Beginning in the summer months of 2017, I had been given the privilege of interning at the Western Regional Archives through until the end of the subsequent fall semester. The Western Regional Archives (WRA) is a branch of the State Archives of North Carolina and serves as a government facility that collects and preserves historical materials relating to Western North Carolina. By doing so, the WRA makes the materials they gather available to the public for researchers to utilize. This function of the WRA is paramount to any number of individuals—scholars and academics who regularly perform research, those curious about local history, or someone seeking information on past relatives. As a historian and an individual who relies heavily upon the resources provided by local archives, it was a wonderful opportunity to become engaged in the processes and tasks that are necessary for its function. Over the course of my internship I was involved in the processing of new collections, projects involving older collections, and I was able to become familiar with new digital tools that can be used to help the archival process. I was also given insight into both the preservation of ephemera practiced by an archive and the bureaucratic affairs, goals, and expectations maintained by local governments. The Head Archivist of the WRA, Heather South, has provided me with the experience of a very educational and productive internship, and has been a pleasure to work with.
I had gained experience performing research at WRA prior to my internship at the establishment, primarily during the spring semester of 2017. During this time, I was able to work directly with one of the WRA’s largest and most popular collections of materials—the Black Mountain College Collection. This collection consists of over 500 boxes worth of photographs, correspondence, paperwork, interviews, booklets, and other ephemera. With the help of Heather South, we were able to sort through these materials and piece together the information that we needed to complete our project. This experience both gave me a glimpse into the functions and maintenance of an archive, but also exhibited the crucial importance of such resources. We would not have been able to complete our project without the help of Heather South and the WRA.
One of the most tedious, yet important tasks for which the Western Regional Archives is responsible is the processing, sorting through, and categorization of collections. During my time interning at the WRA, I was a part of this process for two new collections—The Advantage West Collection and the Mr. Bill Collection. Depending upon the size of the collection, this process may take a couple days up to a few weeks. This process begins when a new collection has been transported to the archives, either by the donator of the materials or through Heather meeting the donator and retrieving the materials herself. Once it has arrived, it is the responsibility of the archivists and interns to sort through the new ephemera for copies, unnecessary materials, or any documents holding personal information that cannot be shared with the public, such as Social Security numbers or bank information—a process that Heather South often referred to as “weeding”. This was especially pertinent for the Advantage West Collection, as a large number of the documents were first drafts, copies, or held the personal information of a previous employee of the company. The documents that are removed from the collection are either discarded or, in the case of sensitive personal information, shredded. A collection may require weeding through once or twice more after its initial pass, but these passes usually take place during the following steps while processing a collection.
Once weeded through the first time, a collection would be ready to sort into categories. These categories often change between collections and in accordance to the logic of those processing the materials, often depending on what the archivists deem would be important classifications that would be useful to future researchers. After placing the materials into various categories, depending on the collection, a Finding Aid needs to be constructed to make the collection more accessible and easier for researchers to utilize. I had the opportunity to engage in the process of weeding through and categorizing both the Mr. Bill and the Advantage West collections, and created a short Finding Aid for the Mr. Bill Collection.
Heather South also educated me on the conditions that certain materials must meet in order to be accessed by researchers. She also instructed me on minor maintenance of ephemera and allowed me to sit in on seminars regarding photograph preservation. Mold is the adversary of any archivist and can appear within any collection. This occurs most frequently when documents have been stored in poor conditions, particularly within humid areas in which moisture can collect, such as basements or cellars. Mold can also spread between documents very quickly and can potentially ruin an entire collection. Because of this, it is important that an archivist or an intern identify mold within a collection either before the transportation of the documents, or during the weeding process. There are processes in which a moldy document can be salvaged, though depending on the severity of the mold, the collection may require being sent to a specific archival facility with the proper tools and freezers to eliminate the issue. The WRA does not carry the freezer or the advanced tools to eradicate extreme mold, however. Because of this, if a document or collection is not deemed of enough importance to justify the transportation between facilities that would be required to eliminate the mold, the collection may be discarded to ensure the protection of the other collections held within the archives. Because of this danger, the temperature and humidity at the WRA is heavily surveilled and regulated—though, notably, it currently does not possess the ideal tools for maintaining these environmental factors at the ideal points. The three humidifiers at the WRA must be emptied twice daily, or the humidity within the archives can become damaging to the collections. Quite often, Heather must visit the WRA facility in order to perform this task, even on the days in which the archives are closed and she is not required to work. Other than mold protection and the restoration of documents, Heather South has educated me in passing regarding the conditions of photographs, video tapes, audio tapes, and other non-paper materials.
I have also been instructed on a small number of simple procedures required by state and local government, such as the measurement of the WRA’s Digital Reach. The Digital Reach can be considered as the sheer number of individuals who had in some manner seen, commented, or shared posts created by the WRA on social media. It calculates the number of individuals who were exposed to the material and posts generated by Heather and others who maintain the social media pages. At the time in which I was shown this procedure, there was some inter-department conflict regarding how this number was calculated, as well as some accusations of number inflation directed at Heather by an archivist from another state archive. This accusation would eventually be proven incorrect, but it displayed the disputes that can occur between different branches of the same department. I have also had the opportunity to witness the interactions between local government departments that take place within the WRA facility. Most archives are not held in the same close relation to other local government agencies as the WRA. As such, this can create both an opportunity for close cooperation, as well as an environment that allows conflict between them. I have witnessed a number of disputes regarding the signing in of individuals at the check-in desk, meetings of outside organizations that take place at the facility, or interdisciplinary projects. However, these conflicts can be expected in any circumstance in which a large number of state and local government agencies, departments, and offices are held within the same building.
Over the time that I have spent interning at the WRA, I have been given two major projects. I was given the task of reading and summarizing the Barbara Dreier Correspondence boxes from the Black Mountain College Collection very early in my internship. This was a very difficult assignment, particularly during the beginning. I was very inexperienced in reading hand-written letters of varying hand-writing styles and legibility. I regret that I was only ever able to get through one box, the “A-E” category, during my time spent at the WRA. Towards the end of my internship, Heather South asked me to transcribe the Basil King interviews they had received on strict conditions along with another collection. The donator, Basil King, insisted that the collection and the interview would be donated on the condition that the interview be transcribed by the end of the year. To my eventual surprise, I found that the interview was three interviews in actuality, each over an hour long. I would find that transcribing, much like attempting to read illegible letters, was also a laborious task. I would eventually become much quicker at transcribing with much practice, and I have completed most of the task. Unfortunately, I have found that I will not be able to complete this task before the end of the semester, but I intend to volunteer with the WRA outside of my internship in order to complete this project by the end of the year.
While much of my time spent at the Western Regional Archives has entailed tedious, laborious tasks that can become mentally draining after a period of time, I have found that my internship at this facility has been an enriching experience. This is due both to the fortunate experience of working alongside Heather South, as well as experiencing the labor that goes into preparing collections for the researchers to utilize. I believe that this experience may help me in my future research, as I have much better understanding about the processes, systems, and tools used by archivists. I have also become far more grateful for the labor that archivists perform in order to prepare the resources that researchers, such as myself, often take for granted. This has been an enriching experience that I would engage in once more, given the opportunity.