Making Mysteries Discoverable

Desk calendar, May 1994.The American Hotel and Al’s Bar Project Records.UCLA LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS houses items as varied as the 125 majors and 80 minors offered across campus. Some 100 classes come to Special Collections annually for hands-on instructional sessions, and researchers travel from around the world to use its unique materials. To keep pace with demand, donor gifts for processing and sustaining collections are among the UCLA Library’s top priorities. 
But what exactly does this involve? For example, how do 351 boxes of the manuscripts and letters of author Susan Sontag become a resource for learning about literature, history, politics, culture, and society?
Processing is the rather prosaic term for this detailed work, which takes various forms. Since July 2016 an archivist and two graduate students have been unpacking, inventorying, and organizing publisher and musician V. Vale’s extensive collection documenting punk culture in California, which fills nine pallets. Students and faculty in musicology, art, English, history, and sociology, among other disciplines, are interested in exploring these materials. 
Early in the process a conservator screens for active mold or pests and identifies fragile or damaged items needing protective enclosures or repair. For example, a worn desk calendar from the legendary Los Angeles club Al’s Bar contains unique detailsabout the seminal bands that performed there as well as traces of spilled coffee.
Careful cleaning in the Library’s conservation lab preserved the calendar but retained its history. Notes Megan Fraser, head of processing, “You want to preserve the ‘battle scars’ that help tell the story.” 
Items must be housed in archival-quality enclosures to protect them, and for large collections, those numbers add up. One recent example: a partial list of supplies for the Barbara and Willard Morgan Photographs and Papers includes more than 250 acid-free document boxes, 13,000 negative sleeves, and 4,000 mylar photograph sleeves; those materials alone will cost more than $6,500. 
Seven full-time archivists as well as student assistants perform this labor-intensive work, and if specialized language or subject expertise is required, a temporary archivist has to be hired. The average collection requires two months and $15,000 in staff time to process; for large collections like the Morgan Photographs, it takes approximately two years. 
Some collections are processed in the Library’s innovative Center for Primary Research and Training, which trains undergraduate and graduate students to work with materials in their fields of study. Students organize smaller collections over one to three academic quarters; funding a year-long project costs $35,000. Now over a decade old, the center has become a model for numerous other academic libraries. 
A detailed finding aid accessible via the UCLA Library Catalog or even Google includes a description of the collection, its creator, and an inventory divided into containers so researchers know where to look. 
Archivists conduct research throughout processing as necessary. However, explains Fraser, “There are always mysteries waiting for researchers to reveal. We’re not doing the research for them; we’re making things discoverable.