Spring 2012 Graduate Assistant Update - Steven Pals

My experience with the Rural School Records began in May of 2012. Due to a medical emergency by one graduate assistant and the graduation of another, the museum required a new person to learn the ropes and begin a full time grant funded position for the summer. My initial reaction was uncertainty; I had never done anything archival before. My degree that I will receive in my Masters program will be in Public History and so archives skills will likely be a part of my future career. My initial training was very minimal.

I had the task of going through the entire collection of documents and cataloguing all the types for each individual county. I had no idea where to begin, so I started searching through the different types of documents as they were labeled at that time. A hierarchy of terms had been created, it was rudimentary, but for the initial task it was a starting point. I found the task daunting at first; until my supervisor passed the word that they would have the funds for a second graduate assistant to help me over the summer. So together my friend and I went through every single document in these collections.

Once my colleague and I began the task at hand, it slowly became easier once we deciphered the different types of documents and which terminology to place them under. At times it seemed incredibly difficult since the hierarchy only allowed for certain terms, and many of the terms as they were used on the documents were changed when put into the database. I would learn later that this was the complete wrong technique to use, but I was a novice. Over the course of the summer my colleague and I completed county collections A-O. That probably consists of at least sixty of the eighty-seven collections we possessed.

When August came about I received a new graduate assistant colleague and a new boss. My new boss had the necessary skills in archival work and extensive knowledge in finding aid creation. I learned a wealth of knowledge to what was necessary for proper cataloguing into a database and that my previous work was helpful but a little on the wrong track.

I learned to keep the terminology that the documents had at their creation and not to change such things. I learned the proper technique and design for scope and content notes, and how to fill out preservation assessments of each collection. Once I grasped these new techniques for archiving and cataloguing we began going to each collection a second time and thoroughly recording all types of documents to create a new hierarchy. From August to the following May we have completed over forty different collections. The progress may appear minimal, but the extensive work that goes into each one was beyond what I first comprehended. I can confidently say I am more proud of the work I have done in the last part of my time in the archives as my first, but I enjoyed all of my time equally. I learned some techniques on my own, but I had a great deal to learn from my new boss.

We faced many challenges through our time in the archives. Many of the documents were stored in attics, basements or any sort of room without climate control. The documents were kept by each AEA district and handed to us in boxes. Condition became the most time consuming factor in the cataloguing process. The more deteriorated the document, the harder it became to understand its contents. Our next challenge was microfilm. Many documents prior to their time at the Rural School Archives were microfilm and destroyed. Unfortunately the job done on these microfilm projects were very poor. Many reels are beyond legible and those that are require a great deal of camera adjustment to read. The microfilm reels also tended to have no organization on the reel itself. Different types of documents fell in no order and the question on how to catalogue the reel of microfilm became extremely difficult. Between the three of us we managed a new decimal based technique for the database to dissect each roll.

There is still a great deal of work to be done that now passes to new graduate assistants. One day the database will be complete and available to the public. I have the great pride to know I helped to make that happen and that this very unique collection needs to be available to the public.