The Pencil, by Mariecris Gatlabayan
When I was in elementary school, my friend and I would sit by the long jump sandpit and write and draw. We would write letters, notes, our thoughts, doodle, come up with secret codes for our diary, and, most importantly, write with pens of different colors: bright blue, purple, green, pink, mustard, maroon, etc. Sometimes the ink was sparkly or metallic. We never wrote in red ink because it was bad luck and black ink was too serious. We even experimented with the dreaded heart-dot over the lowercase “i.” It was a time before we had email or word processing programs like WordPerfect or Word, and in our minds the written word was a way to make a good impression and convey our personalities.
I carried this mindset into graduate school and was very particular about my pens. They always had blue gel ink, preferably a happy blue, and were fine point (0.5). As I meticulously took notes during my first archives class, the professor mentioned that the pen was not allowed in the Archives. What was I going to do? It took me years to discover the brands of pen that had the qualities I required. I even had back-up brands, just in case. As for pencils, there was no happy color lead. Fine point pencils were the equivalent of medium point pens. And, they have yet to develop a gel pencil. At that point, I realized I had a serious problem: I have a weird hang-up about writing instruments. So I took a deep breath and decided to go with the flow.
My first archives internship involved transcribing descriptions about photographs onto acid free enclosures. My internship supervisor handed me a few pencils and off to work I went. The yellow number 2 pencil had to be sharpened every few envelopes, so I decided to stick with the mechanical pencil. But then I had to keep clicking the top of the pencil every few envelopes as well. It just didn’t seem efficient and I developed muscle fatigue. Plus the 0.7 point pencil translated my typically neat small print into a smudge across the envelope. To remedy the situation I went to the store and spent a significant amount of time in the pencil section. I left the store a proud owner of a mechanical pencil that used 0.5 lead, had a comfort grip, and a side-clicker (so I would not have to stop writing and click the top of my pencil to get more lead). It was brilliant!
As I developed my skills as an archivist, the pencil became more important. With my pencil and a pad of paper, post-it notes, or index cards, I could make sense of a collection. Whether I was in the vault, reading room, processing room, or a donor’s home, my pencil helped me record what was there. It helped me to literally connect the dots. So when it came to creating an accurate and concise collection description, my notes were there. Whenever I made a mistake, I could erase it. I could write “box 1,” on a box and change it to “box 15” with no problem. With my pencil I could neatly label folders so that researchers could better navigate the collection. If I needed to figure out the cubic footage of an oversized box, I could use my pencil to draw the picture of the box and figure it out visually. Not only did I use the pencil for working with collections, it was useful at the reference desk. It helped me keep track of which collections and what parts of the collections people requested. I even take notes when working with a researcher to better understand their research topic.
In many ways, my pencil helped me organize my own thoughts. Just like the real world, papers and records are never in perfect order. They are complicated. With a pencil, the complicated is more manageable. So the next time an archivist asks you to use a pencil instead of a pen, think of it as our way of sharing one of our most valuable tools: the pencil.
The archives is blessed to have the aid of the Consortium Library’s fine student workers. Just by searching our blog you can see the multiple projects that students have helped make possible. This blog is to talk about one student in particular, Ksenia Polikakhina.
Our archives vault is getting full. This is good news; we have lots of collections available for research! This also means that we will be running out of space as more collections come in through the years. To help make room for future collections we hope to put in compact shelving. We are also facing the inevitable fact that someday some of our collections will have to be stored offsite. This is our long range plan as compact shelving is not exactly cheap. Our short range plan involves assessing how we currently store our collections, how to store them more efficiently, and what can be stored elsewhere. By elsewhere, I am referring to one of our ongoing projects in which we move annotated publications from the collections and into the rare books room. Doing so provides access to the books via the library catalog. In addition, the library record links to the book to the collection from which it came.
One way we looked at how we store archival materials involved assessing the use of our acidfree boxes. Arlene noticed that housing large collections in cubic foot boxes make the best use of space than the gray 2 ½’’ and 5’’ inch boxes do. For example, each shelf holds 3 cubic foot boxes. If you have a collection in which the first 2 boxes are cubic footers, the third one is a 5’’ inch box, (0.4 cubic feet) and the fourth one is a cubic footer, you wouldn’t be able to fit them all on the same shelf. The first three boxes would go on one shelf, there would be a 0.6 cubic foot gap on the shelf, and the fourth would box be placed on the next shelf. Now imagine this scenario repeated with a 10 or 30 box collection. That adds up to a lot of wasted space.
One collection that is currently going through this process of consolidation into cubic footer boxes is the Arliss Sturgulewski papers. This is a perfect collection to consolidate as it has been processed by multiple people processing/boxing different parts of the collection. The consolidation process will create a more cohesive and precise box list. It is also a project that requires a lot of patience. The box and folder list needs to be updated as files are moved around. Any anomalies have to be corrected. And, there is a lot shelving and reshelving of boxes. Thankfully, Ksenia has diligently and enthusiastically taken on the project. One of the aspects I enjoy most about working with Ksenia is her questions. Perhaps archivists just like questions. But the real reason is that Ksenia’s questions have answers that provide a clearer description of the collection’s contents and arrangement. And that is a very super thing.