To those who need to wade through the digital and physical maze of archives, they can seem either entirely self-explanatory or hopelessly confusing. When I say maze, I’m not kidding: archives are measured in square feet. When an institution like the Getty Research Institute acquires an archive—typically a collection of papers of various kinds such as letters, documents, printed matter, and so on—it’s not all neatly organized and arranged, yet; that’s the institution’s job. It often takes years to properly sort through the ephemera that’s left on literal and digital desktops.

In conjunction with the Szeemann Digital Seminar, an international digital consortium focused around the recently acquired Harald Szeemann Archive, we’re chronicling the myriad of adventures had in the archives by people in different roles here at the Getty, including archivists (of course), scholars, art historians, curators, and beyond. From misinterpreting a finding aid to carefully planning how to catalogue a piece so that the right researcher can find it later, we hope these perspectives elucidate the mysteries behind archival work.

Nancy Enneking’s entry kicks us off, with more to follow (added to this post) in fall and winter 2017–18.

Strategies for Interpreting and Navigating Institutional Archives

Nancy Enneking, Getty Institutional Archivist

Hollinger boxes of Getty papers labeled in pencil as belonging to J. Paul Getty's records

Boxes of J. Paul Getty’s records—part of the Getty’s vast Institutional Archives.

Any researcher walking into an archive is presented with collections that have been consciously selected for preservation. These materials have been deemed important enough to be worth the considerable costs of making them physically and digitally accessible: archival staff, time, space, and systems. Not everything can or should be saved, so what kind of considerations go into the selection process?

Since the Getty was founded, staff have produced tens of thousands of feet of paper records and, increasingly, petabytes of digital content. Only a small percentage is kept for the archives—it’s our job at the Getty’s Institutional Archives to decide what that is. Boiled down, what we do save is content that contributes to the narrative of: 1) the Getty as custodian of cultural heritage; 2) the Getty as a contributor to the ongoing practice of art history; and 3) the Getty as a functioning and evolving arts institution.

These are primary criteria for a few reasons. First, the Getty has physical custody of unique and irreplaceable cultural heritage material from around the world—much of which predates the organization and all of which will hopefully outlast it. Because we are responsible for the physical conservation of cultural heritage objects and sites, it’s profoundly important that we document what we’ve done. Next, we also need to document how we encourage and engage in contributing to the intellectual landscape surrounding this cultural heritage material through exhibition, publication, and instruction. Finally, we want to preserve information that will aid in the ongoing management and operations of the Getty itself.

But how do these tenets affect what the institutional archives look like and how they function? While they are the guiding principles that govern what we strive to document, the actual records are not created and organized this way and never will be; they are business records, organically created by departments and individuals, which only show pieces of the puzzle and are of varying quality. Choosing exactly how much, of what, and from whom, to keep of these materials is a constant challenge—and gamble. We work hard to select the best records we have (paper or digital) from the parts of the Getty that fulfill these tenets, but there is rarely one holistically explanatory document and X almost never marks the spot. For example, a topical word search might direct you to a seemingly comprehensive folder of records from an organization’s director, when the real gold mine of information you’re looking for may be in the records of someone who worked closely with the director, but did not hold a directorial position.

How does an archives user work around this complexity? Diversify your research strategies and keyword searches, instead of sticking to just one method. Think expansively, be sure to read descriptive guides, and to talk to the archives staff—because of their contextual knowledge of the archive and those involved with creating it, they can help direct your research in more accurate ways than you might have thought of on your own.


Coming up next in Archive Adventures:

The Curator | October 2017

The Scholar | November 2017

The Student | November 2017