My Introduction to Archival Practice in the Perkins Archives

Photograph showing the original bound folder for the General Correspondence Collection

Perkins Administration General Correspondence Collection in the original binder with a metal fastener and alphabet tabs displayed.

December 4, 2017

I’ve spent the past three months working in the Perkins Archives and the time has absolutely flown by. I remember my first day walking up the hill to the Perkins campus, massive and intimidating in stature. I was a neophyte archives student sent from the Simmons College graduate archival program, new not only to the profession, but to Massachusetts as a whole. I recall being baffled by the spatial juxtaposition between the campus and thetwo small rooms that housed its history, 188 years worth. And now, I contemplate the wealth of knowledge I’ve gained in just a brief three months.

When I arrived, I was presented with two collections to survey, rehouse, and describe in a finding aid. These collections were the Perkins Administration General Correspondence and the George H. Richards Watertown Campus Correspondence. As can be inferred from their titles, both collections contained an array of correspondences between Perkins administratives and affiliates and various other persons and organizations. Processing these collections led me to face some truths about myself. I came to the archival profession from an English Literature background. Up to this point in my life, I had been, above all else, a researcher. The researcher in me was inclined to sit down with these letters and read the entirety of each one. My supervisor, Jen Hale, warned me against this. For the sake of productivity, a more cursory approach was required-- a harsh reality of archiving. And, while I couldn’t read everything, I found time to read a few documents here and there.

Photograph of the original box and original title for the General Correspondence Collection

One letter, whose memory has stayed with me, was particularly heart wrenching. It was a letter found in the George H. Richards Watertown Campus Correspondence collection from the school’s then Director, Edward E. Allen, to the school’s then Building Committee Chairman, George H. Richards, regarding the drowning of a student in a newly constructed pool. I asked Jen if she knew anything about a student drowning in the year of the letters creation, and she put together that the letter was referencing the death of Joseph Rodrigo, a particularly beloved student by the faculty at that time, and from what I can tell, still fondly thought of to this day.

The same collection included several blueprints and floor plans for the Watertown Campus, and other schools for the blind. Because Perkins is an active institution with students, these documents opened a dialogue between myself and Jen on restrictions. These documents will most likely be made accessible with a higher degree of discretion and ineligible for digitization as public knowledge of the school's layout could put the safety of its student in jeopardy.

Throughout my processing experience, I would have to say I found rehousing to be the most restorative task. There is just something pleasingly methodical about settling on an arrangement for a collection and separating it into numbered and named folders. There were, however, some less than peaceful moments in the process. The collections came to me in very old, over-filled, and rusted binders. The binder rings did not easily come apart in the center as one would expect. The Administration General Correspondence collection’s binder included an extra fastening mechanism which pressed the papers down together. It took a few moments for Jen and myself to figure out how to remove the fastener to unlock the rings. After that, I had a precarious time of lifting the very brittle pages from the rust coated rings and interleaving the highly acidic, though helpful, alphabet tabs.

While the second collection did not include a tricky fastener, it took even more effort to get the papers removed. The binder was so overfull that the ring openings could not be accessed. The rings were too rusted and the pages too brittle to simply flip to the opening. In the end, Jen and I had to rip the binder clip from the cardboard to pry the rings open and safely remove the pages. Below are a few pictures of the process.

Rehousing photo collage Left to Right. Jen attempting to pull the binder rings open. The papers in binder rings after the rings have been ripped from the cardboard backing. Binder rings opened with papers still on rings. Metal binder ring mechanism after all papers have been safely removed.

As my time here draws to a close, I am full of gratitude for the things I’ve learned and the friendships I’ve made. Jen and Susanna really took me under their wings. They were always there and willing to answer my questions. Not only did I learn about the archival process in general, but they also taught me the importance of making digital archives accessible to the blind through format compatibility with screen readers, they showed me educational tools for the blind like the tactile museum, and gave me a wealth of knowledge on notable people like Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller. I am sad to leave, but I know they have prepared me well to be a greater asset to my next and current institutions.