Why This Blog?

These posts are from continuing education scholarship recipients and explore the topics and content learned during their training funded by RIHRAB through the NHPRC State Grants program.

  • Goals of the RIHRAB Scholarship Program include:
    • Enable the keepers of historic/archival records in Rhode Island to gain the professional skills needed along with expertise to carry out the duties related to best archival practices and the preservation;
    • Provide the opportunity to identify best practice in maintaining and processing these records;
    • To educate institutions and their staff on basic and advanced archival theory and practices.

Archival Inspiration by Stephanie Ovoian

A Few Takeaways from a Week of Rare Book School

It is hard to narrow down my favorite part of working as a reference and special collections librarian.  Some days, it is the creativity of working on exhibits; others, the camaraderie of connecting with researchers and students or the thrill of falling down a research rabbit-hole.  But if pressed to give just one answer to that question, I’d have to say it is the anticipation of learning something new in every interaction, be it with a book or person.  This past July, I was bursting with said anticipation as I gathered my notebook, pencil, laptop, and copy of Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts to prepare for an exciting professional development opportunity. 

I work at the Providence Athenæum where I often get to handle items from the library’s archives collection.  This collection contains materials and institutional records tracing the library’s history back to the mid-18th century, when one of our progenitor libraries was founded.  Two of us on staff are responsible for the care of this collection, and we currently have a volunteer (a retired archivist) helping us get our paper finding aids into accurate digital formats for inclusion in Rhode Island Archival and Manuscript Collections Online (RIAMCO).  I’ve learned a lot about the institution through working with the archives, as well as the basics of managing archives from working alongside our volunteer.  To better enable myself to continue our volunteer’s work in the future, I decided to pursue some formal archival education.

With the help of the RIHRAB 2021 Continuing Education Scholarship, I was able to attend the course L-60: Archives for Special Collections Librarians, Booksellers, and Collectors offered through the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School.  This weeklong virtual course was taught by Bill Landis, Associate Director for Public Services in Manuscripts & Archives at Yale University, and Lisa Conathan, Head of Special Collections at Williams College.  I was one of 18 students enrolled in the course, which was made up of an even mix of special collections librarians, booksellers, and independent scholars located throughout North America.  This provided an excellent forum for class discussions: listening to my classmates and understanding archives through the lenses of these different, yet adjacent, professions was an ideal learning experience. 

As L-60 took place over five days, I present to you my biggest takeaway from each day of class:

Day 1: Terminology

One of my main goals in taking this course was to become better versed with archival terminology.  One discussion that I found particularly interesting was about the term “appraisal”.  I learned that archival appraisal techniques are implemented to assess the value of an item’s content as it relates to the accessioning institution’s mission.  In my work as a special collections librarian, assessing the value of an item’s content is part of the collection development process; when I hear the term appraisal, my mind goes straight toward the assignment of monetary value.  The booksellers in the class shared that the process of an item’s monetary valuation is informed by and reliant on the item’s content.  This discussion helped me better understand the nuance inherent within one term, and how context can affect meaning.

Day 2: DACS

I’ll be honest – I didn’t realize the true complexity of archival description before this day!  Working together in groups, the class explored the concepts of arrangement and description through immersive practice exercises.  Each student then created some practice entries in ArchivesSpace.  This helped familiarize me with the elements of DACS and highlighted the fact that archival description relies on the professional judgement of the archivist, with the focus being to create descriptive elements that will best facilitate access and use of the archival collection.

Day 3: Permanence

A robust discussion of born-digital content led to an examination of some of its inherent challenges: that content is often located in different or multiple places; records are often created in collaborative environments; ownership and control of data generally lies with a third party; devices can save data without our knowledge; and the general expectation that born-digital content is permanent once created. 

At the conclusion of each class, we were asked to submit 2 questions that arose from the day’s content.  That last challenge of born-digital materials really stuck with me: my thoughts veered way too existential, and I nearly submitted the question IS ANYTHING PERMANENT?!?  I stopped myself, but this idea of permanence really made me consider the reasoning behind the work archivists and librarians do toward achieving such a goal, even if it can never be fully guaranteed.

Day 4: Archival records VS. bibliographic records

On this day, I learned something that I have already been able to implement in my day-to-day work: the differences between efficient searching in archival records versus in bibliographic records.  As a librarian, I am most familiar doing subject and keyword searches when looking for materials.  But since finding aids are organized differently than a typical MARC record, I sometimes struggle to find relevant materials when conducting searches within them.  Bill and Lisa explained that when searching in archival records, provenance is key, and suggested considering the following when selecting a search term: “Who might have been involved in topic X during time period Y in geographic location Z?”.  For me, this has proven to be an important mindset shift.

Day 5: A shared goal

As the week came to an end, Bill and Lisa opened the floor to my classmates and I to pose any lingering questions we had and to share one of our takeaways from the course.  The responses covered a wide range of things discussed during the week, and though our answers differed, it was clear that we all shared the same goal: to use what we learned during the week to ensure that the archival collections we work with are easily accessible to all. 

Armed with a week’s worth of new knowledge, I now feel better equipped to work with the Providence Athenæum’s archives collection, and I look forward to everything it will teach me!



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