Surrounded by boxes and papers in the archives of the Center of Southwest Studies, History students are preparing records important to both U.S. and Colorado history for use by future researchers, historians, and students.
For the past four years, the collected papers of Scott McInnis, a Republican Representative from western Colorado who served in Congress from 1993 – 2005, have been processed by students in the History Department’s “Archival Theory and Practice” course. The undergraduate researchers have been sorting, culling, organizing, and preparing the papers for long-term storage in the Center of Southwest Studies’ climate-controlled archives.
“There are over a hundred boxes from Scott's office,” says Nik Kendziorski, the Center’s archives manager. “So the end product, from an archival standpoint, is to create what we call a ‘finding aid.’ It's kind of a general inventory. To do that for a big collection like this, we start breaking it down into chunks of similar material, and then within that we get more refined.”
“That's what helps researchers,” he adds. “They can use this tool to narrow down their search and discover new material without having to go through a hundred boxes.”
Professor of History Michael Martin states the value of these papers simply: “Archives are memory,” he says. “It's physical memory that people can use to come and see what happened, through that individual's perspective.”
And that’s where the students come in.
This is professional experience, and they've done remarkable work. In most institutions, only graduate students get to do this kind of work, not undergraduates.
Professor of History Michael Martin
“This is the third class to be processing this material,” explained Martin in October, while a dozen or so students pored over boxes and paperwork in the Center’s cool basement. “They’re weeding out the stuff that we won't keep, then they'll store stuff we are going to keep in archival folders and boxes, putting it all together with what the other two classes did.”
That may sound like a simple series of tasks when just listed, but in actual professional practice – for this is real work with real-world import – that process turns out to be detailed and finicky. It requires both following directions and finding creative solutions when those directions don’t work or apply.
“We prep the students with several weeks of classes, readings, and theory before we actually come in here,” says Martin. “Once they’re here in the archives opening boxes, the real work begins.”
At this point students need to start referencing guidelines, researching documents and events, and contacting outside archivists at other institutions for information. Then they have to make evaluations about the items before them: Do they need to keep it, or is it archived somewhere else? If they keep it, does it go to the gallery, the library, or the archives?
“As part of that process,” Martin explains, “they're trying to figure out who will be using this someday, and how can they organize this to help them do the work they're going to do. That's the whole point. So part of their job is to be kind of speculating, but through a lot of research, a lot of work, and a lot of organization.”
This all leads to working together to develop the essential “finding aid” -- an inventory of the materials, catalogued in meaningful and practical categories and divisions that make the historical materials accessible and useful.
Students begin that process with a Congressional manual for archiving that addresses many of those important issues, outlining the standard “finding aid” categories, and listing common items that should be kept, and whether for a limited time or permanently.
“On occasion, though,” says Kendziorski, ”we have to create new subgroups, so we can fit stuff in. The Congressional manual helps them with some of that, but sometimes they've got to make decisions on subject files. We work together with the students to make those decisions as a group.”
The learning doesn’t end there, Kendziorski adds. These are History students, after all.
“What I find fascinating is that they really learn about this collection,” he says. “It's an important collection from someone who was in Congress when a lot of them were children. But not only are they combing through these documents, I also see them paying attention to what they're reading. They really get excited about the fact that this is a part of our government’s legacy, and a big part of southwest Colorado's history.”
“There were a lot of interesting things in my boxes,” agrees Writing major and History minor Hayley Heffernan, who worked on the collection this fall. “I really just loved diving into the recent history that these papers hold. I can remember seeing a lot of these issues on T.V. growing up, and to hold the actual papers that pushed certain legislation is kind of awesome. For me, simply being in proximity to these papers inspires a great reverence.”
“This is professional experience, and they've done remarkable work,” Martin concludes. “In most institutions, only graduate students get to do this kind of work, not undergraduates. So it's helped a lot of our students get jobs and go to grad school. The fact they've done something this hands-on is what really gives them an edge.”