Archives Outside

For people who love, use and manage archives

Archives Outside - For people who love, use and manage archives

The trials and tribulations of a rookie archivist – Part 1

Every year, the CSU Regional Archives introduces the world of archives and records to a number of Charles Sturt University undergraduate students, through the offering of a Summer Research Scholarship.

One of those scholarship recipients from the 2009-2010 summer was Sarah Ind.  Sarah’s project involved the arrangement and description of one of our unprocessed collections – the records from the Riverina Theatre Company.  At the completion of this project, Sarah produced a report, detailing her experiences of processing a collection and she was kind enough to allow us to post  a condensed version of her report here:


Looking into the unknown...

In 1997, the Riverina Theatre Company (RTC) deposited the bulk of their records to the CSU Regional Archives, ensuring the preservation of an important part of the Riverina’s cultural history.  These records (containing material from 1976 to 1997) extended for almost 25 linear metres, and were housed in 132 unsorted type 1 boxes.  The nature of RTC activities contributed to the accumulation of material including photos, slides, video, scripts, programmes, posters, press clippings, financial records, correspondence and minutes.

When I was first shown the bays that housed these records though, I had no idea what might be inside the boxes, but I was very excited about uncovering hidden treasure.  This is before I realised that most of the records were in not very interesting manila folders, and that this is probably the norm for a lot of archives.  The RTC records included over 2000 manila folders with no immediately discernible order to their arrangement.

Removing all the files from their boxes led to a tentative “piling” system, with similar or like items distinguished.  The folders had a startling array of titles and labelling, and this inspired me to implement multiple “miscellaneous” piles (containing virtually all the files) and tagging potential categories.


Many of the folders were spine-labelled scripts, and these and other scripts formed another pile system on my sorting tables.  The expected ease of alphabetically arranging these led to the employment of an “edges of the jigsaw” approach, whereby the easiest pieces of the “puzzle” could be completed first.

The intricacies of a filing system

Ordering the scripts revealed several arrangement complications, however: wrong titles (e.g. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was labelled “Fun and Games”), duplicates, loose scripts, untitled scripts, partial scripts, scripts with more than one title (e.g. The Life and Death of Jesse James / The Death and Life of Jesse James), and scripts that were in book form.

After removing duplicates, inserting loose scripts into folders and alphabetically ordering them all, a “List of Scripts” was compiled, but this was soon to be overwritten as further sorting revealed quite a lot that had escaped notice.  The final listing revealed a total of 350 scripts, which were stored in 20 boxes, and this was almost a quarter of the end total number of boxes.


Shifting, stacking, sorting and restacking also revealed many numbered folders.  The hope of uncovering an existing order within the “miscellaneous” files inspired me to sift through and separate almost 200 numbered files, but closer inspection of their contents revealed a random allocation of numbers to files of all kinds (as well as their curious commencement at the number 112).

A search for other potential order systems led to the development of new stacks such as “files with black marker titles”, “big lots of paper tied with string”, and “things not in folders”.  The numbered and otherwise distinctive files, however, ended up being later dispersed through the other categories, along with arbitrary chronological distinctions between different eras of the company.

Another category that grew to a substantial stack at this stage was termed “production files”, as many folders had unusual or confusing titles that were reminiscent of the sorted scripts: Boss of the Pool, Lipstick Dreams, Upside Down at the Bottom of the World.  Folders labelled “Writers” could either refer to authors RTC was in correspondence with or were related to the play, Writers.  I ambitiously alphabetized these files but this led to a repeat of my previous error of overlooking relevant files, and the following days located even more production files than I had initially listed.

The "piling system"

Other complications occurred with the realisation that alternate or shorthand titles were frequently used in labelling.  Summer of the Seventeenth Doll files were often labelled “The Doll” (being much easier to write) and the acronyms BBT, BoMB and OOS turned out to be Beach Blanket Tempest, Boys’ Own McBeth and On Our Selection.

At this stage of the task the importance of investigating inside the manila folders became clear, and not taking external labelling as it was written (or typed/stuck on/scrawled) was helpful.  A lot of folders had accidently made their way inside other folders, some had incongruous or incomprehensible labelling, and vagabond documents needed to be re-homed.  Determining what was in all the miscellaneous files was the next step.

Categories became clearer, each sorting to distribute files to more specific piles generated new tags, and eventually there was a respectably low “miscellaneous” pile and numerous labelled categories and stacks.  Many of the less common files made their way into the “Subject Files” series in the description, including the obscure “Kalamazoo Register” (unable to be deciphered) and maps showing the company’s travel routes through the Riverina region.

Arranging the files into categories provided the option of arranging the files within the categories.  After exercising my proficiency at the alphabet, I found that many categories were better sorted chronologically, but that there were many more days and months and years than there were alphabet letters, and that there were many different ways the files had been dated, such as: not at all, with a year/s that didn’t match what was contained within, or with a range of years but with varying emphasis (e.g. mostly 1978 but with one document from 1992).

(To be continued…)

  • Debra Leigo says:

    Jillian, thanks for sharing Sarah’s experience with us. Determining arrangement is certainly a laborious task, requiring a sold understanding of context. The scholarship is a wonderful way of providing students with experience and facilitating access to the collections.

    November 13, 2010 at 5:00 am
  • Jillian Kohlhagen says:

    Hi Debra.
    Sarah was certainly very brave in the face of 100+ anonymous boxes stuffed full of paper! I hope the experience has helped to prepare her for whatever the archives world might throw at her in the future.

    November 19, 2010 at 8:34 am