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Useless and Boring: The four types of archives collections

Boring and useless

Last summer I had the opportunity to talk to a group of Museum Studies students from the Syracuse University (program link). I wanted to come up with an interesting approach since I knew the group would be arriving with a museum-centric rather than an archives point of view.  As such, they understand the exhibition value of items more than the research value.

For my own part, my default mode of operation is to see archives collections from a research value point of view.  But working in a museum, I am also constantly having to consider exhibition value, which is interesting and enjoyable but very time consuming.

I decided to use these two types of uses — research value vs exhibition value — to characterize how good or bad an archives collection is.

So I broke it down into two factors:
Coolness = Exhibit value
Usefulness = Research value

Generalized Examples

Cool and Useful
Collections of any size where items/groups in the collection provide direct context for the other items/groups in the collection. Bonus if collection comprises multiple genres or types of materials.
Cool and Useless
Small to medium size collections containing disparate or random material, but with items pertaining to well-known people, subjects, or events — especially collections containing pictorial material, ephemera, or objects.
Boring and Useful
Sizable groups of business records and personal papers, pertaining to people, subjects, or events that are not well-known.  Especially typescript material — it isn’t even cool enough to be handwritten on old paper.
Boring and Useless
Small collections of manuscripts that lack significant content, context, or cohesiveness. Looks like “just some old paper.”

Specific Examples

Cool and Useful
Beautiful, comprehensive architectural drawings showing the interior spaces on one of the finest ocean liners built in the 1910s.
Cool and Useless
Non-itemized receipt signed by James Forten, important Philadelphian and African-American sailmaker around 1800.
Boring and Useful
Institutional records of 20th century social welfare organization devoted to serving the needs of merchant sailors.
Boring and Useless
Bundle of legal and financial papers relating to the sale of a steamship in 1890.

Of course, these are not the only four options. Each factor is actually a continuous variable, with the stated levels being the extreme values, so each level represents the endpoint of a continuum.

It all comes down to context.
If a collection provides its own context, even on a narrow scale, it tends to be more useful to researchers and exhibit-designers — it can be used in a variety of ways by a variety of people.  Lacking that context, a collection must rely on other resources or contextualizing-work for its values to be realized.

If the goal is to make a collection maximally useful, then a collection with minimal usefulness has to be placed in context and/or somehow pimped out to a specific researcher who already understands that general context.  This is what we try to accomplish by making a finding aid and by generally advocating for our collections.

If the goal is to make a collection maximally cool, then we need to build up the context in such a way that it appeals to a wider variety of people — we’ll call them “the public.”  This may mean pulling in resources from many different places, even if it means that the end product contains a very small proportion of our own collection material.  This is what we try to accomplish by making an exhibit, whether online or in a gallery.

In practice, these ideas and approaches are mixed and balanced to match the needs of the situation. For many museum folks, an exhibition is the best way to use the material. Personally, I often think of archives exhibits as just another outreach tool that essentially functions as an advertisement for a collection. But again, it is a messy situation: often the archivist is the collector, describer, caretaker, exhibit designer, barker, lover, and fighter all at once.

That’s what’s so fun.

So it warms my heart to see all the new ways that archives repositories and archives collections can be publicized and made discoverable, using tools and approaches beyond the finding aid.  This has long — well, Internet-long — been true of online exhibits or mini-exhibits, but also certainly all of the other outreach and exposure approaches going on, like (to be Philly-centric):

Legal and financial papers, mostly relating to the sale of the steamer Twilight to the Upper Delaware River Transportation Company in 1890. Includes several receipts for disbursements from the estate of Catherine S. Russell

Want to play with a Boring and Useless Grid? Download your own poorly sketched copy!

  1. jordon
    August 4th, 2009 at 09:24 | #1

    Nice gride! I went to a workshop one time on exhibition best practices, and one of the presenters argued that when writing labels, you should use language any more complicated than can be read by a third grader (might be wrong about the grade, but young as hell). The idea is that to grab people you need to be pithy and somewhat superficial. For this reason, I’ve always wondered if archival collections, which are predominantly text-based, lend themselves to dazzling exhibits. Good thing I’m not an archivist in charge of curating exhibits. Oh, wait…

  2. matt
    August 5th, 2009 at 08:30 | #2

    @jordon
    Jordon, there is no way around it — the enormous bulk of documents are visually boring. When we put a small archival ephemera exhibit together last year in a museum gallery, I felt we were “cheating” because we intentionally picked pretty items and created item labels that were purely descriptive without being “bogged down with context.”

    This cheating also applies to most 3D objects or anything arts or graphics related. There is the inescapable one-second assessment where you determine whether or not something is engaging, cool, or worth looking at further — I know I do it, so there is no use in denying the general tendency.

    In the end, I’m surprised that I actually do think it is fun to endeavor to create exhibits that appeal to both grazers and guzzlers.

  3. August 5th, 2009 at 23:15 | #3

    Thanks for the mention! I think I’m going to put this grid on our blackboard to help work through how we present our collections. Sometimes I worry that we err too much on the side of “interesting”… it’s like always eating candy for dinner, and suddenly keeling over from Rickets…

  4. August 30th, 2009 at 03:51 | #4

    love the grid, esp. the napkin-like look. came across notes in archives upstairs in my museum all taken on toilet paper. do you KNOW @magnes, magnes.org, etceterata?

    this is a really GREAT space you got here. any room on the couch?

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