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“I’ve looked at things from both sides now”: A Researcher’s Perspective on Processing a Performing Arts Collection

Processing at the Tamiment Library’s Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives offers a significant contrast to what I’ve focused on for much of my academic career. I often feel like I can’t bring the same subject expertise to my work as some other employees might offer, but I believe the variety in my research experience helps me understand more about how documents can be used. I’ve researched a spy ring from the American Revolution for a dozen years, and I expected the Wagner Archives would offer a different focus from the 18th century. At Tamiment, I process one of the performing arts unions, and I find myself drawing on my research experiences. After a few classes with professors who rail against researchers who want to save everything, I’d like to share some thoughts on my experience balancing the two perspectives, which archivists may forget.
First, keep in mind that archival collections are rarely used exclusively for the subject they were created about. This is extremely important to remember when describing collections. Every professor is happy to mention that Google-searchable encoded finding aids create a new market of researchers. What they’re not telling you is how many people saw their great-uncle’s name on a folder list for an organization’s records and think there must be a lot of material on the guy there, and proceed to check every folder labeled “General” or lacking specific details about material in the subject line. Also, remember student papers are often fueled on ideas like gender roles in unions or artists in the blacklist era, which are not necessarily subjects that are obvious from DACS-based titles.
Applying that to this collection means little things like adding brackets to the folder for anything like the Union Executive’s correspondence or local chapter correspondence when there’s a topic or issue that comes up frequently. My supervisor also advocates putting notes involving famous names in parentheses. Researchers must be optimistic about a collection’s contents, or they wouldn’t be looking for their needles in haystacks. Some researchers will try any long shots, so adding a few notes before the eternally optimistic researcher explores another general file is in the best interest of everyone involved, not to mention the documents. I’ll never forget working with the National Park Service’s perfectly arranged William Floyd papers, described entirely in the context of property records, which made the description useless to historians.
My research also increased my awareness of the difficulty in distinguishing people with the same name. With modern privacy concerns, performing arts unions become particularly challenging in this respect, especially due to practices of preventing people from working under the same name. Unions distinguished people involved in these issues using personal data. Given the volume of correspondence in performing arts unions trying to distinguish between performers with the same name, this gets tricky. When redacting or restricting personal data, archivists need to remember that some information may be useless if researchers can’t distinguish their person from any other person.
Archivists frequently offer the specter of the terrorizing researcher demanding to know why every scrap of paper was not saved on their pet interest. I’m not suggesting gum wrappers need to be saved. But people processing collections should consider the research potential of what they’re working with, and remember their descriptions impact who uses the collection. That goes both ways—no one will ever be able to find—or want to look for—brochures for technology or hotels in the collection I’m working with. But receipts can indicate where people were at what time, and ones offering specific details of purchases can change a picture. Researching my spies I learned a little bit about using evidence beyond the traditional historian’s “find a primary source saying the words.” I used financial records to try to mirror modern espionage institutions’ methods of tracking operatives. Try to remember the variety of researchers that could be using your collection, and assess their needs as you describe a collection.
Andrea Meyer is a student in the dual-degree program and a student employee at the Tamiment Library’s Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. She will complete her M.A. in Public History and Archives from NYU this spring, and her M.L.I.S. from Long Island University this summer.

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