Here I am, on the final day of my grant-funded project to process the records of the Fries Textile Plant. It’s been a fun year, and I’ve truly enjoyed working on this project. Wrapping it up the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself quite pleased with the amount of work I’ve managed to accomplish. Go me!
Shameless self-promotion aside, I’d like to do a sort of post-mortem on the past year. More and more new (or not-so new) archivists are finding themselves in time- and scope-limited jobs, which require a different set of skills than the endurance race into posterity that is the lot of the traditional archivist. Rather than thinking about the long term health and wellness of the archives as a whole and wearing a variety of necessary hats as a result, we temporary members of staff are typically asked to execute very particular orders along a strict timeline, and then- frequently- to leave, occasionally with our work unfinished. It can be heartbreaking, and freeing, and terribly restrictive, and wonderfully lax.
Ultimately, the success of the project- and your own success as a project archivist- depends on the project you’re employed on, the team you’re working with, and your personal career goals. Unfortunately, almost none of us can afford to be picky these days when hunting for archival work. While I understand the temptation to take the first job offered in the field (boy howdy do I, but that’s another story), often it is the jobs taken out of desperation that lead to the worst fits professionally.
Luckily, that is not the case in this instance. I have loved working with the textile mill records, the other staff in Special Collections and University Archives, and the people of Fries. I have learned an enormous amount about the region, the textile industry, and being an archivist from my time here. I liked it so much, tomorrow I’m embarking on another collection processing project here at Virginia Tech, this time with the records of a defunct metallurgical company. To put a nice bow on the past year, though, I offer the following summary and thoughts.
The majority of my time this year was spent in processing the records. Previous student employees had made a dent in this work, but there still remained a large number of boxes as-yet untouched. The day-to-day of processing involves a certain tolerance for repetitive tasks, but the frequent discovery of interesting documents in this particular collection kept me engaged and happy with my job. Processing is often the bulk of project positions such as these, so it’s a valuable skill to be able to find joy it. This photo shows a (tiny) fraction of the staples I pulled this year, a task which does not give me joy but which does offer a certain small satisfaction.
By far the most rewarding part of the project has been working with the people of Fries, and bringing this collection back to them in the form of 3 community events I put together over the course of the year. The Fries-ians are warm, passionate, and deeply committed to their town, which was both refreshing and touching. They were wonderfully eager to interact with the collection and learn more about the place that they lived in. It has been an honor to facilitate their historical interest. This picture was taken of attendees at the first event I put on in Fries, March 30, 2019.
My work also involved a small digitization project, resulting in a digital exhibit hosted on the Special Collections and University Archives site, which can be found here. I am pleased with the result, overall. I gave several presentations on the project and my work for peers within Virginia Tech and the larger archival community as well, to make them aware of the collection and share what I had learned. I love being able to share my efforts, and I hope that these presentations have shed light on what we do in the archives and helped those facing similar processing projects.
Finally, I’d like to close with some thoughts about what I’d do differently, if I had it to do over. First, I would put more effort into the community engagement with the events I put on. My points of contact for setting up the events were frequently busy, so relying on them to spread the word in town about these events led to a poorer turnout than I had hoped for, given the deep interest in town history that I knew many residents had. In future, I will do more advertising for community events to make sure that everyone who might want to attend knows about them.
Second, I’d have liked to take more careful notes on items within the collection that I wanted to digitize. Several times, I found myself with such helpful comments as “Folder 7, really neat”, with no further context. In the haze of processing, I had prioritized moving on to the next folder over giving my future self any but the vaguest clue. This led to several instances of poring through folders, looking for the particular document I had been referencing. I will save time in the future by taking a few extra seconds to describe the materials I found “really neat”.
Lastly, I would have liked to do more digitization. I got the necessities done, the fascinating and the context-giving documents featured in the online exhibit, but ultimately I wish the whole collection could be made available online. I know that this is rarely feasible and occasionally not particularly desirable, but with this collection, I want very much for the people of Fries to be able to look through it at their leisure without needing to come up to Tech and sit in the reading room. Personally, I believe that as an archivist, access is my highest calling. In an ideal world, this small town would have its entire history to peruse at will. However, this is not that world, so I must be content with the circumstances as they lay.
All that being said, I am proud of what I’ve accomplished here, and I hope the next project will be even more successful.