When History Gets Dirty, You Mask Up! A Glance at Inventory in Three Perspectives Part 1: Inventory Shakedown

Many tasks presented to us in Special Collections can prove a bit overwhelming in their seemingly bottomless scope, and familiarizing ourselves with the acquisitions room was no different. A room full of boxes piled on top of each other in unfitting ways, like an awkward game of Tetris. It didn’t help that all three of us — Mikaela, Aurora, and I — have height working against us, the boxes towering over our heads and concealing several corners of the room. Still, the three of us got to work.

Going into this assignment, I thought it would be similar to how we processed the James C. Bonner papers. In some ways, yes, the two overlap; the same basic principle of sorting through materials and dusty documents is consistent, but I soon learned assessing inventory is very different. The acquisitions room contains donated materials that have yet to be sorted through, so the boxes’ contents are unknown. The Bonner papers, which have become infamous here for its infinity (we’ll probably still be processing newly found pieces of Bonner ephemera by the time I’m a third year, which Holly has firmly informed me is not allowed), was a series that already had several eyes peer through its contents and several hands sift through its manila folders before Mikaela and I tackled it. Our job there was to reprocess. Inventory, on the other hand, is a first look at what we’ve got. Several boxes marked with sticky notes or permanent marker from their respective donors gave us an idea of what the contents were, but beyond that we were unsure, and that is what inventory intends to uncover. We soon learned that white cotton gloves and surgical masks were necessary. And this is where the adventure begins…


The assignment originally began with Holly giving us a brief definition of what doing an “inventory” in an archive means. She emailed us a PDF called Inventory and Planning: The First Steps in Records Management, which is essentially a guideline for conducting inventory according to The University of the State of New York. She asked us to skim key pages and familiarize ourselves with the process. That’s one of my favorite parts about this job. For someone who came in with little experience with the terminology and delineation of what it means to be an archivist, my bosses ensure comfort and confidence with the assignments that are given. They make sure we’re given the right information and materials to do our job and to do it well. The guideline Holly sent us included a “Records Inventory Data Worksheet” in order to log what was in the boxes we came across. The sheet listed spaces for Record Series Title, Date Span, Description, Arrangement (chronological, numerical, alphabetical, or other, meaning no order), and Format (paper, audiovisual, micrographic, or electronic). We added our own box for this category and titled it “artifact” for physical objects that couldn’t categorize themselves under anything else. A few of these objects included the shovel used for ground breaking on Georgia College’s Centennial Center on May 15th, 1987; a hat donated by Tillie Kid; and Mamie Lee Walker’s desk chair. 

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Other descriptions that needed to be logged were the quantity of items in the specific series, the condition (specifically if it was considered very poor), and the location. Mikaela enthusiastically came up with a great system for this. When I say enthusiastically, I mean a diagram was drawn (not to scale) within the first few minutes of being in the Acquisitions Room. This was super helpful because if after sorting through our inventory, we weren’t able to keep track of where everything was, then our efforts to organize and record would be lost. 

Inventory Diagram by Mikaela LaFave

On the right side of the room we placed University Archive (UA) materials; the other side we labelled as Manuscripts, which included books and written materials not directly related to Georgia College. We logged according to shelf and row, which we kept track of alphanumerically: M.1.A; M.1.B; etc. The same system was maintained for the UA stacks. Through this, we created an Excel spreadsheet and inputted the data so that all of us can now refer to it if an item from the Acquisitions Room needs to be located.


The thing I enjoyed most during this project was that we had control over where we wanted to place the boxes after sorting through them. Mikaela, Aurora, and I had control over organizing it the way that made the most sense to us. Because of this, we were able to move quickly and efficiently. Inventory was interesting and piqued my curiosity, the same way that I find processing makes me want to investigate the materials in front of me and learn more about those who came before me.

An unexpected benefit that came from logging inventory was the amount of strength training I felt like I accomplished in two weeks. I left work every day feeling like a trip to the gym wasn’t necessary, my arms weak and taut from lifting. In an earlier blog post, I mentioned the chilly, 64-degree archive workroom, but the acquisitions room knocks that number out cold (pun intended). The archive workroom is upstate New York in the middle of winter, and the acquisitions room is Vostok Station in Antarctica. I joked with Mikaela and Aurora about how, believe it or not, I actually found myself sweating at times after placing 50 pound box after box on the top shelf (which was only possible with a step stool). Who knew work in Special Collections could double as a workout?

Keep a look out for Part Two of “When History Gets Dirty, You Mask Up!” where Mikaela gets into the gritty details of some of the surprise hindrances buried beneath the boxes.




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