Lessons from Special Collections: A Public History Summer Internship

Blog Photograph
Emily Hunter hard at work in University Special Collections

By Emily Hunter, M.A. Student, Department of History

This summer, with support from a Charles K. Hyde internship scholarship, I have been interning at the Special Collections and University Archives of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at UMass Amherst. My major project has been processing and creating a finding aid for the papers of the Diana Mara Henry Collection. Born in 1948, Henry is a photojournalist best known for her documentation of sociopolitical activism of the late 1960s to the early 1980s. With her camera and pen, she followed the 1972 and 1976 Democratic presidential campaigns (McGovern and Carter campaigns), served as the official photographer for the President’s Commission on International Women’s Year and the First National Women’s Conference, and photographed the activities of a variety of well-known politicians and activists, including Shirley Chisholm, Al Lowenstein, Elizabeth Holtzman, Liz Carpenter, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Jane Fonda, and Eugene McCarthy. Additionally, Henry captured images of the political demonstrations of organizations such as Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and the Women’s Pentagon Action Committee. Henry also photographed the New York City fashion scene in the 1970s and, in the decades to follow, pursued work as a photography instructor, arts administrator, newspaper journalist, and independent scholar and researcher. Her photojournalism has appeared in a wide array of publications, including Time and New York Magazine and in collections at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the Schlesinger Library at Harvard.

When I began my work in the archives at the end of May, the materials in the approximately 30 boxes of the Diana Mara Henry Papers were not arranged in any particular order. My first task was to sift through the contents of each box and develop a series structure that would become the basis of my finding aid. Series, in the world of manuscript processing, are relatively broad subject categories that encompass a portion of the materials in a collection (i.e. one of the series that I created for this collection is photography/arts-management related ephemera; another focuses on Diana Henry’s professional work and achievements). Within each series, an archivist can choose to create subseries to identify the contents more specifically; alternatively, they can opt to create a more informal content breakdown based on the subtitles of individual folders. The series in a collection do not all need to include a similar amount of archival material; some of the series I developed include 6 or 7 boxes each, while others contain just one or two boxes. However, a series should, in general, not be smaller than one linear foot.

When I first began exploring the collection, my supervisors — archives director Rob Cox and curator of collections Danielle Kovacs — explained that I would need to review the materials several times in order to be able to develop a series structure accurately representing the contents of Diana Henry’s Papers. I learned that for an archivist processing his or her first collection, sorting materials and developing a series structure for a finding aid likely takes quite a bit longer than it does for a seasoned archivist. This is a normal part of the process of beginning to think like an archivist. One might need to have the experience of processing as many as ten collections before developing one’s own clear approach to series structure. While I have worked at other special collections departments before, this was the first time that I had ever fully processed a collection and I found my supervisors’ advice to be very useful (and encouraging!) as I began to examine materials. As Rob and Danielle had suggested, I reviewed the contents of all 30 boxes relatively quickly at first to get an overarching sense of the scope of the materials. I placed items in very tentative categories based on this initial review, returning to examine the collection in more detail to develop an outline that would become my series structure and then revisiting the collection a third time (and some parts of the collection more than this) to group the contents into finalized series categories, arranged in clearly labeled boxes and folders. Rob and Danielle helped me to broaden the series categories that I initially developed, which had been a little bit too specific; I learned that it is better to try to make each series as broad and inclusive as possible, as this will facilitate researchers’ efforts to obtain the information they are seeking.

Diana Mara Henry photograph
“Last mile of the First National Women’s Conference, 1977.” Copyright © 1977 Diana Mara Henry / www.dianamarahenry.com This photograph by Diana Mara Henry depicts Bella Abzug (Chair of the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year and Presiding Officer of the First National Women’s Conference) and several delegates arriving at the First National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977. The women pictured in this photograph are, from left to right: Billie Jean King, Susan B. Anthony, Bella Abzug, Sylvia Ortiz, Peggy Kokernot, Michelle Cearcy, and Betty Friedan.

At the end of the week of July 21st, I finished processing the contents of Diana Mara Henry’s Papers and am now working to create several written materials for the finding aid, including a biographical sketch of Diana Henry, an overview of the scope and contents of the collection, and a description of the contents of each series. I will then complete the final part of the finding aid, an inventory for all of the materials in the collection. The finding aid will be posted on the Du Bois Library Special Collections and University Archives online catalog.

The experience of working with the Diana Mara Henry Papers has provided me with valuable insights that I will take with me as I continue to pursue both archival studies and the research and writing of traditional historical scholarship. On the one hand, my work developing series and creating a finding aid for the Henry Papers has given me the opportunity to build on some of the skill sets that I have cultivated in my undergraduate and graduate history classes- namely, the ability to synthesize large quantities of material into coherent groups through critical thinking grounded in a broad thematic framework. Research skills and attention to detail, both characteristics of the historian, have also been significant components of my work in the archives; in order to group materials into proper series and to create a factually accurate finding aid, I needed to acquire substantial contextual information about Diana Henry’s life and career.

At the same time, my experience in the archives has also enabled me to acquire other skills that may not fall within the purview of traditional history but which have helped me to become a better public historian. My primary goal in working with the Henry Papers has been to think critically about the materials in order to facilitate prospective researchers’ efforts to easily discern the contents of the collection and to access desired materials efficiently. Therefore, it was essential for me to conceptualize the papers not only in thematic terms but, more specifically, in terms that would promote usability. I learned that it was important to think not only “What might unite seemingly diverse materials in this collection into a single series?” but also “What would be a logical way to group these materials in order to promote ease of access?” In addition to teaching me how to tailor my work to the needs of researchers, my experience this summer has also exposed me to other important aspects of the archival profession, including practical concerns such as the financial and space constrains that limit the quantity of materials that an archive can acquire, process, and digitize. I have also had the opportunity to learn how to work with a special software program that archivists use to create digital finding aids. As I near the completion of my internship, I am able to appreciate how my work with the Henry Papers has allowed me to cultivate and refine a range of skills that are helping me to become both a better scholar and a better archivist.

1 comment
  1. I’ve found that there’s no such thing as a perfect finding aid, since scholarship is always devising new topics and approaches. I’ve gone into papers looking for tourism-related material, knowing that few papers will be organized top identify that as a series, or even a classification category.

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