One library’s trash…

…is another’s stored collection.

My department has a long history of collecting. Our most recent department head was famous for coming to the local history room at least once a month with a bag or two filled with genealogy manuscripts, rare books, and general curiosities — only to have them placed in our storage closet.

This type of acquisition-based system is not new or unfamiliar to many archivists. Nearly every special collections department has its stored collections, its undocumented acquisitions, its “what is that?” The good news is that processing archivists work hard to inventory and create finding aids for these record groups and objects.

Sometime in the last decade, our department acquired the entire contents of Wake Forest University’s vertical file collection. In approximately 14 banker’s boxes, our library suddenly acquired about 40 years worth of newspaper clippings, brochures, and other ephemera, arranged by topic. Our department has its own sizable vertical file collection that is frequently used to supplement research into old issues of the Winston-Salem Journal and other local newspapers (none of which are indexed).

I have to admit, both the WFU and our own vertical files seemed a bit primitive. “You mean…someone had to go through the newspaper and clip these articles out of the newspaper, then file them by topic?” That, along with the fact that our microfilmed newspapers were not indexed (let alone digitized), seemed hard to believe, if not archivally unsound. Both sets of clippings can be found pasted or Scotch-taped to chipboard or construction paper, but some include photocopies of the original clippings. At least they stopped clipping in the early 1990s, when the Journal started getting indexed online.

It was suggested that perhaps we interfile the clippings from Wake Forest with those of our own…but without knowing what already had been clipped, we would be duplicating our work…and with no more filing cabinets to use, expanding our collection by no fewer than a five thousand clippings seemed impossible. My solution? I created an Access database where our library page, my colleagues, and I could index the title, date, topic (as given), publication and page number for each publication — then toss the originals.

So far we have around 500 records in the database. I am not sure if this is the best solution but it is certainly an affordable one. A speaker at ALA Midwinter in Denver accosted a group interested in local history and genealogy about the benefits of going straight to digitization and OCR — and was unyielding in her argument even when a small-town librarian suggested indexing her clipping files.

Of course, digitizing our newspapers and OCR-ing them is my ultimate goal. North Carolina is working to create an historical newspapers program and I am paying careful attention to it. My goal is to learn how to make our database available for searching on our website…at least until we have full-text out there.

Are vertical files useful today? They can be — just ask the woman who came in a few weeks ago and found a photo of herself under “School Integration” in Winston-Salem. Should we strive to digitize and create full-text searching for our newspapers? Absolutely. Let’s begin by getting our collections out of storage, into finding aids and databases, and into the hands of researchers.


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