Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Call to Service

There are times when being an archivist is a very private, vital service, not a public one. Yesterday was one of those times.

Last week, my dear friend and neighbor K's husband was in a car accident and taken to the emergency room at a local hospital. He survived the wreck practically unscathed. However, F was sick. Terribly sick. He died four days later, on the morning of his birthday. 

A few hours later, I heard the heartbreaking news from a mutual friend who had been with K when F passed. I immediately began making lists (food to make, supplies to buy, etc.). That night, a few of us met at K's to bring whatever comfort we could to our shocked and devastated friend. She was utterly at sea.

Before I left for the night, she worried aloud how to find all the necessary papers required for the funeral, insurance, etc,.because F's office was, to her overwhelmed mind, a total mess. I assured her that I would help sort it out -- "I'm an archivist, I can help you."

In the wee hours of the following morning, I turned on the computer and began searching for "death of a spouse" on Google. There were two main topics in the results -- financial guides and the mourning process. Narrowing the search to "death of a spouse, first steps" yielded survivor's checklists, which were very helpful.

First, I checked USAA, since it would have information for spouses of  U.S. servicemen and women, and it had a good checklist available. AARP's site also supplied handy resources for those experiencing a loss.

I put together a small packet of checklists for K and included two personal stories of recent widows, in case she wanted to read about what these women had experienced. I also made a little kit for myself because the checklists said that she would need to find F's vital records (birth certificate, marriage certificate, etc.), mortgage and tax documents, and his military records, among other papers. The emergency records kit was very basic -- a file folder box with folders, small binder clips, pencils, and a legal pad.

When I arrived, K sketched a preliminary do-to list. I made another list of the records we'd need to accomplish her goals for the day. I also annotated the checklist packet to call out key phone numbers and required documents she would need for each item during the coming weeks.

Our first task was to find F's military discharge papers. These documents are required to bury servicemen and women in veterans' cemeteries. We also needed his veteran's benefits information for the insurance policy number.

K showed me F's office, which wasn't that much of a mess at all. It was clear that he had begun to put his papers in order. We went through a few locked boxes, and while K responded to sympathy calls, I put on my archivist hat and began to create and label some new folders with a simple numbering system. I then made a very quick inventory of the boxes so she would know where to find items later.

Together, we located the key papers she'd need right away. I fished some out of already existing folders and used binder clips to keep like items together, in case the folders were shuffled. I wrote the contents of the new folders on the folders themselves for quick access. I also wrote the contents of the vital documents folders on the inventory. Finally, I included on the inventory the original locations of the papers, so they could be returned to their "permanent" folders in the lock boxes when they weren't needed as urgently. Later, folders in hand, we provided the necessary papers to the funeral director to ensure that F would receive full military honors at the funeral, and be interred where he wished.

It was an emotionally exhausting day (I've only described a fraction of it), but K navigated it with grace and strength. She expressed her gratitude to me throughout the day, almost to the point where I became embarrassed. Being able to relieve her stress about finding the important documents and doing some triage arrangement seemed like the least I could do as her archivist friend. There is more to do, and this is just the beginning of an incredibly tough time for her.

Note: If you haven't already, let someone (spouse/partner/family member/best friend) know where your important papers and the keys to the lock boxes/safety deposit boxes are. Also, be sure to let them know of your final wishes. It's best to be prepared.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Writing a Finding Aid for a Superfund Site's Records

Recently, I completed processing the Combe Fill South Landfill Records collection, and wrote the accompanying finding aid for the Chester Library. During the processing, I was dismayed, disgusted, and frightened, at turns, as I examined hundreds of pages of air, soil, and water quality test results. The more I researched the background and current status of this Morris County, N.J. landfill, the more important it became to increase awareness about it. I also realized that in writing the finding aid for the collection, especially the History, Scope and Content, and Series Descriptions sections, would be one of the biggest challenges I had experienced at Chester Library.

When I became the first Local History Librarian at Chester Library last September, I made a very cursory inventory of the library's archival materials, most of which resided on the shelves and in the filing cabinets of the Library Director's office. Later, other materials surfaced in places other than her office, such as this terrific collection of World War II newsletters (the link to PDFs of the newsletters is in the Technical Access section of the finding aid). Of the collections in the Director's office, one standout was a row of 8 white, vinyl binders named "Combe Fill South." I asked the Director about them, and she told me that there was a Superfund site in town, and that was its name. I made a mental note to get to these materials sooner rather than later.

A few months ago, my schedule opened up enough to begin work on the Combe Fill South Landfill Records collection. I removed all the binders and related materials from the Director's office to the Local History Office, and began processing the collection. I started with an overall preservation assessment, which led to my finding approximately 100 maps folded into the pages of the binders. The maps required unfolding, flattening, and rolling for storage into tubes. Most of the maps were numbered according to the overall page numbering system of the binders, so it was easy to keep them in order of appearance. However, the deeper I delved into the binders, the more the maps changed. They varied in size and type, so in order to best preserve them, I kept to the page numbering scheme after preserving them by size and type.

I didn't want to roll items of different sizes together if possible because the variance in size would affect the maps later, if they were kept rolled long term. It would be great if the Local History Department had a large enough budget and space for map cases to keep these items flat, but like many small archives, it doesn't. Another challenge arose from all the tears and creases in the maps because they had been stored in such a way that they extended the boundaries of the binders, consequently coming in contact with shelving, other materials, etc. While it is time-consuming to unfold all the creases and flatten the documents with weights, it is worth the effort because over time, creases and folds become tears, and tears can end in loss.

Even without all those binders to explain the detailed assay results that accompanied them, the maps themselves are fascinating. Processing the maps allowed me to look at each one for an extended period of time while I recorded all the details visible, such as the locations of testing wells, the latitude and longitude of the site, the nearby rivers and streams affected by the contaminated materials (or leachate -- a new word I learned during this work), and much more. Some of the maps showed water, soil, and air-quality test results at the testing locations. Others were aerial views of the site, showing the locations of homeowners' wells in relation to the landfill.

After I had finished working on the maps, I moved on to the binders. Most of the remaining records were correspondence, remedial investigation plans, and ecological test results. These were easily processed, since they were in order, and only needed to be removed from their binders, foldered, labeled, and boxed before I began the description part of the process.

The Finding Aid
I enjoy writing finding aids. For me, the process is a cross between writing an article and a research paper. First, there is the heavy lifting of all the research and formatting required. Then there's the challenge of spotlighting the nuggets that will be important to researchers. When I write those, I feel as if I call on all of the different writing jobs I've had -- newspaper reporting, technical writing, feature articles, press releases, and instruction -- to tell the story of a given collection and why it might be important to various types of researchers. In some cases, it might be enough to simply let researchers know a collection exists. Here, however, it is necessary to put the collection in context and call out key materials that, for one example, would be useful to someone examining how local health departments handle test results that reveal significant water, soil, and air-quality contaminants.

When I write finding aids, I follow a standard called DACS (Describing Archives: A Content Standard -- not imaginatively named, I know, but it gets to the point). DACS is especially handy because it is structured in such a way that once an archivist/librarian decides the level of description he/she wants, he/she can easily create a DACS finding aid template.

For example, because I work at a small library with small collections, I can afford to create detailed finding aids, and DACS has all the categories a detailed finding aid could need. On the other hand, if I worked for an organization that used, say the "More Product, Less Process," method, I could apply the DACS minimal requirements for finding aids. DACS also includes MARC coding for adding a finding aid to a catalog, and some EAD coding. Early on at Chester Library, I created a finding aid template with the DACS categories that would more than adequately describe a collection for a researcher. I figured that I wouldn't be there forever, and the least I could do for the next archivist/librarian was to make his/her life a bit easier by providing such a template.

After sorting through all my notes from the processing part of the work, I researched Combe Fill South's history, and dug into all of the related materials available on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and N.J. Department of  Environmental Protection (DEP) web sites. Immediately, I learned  that outside of the EPA, Chester Library is the only designated public repository for these records. I knew from the records at the library that the DEP had been involved in the cleanup activities from 1984-2009, but the EPA later took over the efforts which are still ongoing. However, the government sites had different details and perspective on the changeover than those in the library's records.

Probably the biggest challenge in writing the finding aid for the Combe Fill South Landfill Records was an internal one. I asked myself a lot of questions -- How do I tell the story of this local Superfund site without editorializing? How much do I talk about the work not yet done since the 1980s?

Mostly, I thought about what would be important to researchers, and that didn't include my opinion. I described the collection's contents, leaning heavily on the DACS guidebook for direction. I also searched for collections at other institutions that were similar -- government records held in local repositories. That tack proved to be helpful and re-focused my efforts.

The Combe Fill South Landfill Records collection was my first foray into processing government records. Like many of my new experiences as an archivist, I'm happy to document this work here so that others new to the profession might benefit by my lessons learned.

If you'd like to see the finding aid for yourself and learn more about this Morris County Superfund site, please visit the finding aid online at Chester Library.