Access and the NMWA

Posted: October 23, 2014 by Martha in Inside the Archives, Sharing
Tags: , , ,

Guest blog by Chris Burroughs

Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum for Women in the Arts

Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum for Women in the Arts

There are numerous processes that an archivist or archival staff must undertake on a regular basis as part of their work. Whether it is processing a collection, describing those collections, making appraisal decisions, or, even more important in the 21st digitizing collections, all of these and other tasks are essential to the operations of an archival facility. However, I argue, and many researchers in the field would agree, that access may be the most important task of all. Simply put, why are we keeping these records? It is nice to say that we have appraised what is worthy of preservation and we have constructed beautiful collections in nice acid-free folders within acid-free boxes, correctly labeled and described, and placed neatly on shelves. If these are not used, though, what good is our profession? Do we not become, then, file clerks and not archivists? As it is in so many other professions, we have to justify our existence, and providing our materials for use is how we do that.

The Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center at the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, DC is an example of an organization that understands the need for access, even if all measures to provide such access are not yet in place. The library was formed at the same time as the museum in the early 1980s, but was forced to close in 2008 due to the recession. Director Heather Slania was hired to re-open the library in 2011, and she currently works with one other full-time staff person and is assisted by interns. The collections housed by the library’s archives include the records of the museum as well as special collections related to women in the arts. Since 2011, it has been the staff’s goal to make the collections accessible to researchers and the public. I worked as an intern there during the summer of 2014, and I saw first-hand the desire to provide this information, coupled with the reality that much work was needed. While many of the collections had some rudimentary organization to them, there was either no finding aid available or simply a vague box inventory. Those that did have finding aids were in need of an overhaul to make them more DACS compliant. The task before Slania and her staff (and interns like me) was to improve the order of these collections and make understandable finding aids that would improve access to the collections for the user, and I consider myself privileged to be able to assist in this by processing and creating finding aids for two collections over the summer.

Another issue in access for the library is a digital presence. Currently, the library’s collections are listed on their website, with most linking to either their completed finding aid or to a box inventory. That is where the digital presence ends. Slania stated it is her vision to be able to make some of the collection available online, but two issues prevent that at present. First, she must deal with copyright issues within the collections, as some of the collections contain work by a variety of people, which would make tracking down each person for their permission to digitize difficult. Secondly, the library currently has its hands full in attempting to ensure that their collections are properly organized and described, in addition to issues in other areas of the facility. The point, then, becomes making sure the physical house is in order before adding a new wing to that structure through digitization.

In tackling the issues in front of them, Slania and her staff understand the need for providing access to their materials, that this is the focus of their work. Otherwise, it is just a nice group of papers gathering dust on a shelf.

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