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Isabel's summer internship a National Geographic

Part of the Process: Problem Solving While Processing a Collection

My main project for this summer is processing a collection of final reports for National Geographic Society research grants. NGS has been awarding grants since 1890 and has been collecting final reports for those grants with varying regularity since around the 1950s.

First Division, First Decision

When I began this project, the collection was more or less a bunch of file folders, loose papers, binders, books, and other bound material mixed together with no consistent method of organization.

The first step seemed simple: get the reports into some sort of physical order. Then there would be a better understanding of the extent of the collection, the types of materials, and how to move forward.

The first decision was determining the principle of first division, or in other words, the primary method of organization. Should it be by grant number? Research area? Geographic area? There are arguments to be made for each, but, in this case, alphabetical by grantee name made the most sense.

Several grantees worked on multiple grant projects, sometimes in the same research area and sometimes in several different areas. With approximately 30 linear feet of material, using a different approach would make things even more complicated down the line.

The primary goal is to process the collection as a whole, not to examine each item in depth. So as unsatisfying it is to leave a mystery unsolved, the bigger picture takes priority.

Sorting Through the Outliers

With that problem solved, the bulk of the files were easy to put in order, but of course there are always outliers. There are the physical outliers, including floppy disks, VHS tapes, and oversize materials.

And then there are the intellectual outliers. Many of the files weren’t labeled with a grantee name or a grant number (the best way to try to determine a grantee name). Some materials were seemingly unrelated to grant projects or National Geographic at all. Others were clearly related to grants, but leaned more towards administrative files related to the grant awarding process not the research.

Part of the sorting process involved identifying the outlier material grouping like items together where possible. Unfortunately, most of these files ended up in the ominous mystery pile.

With some digging, I was able to match some of the mystery files with their grants and grantees, but for a lot of the material I’m in the “wait and see” phase, hoping that as I continue with the project, something will come up that makes sense of at least some of the mystery.

Making Progress with Limited Time

With the limited amount of time available in this summer internship, it’s important been important to not get bogged down in any one file or problem too long.

The primary goal is to process the collection as a whole, not to examine each item in depth. So as unsatisfying it is to leave a mystery unsolved, the bigger picture takes priority.

Along those lines, once the files were physically organized, I’ve begun creating metadata and rehousing the materials. The digital records have of course posed a whole new set of outliers and accompanying questions, but that’s all part of the process.

Isabel McCullough

Isabel McCullough

Isabel is starting her second year as an MLIS student at SU’s School of Information Studies. She also works as a Research Assistant at the Special Collections Research Center in Bird Library. When not buried in one book or another, Isabel enjoys baking, board games, and crossword puzzles.

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