Behind the Scenes at the Cone: Organizing and Processing History

Organizing and arranging historical documents can be difficult. And at a world-renowned archive like the one at the University of Wyoming, there are a select number of people who can manage it.

One of them is AHC Processing Archivist Roger Simon. His particular specialties are politics and pop culture. In fact, Roger is the AHC’s go-to person for anything to do with Hollywood film history. Currently, he is processing the papers of Robert Bloch (1917-1994), best known as the author of the 1959 novel Psycho, which was the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film of the same name. 

The Bloch papers include the author’s many books that were translated into various foreign languages for international editions. Included are books in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, Japanese, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, and Swedish. Robert Bloch papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming (Photo courtesy of Leslie Waggener).

Simon explains, “What we do as processors is called ‘arrangement and description.’ If I’m going to process a collection of materials from a particular donor, my goal is to arrange them in a way that I hope will make sense to any researchers who use the collection.”

He compares it to completing a puzzle.

“When I begin work on a collection, normally I first take an inventory of the materials in it by opening the boxes and going through them. That’s one of the things that I find most interesting – the process of finding out what’s in the collection, and it’s kind of like seeing how the pieces of a puzzle fit together.”

What does that puzzle look like when it’s complete? An example is the finding aid for the papers of Buddy Ebsen, an accomplished dancer and stage, film, and television actor best known for his roles in the TV series Davy Crockett, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Barnaby Jones. Ebsen was also an artist, musician, sailor, and author. It took Roger many months to figure out how to solve the puzzle of putting that collection together, but he eventually was able to organize it into a set of series that describes Ebsen’s multi-dimensional life and career.

A photograph of Buddy Ebsen as the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. Ebsen was replaced for the part after he experienced a severe health reaction to the aluminum dust used as part of the costume. Buddy Ebsen papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Arranging and describing a collection is fascinating work, but it can have its tedious moments. “If the collection has a massive amount of correspondence and it’s just a mess, there’s no other way to do it except just to sit at a desk and sort the letters – usually by year and month,” Simon notes, adding, “I can’t read through every single document – that would be almost impossible. But I look at each document to see what it is and where it belongs.”

In addition to the volumes of correspondence are gems like this. It’s a cover of the March 1989 issue of The Reluctant Famulus, one of many fanzines that Bloch collected. Robert Bloch papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.
And these. Make you want to sit down and read while organizing a collection. Robert Bloch papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

“I normally work on one collection at a time. Depending on the size of the collection, it may take me as little as a few weeks or as long as a year or more to fully arrange and describe it. It took me about a year and a half to fully process Buddy Ebsen’s papers.” 

While organizing all the items in a large collection may seem overwhelming, Simon has his methods for sorting through them all.  “I like using filing cabinets, which allow me to organize the materials as I inventory them,” he explains. 

Roger Simon shows how he organizes the collections he works with. These files contain Bloch’s correspondence (Photo courtesy of Leslie Waggener).    

But that is only for print documents.  Digital materials are a completely different ballgame – or are they?

“It’s really no different from processing paper materials. Our digital archivist provides me with the digital files (through a process called ‘ingestion’), and then I go through them and figure out where they belong within the arrangement of the collection. For example, correspondence may be paper, or it may be digital – for example, emails. In collections of older materials, there probably won’t any born-digital documents, but more recent collections will likely have them.”

To learn more about the AHC, see our website.

Post contributed by AHC intern Carissa Mosness and AHC Processing Archivist Roger Simon.


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