Before a collection makes its way to a researcher’s table in the reading room, archivists take considerable time preparing it: sorting, organizing, describing, and re-housing the material are all parts of archival processing.
Processing a collection can be a straightforward task: papers (or a collection) arrive here at the SCRC and we can easily discern the logic behind original the order of the collection. If no order is present, then we devise one as we process the collection. But sometimes you receive a collection like this…
How do you impose order on a chaotic collection? The answer is patience, time, and a willingness to get your hands dirty. As you can see, processing can be dirty work! In some cases, we put considerable time into processing a collection before we can discern what archival value the collection may offer.
Take, for example, the collection pictured above. In the process of unfolding, cleaning, and flattening scraps of paper we discovered almost 60 marriage licenses from Gloucester, VA from 1830-1870, 100’s of neatly folded receipts for the accounts of estates which also contained many bills of sales for enslaved people in Murfreesboro, NC.
This collection also contains land deeds, records of crop yields, estate settlements, Confederate money, bonds, personal letters, and report cards from an alumnus of William and Mary in 1854. Almost all of the documents you see in the picture above (plus four more boxes that look like this) offer valuable insight into living in Virginia and North Carolina in the mid-19th century. A collection like this illustrates how worthwhile it is to sort through chaotic collections: scraps of paper can be archival treasure as long as you are willing to get your hands a little dirty to find out.