#AskAnArchivist Day!

For #AskAnArchivist Day, an AJHS archivist breaks down the steps in which an item goes from sitting in someone's desk drawer for decades to digitized at the American Jewish Historical Society.

#AskAnArchivist day is today! We here at the American Jewish Historical Society want to answer all of your questions about who we are and what we do. We thought about telling you how the job works, but this is not a Library Science class and you’re not here for an assigned reading. 

Instead, I want to tell you about one of my favorite objects from our collections to give you a little insight into what we do and (hopefully) leave you with some questions about our work!

In 1942, noted teacher, activist, and philanthropist, Virginia Snitow wrote an essay titled “I Teach Negro Girls.” Originally published in the New Republic, it was later reprinted in the Negro Digest. In this essay, Snitow discusses the structural barriers standing between her students, and success as defined by the white men in charge of designing school curricula. She brings up issues still relevant in the world of 2019, such as power, privilege, inequality, and what it means to provide an education rooted in justice.

The essay opens:

“Ten years of teaching Negro Girls in Harlem have shown me in how many ways the simple facts of democracy are perverted or forgotten. The simple truth is that for the Negro people there is little of the equality and justice which the white man assumes. Despite the enforced low standards which prevail among them, not once in ten years of teaching and observation have I found justification for any claim of white superiority.”

Please email us if you’d like to see the full text! 

This is one of my favorite objects in our collections for a variety of reasons. Though we have many materials from the 1960s regarding Jewish engagement in the Civil Rights movement, this essay is unique not only in that it is speaking to civil rights concerns in the 1940s, but in that it is coming from a woman speaking forcefully in public sphere.

The essay is part of a larger collection of Virginia Snitow’s writings and correspondence. The full collection, P-876, fills 18 manuscript boxes. In 2008, Virginia Snitow’s children, Alan and Ann Barr Snitow, along with the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA), donated her papers to the American Jewish Historical Society. The material certainly fit our mission and had enduring historical and cultural value, so we agreed to take it into our collections. The donors signed the materials over via a deed of gift, making Snitow’s papers a part of our collection in the legal sense.  

That doesn’t mean that we just plopped what the Snitows and the JWA gave us into boxes and put them onto the shelf. Instead, we followed a series of steps honed over generations of archival work. What follows is the basic archivists use and steps archivists follow to bring a collection from donation to research room:

1)      We take a long look at what’s actually in there. We have an overall understanding of what the materials are, but this is the time to do a deep dive, figure out what is in what box, if it was given to us in any specific order, and if it contains irrelevant materials (takeout menus, for example) that need to be weeded before the collection can be accessed.

2)      Based on that survey, we determine if the collection has an original order, meaningful to the creators, that can be preserved, or if any order which may have existed was destroyed long ago in between storage and transport. If we are unable to find the traces of an original order, we impose an order on the collection which will make the most sense to researchers, we rehouse the materials in archival containers, and remove any irrelevant material.

3)      After this processing of the collection, we write the finding aid. This is a guide to the collection for all potential users detailing what the collection is, what it consists of, who it is about, what types of records it contains, any context users may need, and a complete box and folder list.

4)      During the project, we consult with the Center for Jewish History’s preservation department about any records which may be in poor shape. With the preservationists, we develop a preservation plan, put in place to ensure the long-term care of the object in question.

5)      We place the processed collection into climate-controlled storage, and the finding aid “goes live” on our website. At the conclusion of this step, researchers all over the world can now see what the collection has to offer.

6)      Party.

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