Our Archivists’ Tool Kit

By the Archives
October 3, 2011
Photograph of a ruler and an archival document

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

To kick off American Archives Month, Archives of American Art staff have compiled a list of their favorite tools that they use in their archival work.


THE LIGHT BOX | Julie Schweitzer, Collections Processing


I am grateful for the light box I use to identify, weed, and sort analog photographic slides from the pre-Power Point era. The box is old-school and non-compact-fluorescent, and it hums. Slides plink satisfactorily on the box’s surface like a pile of chips at a poker table. By laying slides flat on the luminous pearly-white plane, I can easily identify details without having to hold them up to the ceiling lights and squint against the glare. The box has allowed a summer intern and me to weed tens of thousands of duplicate slides from a collection and arrange the remainder in short order, thereby reducing not only the hunting work of future researchers and reference staff, but also the shelf space the collection requires.


ARCHIVAL FOLDERS | Erin Kinhart, Collections Processing


Whenever I sit down and begin processing a new collection, I always have a large stack of archival folders nearby. There have been many times when I’ve opened a box of unprocessed materials and found papers stuffed into hanging file folders, old acidic folders with missing labels, or even more challenging, stacks of photographs, letters, or notebooks that were never filed in the first place. Most of my time is spent arranging these documents into archival folders and writing folder labels that will correspond to the online finding aid. Not only do the acid free folders preserve records, but they also allow the archivist to sort items into manageable groupings. I get great satisfaction in bringing order to materials and protecting them from future damage, and I know researchers appreciate being able pull to materials from the box with ease.


THE BOOK TRUCK | Elizabeth Botten, Reference Services


Dear Book Truck,

I’m sorry this note is so overdue, but I just wanted to say thank you for being such a help to me over the years. I feel that sometimes I haven’t shown you the respect that you deserve, but my arms and I really appreciate all that you do for us. You help us carry thousands of boxes to our researchers every year—when the Leo Castelli Gallery records opened to the public, we pushed over 100 boxes back and forth in the first month alone.

My colleagues and I couldn’t have done it without you. I hope you will accept this case of WD-40 with my thanks and appreciation.

Best wishes,



THE SSDI | Marisa Bourgoin, Reference Services

I love to bury people. Not actual bodies, mind you, but rather I find it oddly satisfying to establish death (and birth) dates for people found in our records. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has been collecting data on deaths since about 1936, and, in 1980 the agency began making the data file available to the public as a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. While you can’t search the file at the SSA website, there are a number of free (and some paid) websites that provide access to the data as the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). It’s not error-free, there are transcription errors and omissions. You can’t assume that someone who isn’t there is still alive, there are rare cases in which a living person is included, and it only includes people who had Social Security numbers. However, there are ninety million people listed in the file (most of whom died after 1962), and it is a wonderful tool for those who to like to close the parentheses around someone’s life dates. Try it out at http://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=3693 or do an internet search for “social security death index”.


THE LAB COAT | Sarah Haug, Collections Processing


my blue lab coat waits

stained by leather red rot

the archives’ pollen






FILM REWINDS | Megan McShea, Collections Processing


Motion picture films are a special kind of document in the archives. They can re-animate history in a way that other types of documents don’t. But sometimes they seem like trouble. You want to help them, but you’re afraid you’ll hurt them, and often you don’t even know what they contain. This is why I love film rewinds. When you put a film on rewinds, you know the film will come out of the process with a better chance at long-term survival than before, because you can improve its living conditions while finding out enough about it to connect it to its potential audiences. Without risking any harm to the object, the archivist discovers what a mystery roll contains, when it got made, its many unique qualities, all while helping it disperse harmful acidity, getting it into archival housing, and protecting it with a fresh, clean, labeled leader.


SD CARD ENVELOPES| Emily Terrell, Curatorial


Through the Archives of American Art’s oral history program, forty to ninety years of a person’s life are regularly recalled over three to nine hours on several secure digital (SD) memory cards—an amazing amount of information captured on such small pieces of plastic. While we maintain the audio files of oral history interviews on our digital storage systems, we are also keen to keep the original physical memory cards of each interview. Over seventy people were interviewed last year and that adds up to a lot of cards to identify, organize, and store. Enter the acid-free, archival #1 envelope. One or two of these envelopes will comfortably fit the SD memory cards of one interview, with ample room for identifying barcodes. Thank you, “little 1s”. I would be buried in SDs without you!


THE RULER | Judy Ng, Collections Processing


The 15-inch metal ruler as a multi–function tool in the archives: measures documents, objects, linear inches, and work accomplished. Working in tandem with another fave, the scissors, it is key to measuring out dimensions and scoring fold lines for custom enclosures made out of cardstock or acid free folders/paper. Last but not least, the ruler is a go-to placeholder when removing numbered folders from boxes. It’s clean and elegant line provides the mind with clean and elegant ways to conceptualize and track the daily work of processing, which is always deeply appreciated.


FINDING AIDS | Stephanie Ashley, Collections Processing

A finding aid is a guide and detailed container inventory written by an archivist to describe a collection. Whether it’s a brief summary documenting a collection’s bare bones, or a detailed description of a collection’s creator, scope, and contents, a finding aid should ideally adhere to international standards and national best practices for descriptive content and format, such as DACS (Describing Archives: A Content Standard) and EAD (Electronic Archival Description).

Writing a finding aid is the most gratifying part of processing for me. It offers that sense of achievement and completion that can seem all too elusive in the middle of a long and complex processing project. It allows me to organize intellectually what I’ve organized physically and ultimately to share the value of a collection with the outside world. Check out an example of a finding aid to a collection I particularly enjoyed working on, the Florence Knoll Bassett papers, 1932–2000.


CTRL + F | Mary Savig, Curatorial


Perhaps the best invention in the age of computers is the search function (Control + F). Rather than wading through countless of pages of an oral history interview or a detailed finding aid, I can simply harness the power of Control + F. In seconds, I know the exact folder that contains Alexander Calder’s handmade holiday card or Robert Rauschenberg’s memories of the Cedar Tavern, which he calls the Cedar Bar, in New York City. To be sure, browsing has its place in research, but Control + F gets the job done.


DACS | Barbara Aikens, Collections Processing

My favorite tool in the archival workbox is a set of standards adopted by the national archival community for how we describe archival collections in finding aids. Describing Archives: A Content Standard, fondly referred to as DACS by those in the know, is a set of cataloging rules that archivists follow when creating finding aids. Finding aids are often complex and complicated documents that users find unfamiliar and sometimes difficult to use. DACS allows us to present complex descriptive content for all collections in a consistent manner, so that our users are presented with finding aids that look and function similarly and contain the same types and formats of descriptive information. Because it is a national standard, the use of DACS ensures that users can expect a finding aid on our website to present and contain the same type of information as a finding aid from another archival repository either across town or across the country.


THE SCANPRO | Margaret Zoller, Reference Services


My favorite tool in our Reading Room is our ScanPro digital microfilm reader. Microfilm can be extremely tedious to go through, and using the ScanPro helps cut down on that seasick feeling that many of us get when using older analog machines. Since the ScanPro is hooked up to a computer, it also allows me to make digital scans from the microfilm rather than printing out photocopies. There is nothing I love more than conducting research for an Ask Us question that involves microfilm, and being able to make scans of the information that I find. Not only does ScanPro make my job easier and faster, it also lets researchers get their answers in a more timely manner, as I can simply take a scan of the frame needed and e-mail it, rather than printing out a copy and sending it via snail-mail. And, our patrons who visit us in person are able to transfer their files to thumb drives, saving on printing costs. A win all around! Thanks, ScanPro!


THE BARCODE| Susan Cary, Registrar


Where would we be without the barcode? This fourteen digit number assigned to all collection pieces has easily become my best friend. As Registrar of the Archives of American Art, I am not only responsible for the care and well-being of our collections, but for monitoring box counts and locations of 8,045 collections and oral history interviews. The barcode has revolutionized inventory, drastically speeding up the process, and allows me great flexibility in creating statistical reports.


THE THING THAT I LOVE IS THE…UM… | Jayna Hanson, Collections Processing


I don’t know what my favorite tool is called but I usually describe it as the thing-in-which-you-put-correspondence-to-make-it-alphabetical/chronological. It’s a long piece of flat plastic that has pretty blue flaps with labels like: A–Z, Jan–Dec, and 0–9. The “TIWYPCTMIA/C” is so versatile; I can give it different labels with post-its, depending on the needs of the papers I’m arranging. It saves me space, so rather than having a room full of papers stacked on top of each other, I can place them in one small area to sort.

But what is it called? I’ve heard “sorter” thrown around but that makes it seem like it’s “sort of” useful. A “chronologizer” is too hard to say. I propose we call it an “AZJD09+” to represent the ability to put any item in any order, whether it be alphabetical or chronological, or any other I can dream.

Thank you AZJD09+!



Excellent post! I'm with you on DACS. Most useful tool: a pair of nicely fitting gloves for working with very dirty materials.

Wow. Absolutely amazing.
For myself, coming from a tech angle, my favorite tools have been the MARC record and EAD XML encoding for finding aids. It's so satisfying to be able to have the rich content generated by our catalogers and archivists in a format easily understood and manipulated by a computer. It allows for new and exciting expressions of information without compromising the integrity of the cataloger/archivist's work.

Thanks for sharing all the great tools. I, myself, love an array of freshly sharpened #2 pencils all lined up and ready for writing.

I love this!

I work with many architist tools but this is very different from other tools.

These are the tools that I also want to own! Now, I'm salivating!

Where can I find this magical sorter thing????

Thanks for sharing all the great tools. I, myself, love an array of freshly sharpened #2 pencils all lined up and ready for writing.

very nice post on tools..... i really enjoy it when i read & see it...very good job ...thanks for it..

<strong>used race cars</strong>

Our Archivists Tool Kit - Archives of American Art Blog