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Personal and Family Papers: Case Study #1

Case Study: Potter Family Papers

 Keywords: family papers, business papers, item level description, re-foldering, digitization, dates; special collections; academic library, student assistants, volunteers, limited resources

Chapter: Personal and Family Papers

Repository Background / Collection Context

The collection is held by the Special Collections department in the library of a large public university. One of the Department’s collecting strengths is materials pertaining to the Civil War, particularly the Confederate States, and researcher demand for these collections is very high. A large percentage of the Department’s Civil War holdings have been digitized and are freely available to researchers online. Archival personnel in the Department include five full-time archivists, two full-time support staff and a handful of student assistants and volunteers. The Processing Archivist has processed several Civil War-era collections.

Nature of the Records

The family member who donated the Potter Family Papers stated that the materials span approximately 1850-1870. The collection consists of 10 folders and 3 business ledgers in one carton. The folders are labeled only with the names of the family members, and the contents of each folder were created or received by the person named on the folder. There are no dates or subjects on the folders. Half of the folders are labeled Mark Potter and Jane Potter, husband and wife, and the other half are labeled for their son, Carson Potter. The Mark and Jane folders, as well as the three ledgers, document the financial activities of the family’s plantation (invoices for purchases of slaves, sales of crops, etc.). These materials are roughly sorted chronologically. Carson’s folders contain dozens of letters written by Carson while serving in the Confederate Army in the Civil War. These letters, which primarily are in chronological order, provide accounts of various battles and information about life in camps. Although the letters do not reveal any previously unknown facts about the war, they do document the opinions of a typical Southern slaveholding family.

 Preservation Issues

The papers are in excellent physical condition, and they are housed in non-archival folders that also are in good condition.

Resources Available or Required

No external funds were acquired from the donor or other sources to process the collection. The repository will use existing personnel and supplies.

Processing Questions

  • Should all or part of the collection be arranged and/or described at the item level? Considering researcher demand for Civil War materials, should Carson’s letters and the papers related to the plantation merit the same level of arrangement and description? Is it sufficient to describe the collection at the folder level, as it currently is arranged?
  • How should folders and items be sorted? Should they be sorted chronologically, since most of the collection appears to be sorted that way already?
  • If the papers will be retained as grouped in folders, should the archivist determine date ranges for each folder?
  • How should non-archival folders be handled?

Approaches / Solutions

  • Because this is a Civil War-era collection, the Processing Archivist takes the time to review this collection closely. Although she does not read every document in the collection, she does read most of Carson’s war letters and quickly peruses the rest of the papers, stopping to read business letters occasionally.
  • She ensures that there are no harmful metal fasteners or rubber bands.
  • She divides the small collection into two groups: 1) Mark and Jane Potter, and 2) Carson Potter. The papers of Mark and Jane are relatively straightforward, and the archivist knows from her quick perusal that the records are roughly in chronological order. She records date ranges on the folders, but does not bother to improve the folder titles.
  • The archivist decides that it is best to describe these materials collectively in the scope and content note for the collection. She lists some of the types of documents (invoices, ledgers, business letters) and subjects (crops, sales of slaves, etc.), but she does not provide greater detail.
  • Because of the high researcher demand for Civil War letters, the archivist considers separating each Carson Potter letter into its own archival folder. As the letters are in such good condition and the archivist does not believe they will be endangered by interfiling, she decides to maintain the letters as grouped into their existing folders. Although the non-archival folders are in good condition, she decides to transfer the papers into archival folders. She will record date ranges and general subjects on the folders to improve access. For example, one folder originally labeled “Carson Potter” is renamed “Carson Potter letters to parents from Tennessee camps, 1861-1863.”
  • As with the papers of Mark and Jane, the archivist describes Carson’s letters collectively in the scope and content note for the collection. She lists the names and locations of battles and camps, the names of military units and commanders, and the major subjects covered in the letters, because these are types of information frequently requested by researchers.
  • The archivist determines that the Potter Family papers are a good candidate for digitization:  there is high demand for Civil War materials; the papers are well organized and in excellent condition; the quantity is not overwhelming and there are no copyright restrictions or privacy concerns. Once the original documents are digitized, researchers may be encouraged or required to use digital reproductions. Even though item-level descriptions may not be created during processing, they may be created at the time of digitization.

The finding aid for the collection (see attached) includes brief biographical summaries for each family member, and a scope and content note describing the two groups of papers, including the types of records and the major subjects covered. The finding aid also includes a container list that includes the titles and dates ranges for the folders.