Separation Anxiety

Processing a collection involves careful consideration and appraisal of materials. Unruly piles of paper are sorted into series and tucked carefully away into acid free boxes. The end result, a row of neat boxes sporting clear labels, is a joy. But often there is more to a collection than meets the finding aid. What the public will not see are the (sometimes) towering stacks of materials that are “separated” from the collection. These are often duplicate photographs, non-pertinent materials, or publications available from other sources.

Paul Whiteman Collection separations

The Paul Whiteman Collection, a behemoth of a collection at 582 linear feet, has been refreshingly on message so far. Considering its bulk, I expected there to be entire linear feet of material to be separated right off the top. The photograph to the right represents the entirety of Paul Whiteman Collection separations at this time, and a fair portion of that stack is made up of old folders used in the collection. They’re not acid-free, and so a potential danger to the materials–out they go to be replaced by their archivally-sanctioned counterparts.

Otherwise included in the stack are blank sheets of paper (who knows why they were kept?) and catalogs from record companies and book publishers. These catalogs all came to the collection in the years following Whiteman’s death (most of them are dated 1970-1986, and Whiteman died in 1967), and bear no relationship to Whiteman himself–the albums don’t feature his recordings, and none of the writers made Whiteman the subject of their books.

Archivists are not hoarders. It is not our goal to KEEP EVERYTHING BECAUSE WE MIGHT NEED IT SOMEDAY! We are stewards of our collections, concerned with the quality of our materials and ever-fearful that we will run out of space in which to house them. We are allies of our researchers, assisting them in their pursuit of knowledge and guiding them down (hopefully) successful paths. Our work is accomplished, in part, by understanding what to keep and what to discard. When processing a collection, we ask ourselves what is the heart of the collection, and what may be excess.

Because they have no relationship to Whiteman, these catalogs are the excess. For 30 years, they have occupied precious shelf space, and adding them to the Whiteman Collection finding aid would not help a researcher to learn more about Whiteman’s life or career–they are static over the broadcast, and removing them will only serve to illuminate the richness of the materials that remain.

Written by Laurel Rhame, Project Archivist