the folder’s entire contents, rather than just the folder’s name.
Lastly, decision fatigue — the difficulty of making quality decisions after a long session of decision making — did not play its usual role in archival processing, at least for me. In other archival experiences I’ve had, one of the most challenging aspects has been the creeping what-ifs that make me second-guess my arrangement of series and my understanding of the collection’s aboutness. But, without being able to consult the records myself, I found that I was less bogged down by the what-ifs and what-abouts that can stop any archivist in their tracks.
For me, the experience of remote processing has so far been an exercise in putting radical trust in people I’ve never met face-to-face. I felt more confident in making arrangement decisions because of all the others who have worked on this project before me and with me. Doug’s email correspondence, NWA’s support of my work through the archivist-in-residence stipends, Conor’s interview with Doug and Ellie, Crystal’s archives visits, and JoAnn’s inventorying all contribute to the work I’m doing, my understanding of the records, and the processing decisions I make. While I am working by my lonesome out in the middle of Iowa’s prairies, I am certainly not working alone.
The NWA Paid Internship Committee would like to thank NWA membership and our Gold-level sponsors for their support of the Archivist-in-Residence program: