A lot of fun! Laid-back! Interesting! Those are the first three thoughts that popped into my mind as I looked back over the past months working as a new volunteer. I don’t know what I expected when I went to interview in January with Heather South, the lead archivist. Never having been to the Archives before, I suppose I had alternating visions of a dusty ill-lit basement and a leather-fortified tomb manned by shushing librarians.
I am happy to report the Western Regional Archives is neither of those. Housed on the third floor of a historic, and architecturally preserved nurses’ dormitory, the research room and collections are bright, comfortable, and airy. A large full-length balcony, that is often used in the summer for breaks, even sports a hammock. Outside, the trees that line the parkway invite you to get your head out of the files and explore the nearby trails during lunch.
The place is filled with people though, and while sometimes there can be some shushing going on (like when a researcher is deep into the files), most often there is light banter between volunteers, researchers, and archivists as discoveries are made, interesting finds are shared, and everyone is invited to offer his or her thoughts on the importance of a piece of ephemera found in a collection undergoing processing.
Volunteers are often used to help process collections. Processing is the task of sorting through what can be a hodge-podge of recently acquired boxes of memorabilia or records; often not organized in any particular fashion. The processor starts to make sense of the scope of the project, note what is included so information can be indexed electronically, and re-box the collection in archival-friendly boxes. Things like newsprint contain high amounts of acid which, over time, will eat through a collection. Processors will remove newspaper and make copies of the information to protect the rest of the collection in storage.
Of course, that’s not the only job that needs doing. For example, some volunteers manage the Western Regional Archives’ social media presence on Facebook. Heather made it very clear to me in the interview that it is of primary importance to her to match up the interests of her volunteers with collections. For example, knowing I was taking a photography class, she started me on processing a collection from a regional and well-known photographer. When the sheer size of the collection became too daunting, however, no one minded me changing course and working instead with another volunteer on an even more formidable collection of notebooks that contain years of WNC Mathematics Contest records. It’s large, but otherwise a straightforward project of
removing articles and pictures from the notebooks, making copies, and rehousing them in acid-free folders. I’ve actually had a lot of fun seeing how school fashion has changed from the early seventies!
Heather also ensures that nothing ever gets monotonous for her team of volunteers—she arranges educational field trips to nearby historical sites and invites us to hear special speakers and see performances, ensures birthdays never slip by unnoticed, and not a
holiday gets by without creative thank-you-goodies for all. If you’ve ever thought about volunteering at the Archives and you love the treasure hunt and enjoy rooting through the past, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Heather. Even if you can only volunteer a couple of hours a week, the Western Regional Archives needs you, you are guaranteed an enriching experience, and you’ll meet some awesome new friends.