The Tools We Use

By the Archives
October 14, 2022
Pencils in a mug next to an image of a computer, keyboard, and microfilm scanner.

October is American Archives Month. To celebrate, we are revisiting a favorite topic: the tools that aid us in our mission to collect, preserve, and provide access to primary sources that document the history of the visual arts in America. These tools that range from the quotidian (the humble but mighty pencil) to the sophisticated (specialized programs that make born-digital materials accessible on our Digital Access Reading Room Terminal), demonstrate both the steadfastness of an indispensable classic and the way that technology has changed our work over the past several decades. We would love to hear about your essential archival tools in the comments!

Elizabeth Botten, Archives of American Blog editor



Printed magazines with half-cover flaps in terra cotta, lavender, turquoise, and a bright green, which all say Archives of American Art, next to the color samples in multiple values of the same colors as the half-cover flaps from the Pantone fan deck.
Recent issues of the Archives of American Art Journal with corresponding color samples from the Pantone fan deck.

Many of the fabulous items in our collections and highlighted in the Archives of American Art Journal are monochromatic. The journal features a signature half-cover flap that adds a chromatic punch! Each spring and fall, as we finalize the design of our latest issue, we dive into our Pantone fan deck to select a new cover hue. Doing so makes me feel a bit like a kid in a candy store.

Emily D. Shapiro, Managing editor, Archives of American Art Journal 


On a beige surface with a wood grain design, two hands with silver rings setting a piece of audio tape and leader tape into the metal splice block, which has guides to hold and slice the film, so they can be taped together. A full reel of black audio tape and a piece of blue leader tape, as well as pieces cut off from each are visible in the image.
Mackenie Beasley demonstrates how audio and leader tape are held in the splice block while she prepares to tape them together.

Before I ever play a quarter-inch audio reel, I always make sure there is enough leader—basically blank tape—to thread the reel through the machine. That wouldn’t be possible without a splice block. I use this block to hold down the end of an open reel audio tape and the end of leader, where it holds them together while I “splice” or tape them together. It’s important for a couple reasons. One is because when I’m playing back tapes and digitizing, I don’t want to miss a sound and splicing leader on both ends helps me capture everything. But most importantly, I also use the splice blocks to repair old splices that have fallen apart or, in some cases, tape that snaps. I even have splice blocks for magnetic media including cassettes, VHS, and U-Matic. I wouldn’t be able to do my job without these vital blocks of metal.

Mackenzie Beasley, audio visual archivist


DARRT (Digital Access Reading Room Terminal)

ALT Computer set in a wood cubical with black keyboard, mouse, external drive, and headphones. The screen shows various programs for accessing born-digital material.
The DARRT allows access to different types of born-digital files including video from DVDs, archives websites, and documents created in obsolete versions of programs such as WordPerfect.

As the Archives’ digital archivist, I am responsible for ensuring the integrity and authenticity of our born-digital material, as well as guiding policies regarding the creation, storage, preservation, organization, description, and access to these historical documents. Born-digital material is that which originates in digital form—think word processing documents, digital photographs or images, digital audio, and video files, as well as email, software, and databases. A recent addition to our Washington D.C. Research Center was the installation of a dedicated air-gapped born-digital workstation for researcher access, affectionately referred internally (at least by me) as the DARRT (Digital Archives Reading Room Terminal). Now, DARRT will enable on-site access of our processed born-digital materials for researchers who visit our Washington, D.C. Reading Room and have requested “Electronic Records” (or ERs) via our finding aids.

George Apodaca Collett, digital archivist and digital asset manager



Two computer monitors, one with an open document, the other with a wave screen background, on top of a standing desk that includes a keyboard and mouse on a mousepad with a colorful swirled design. Also visible in the photograph are a bookshelf, a telephone, a few knick-knacks, lavender cordless mouse, and copy of magazine with a lavender and gray cover.
Deloris Perry’s standing desk in action.

In my role as administrative officer, I spend most of my day poring over forms and spreadsheets on my computer. I utilize the standing desk as a valued tool because it allows me to stretch my legs, which helps my circulation and clarity to focus on my work.  I feel so much better when I can stand and be aligned to prevent neck and hip strain.

Deloris Perry, administrative officer



Two hands in a photograph with archival documents on white, blue, and purple paper printed in black, all in a green folder. Needle-nosed pliers are being used to remove a staple from one of the documents.
Rihoko Ueno bends the legs of a staple with needle-nosed pliers so it can be removed from a document.

I remove a lot of metal fasteners when preparing collections for digitization.  Not only do staples and paperclips present a conservation issue because of rust, they also make it difficult for the technicians to digitize the documents.  While some archivists might use micro spatulas for this task, I find that these needle-nose pliers give me more control and provide a better grip.  Sometimes the metal fasteners are embedded in a stack of papers and are especially hard to remove, so I rely on these small pliers to extract them.

Rihoko Ueno, archivist 



White archival box on top of a gray wire cart in a storage area with the box lid, a handle for moving the shelving unit, and gray archival boxes of various sizes on a shelf visible. Inserted between folders in the box, there is blue plastic box marker with a curved top edge, a Smithsonian sun logo in white, and white text that reads: please remove one folder at a time.
Box markers are ever present in the Archives’ manuscript reading room, but are also used by staff when researching in collections to keep folders in order.

A box marker is a prosaic item – its job is to mark the place in a box where a folder has been removed – but I like to think of them as Flat Stanleys, wandering through our collections. Over the years each of our sturdy blue box markers has likely been used thousands of times in hundreds of collections – they’ve seen a lot in their travels!

Marisa Bourgoin, head of reference services



A wooden desk with green and white mug with text reading Articulated and Archives of American Art which holds various types of pencils, a micro spatula, and purple handled scissors. A black and gray phone with a twisted cord, two erasers, and a beige clay jar with pens and highlighters are also in the image.
Pencils and erasers are always within reach on Jennifer Neal’s desk.

Pencils and erasers are everything to an archivist, we literally can’t do our jobs without them! Have you ever noticed ink blots on paper-based materials that pre-date fountain pens? That ink is permanent, and the last thing we want to do as stewards of our collections is use an ink pen and cause permanent damage. We even use special pencils to write on photographs—soft graphite pencils that will not make indentations on archival documents—but only when absolutely necessary. Lately I’ve been using mechanical pencils to write folder titles so there is less smudging, but my favorite pencils are the old school, yellow No. 2s.

Jennifer Neal, archivist


Desk with red folder open with archival materials, and another document being filled out with pencil. There is a multi-level paper tray with various supplies on it, and various supplies on the desk including scissors, sticky notes, and a telephone. The computer screen on the desk is open to electronic form.
A collection survey in progress.

The collection survey is one of the most useful tools I use to process a collection. The survey is the physical act of looking through all the material within a collection and noting what types of records are included. As most archivists know, you never know what you’re going to get when you take the lid off a box. It could be filled with files from a teaching position that are mixed with personal letters and pictures of their cat. As part of the survey process, I transfer my findings onto a paper form called a processing proposal. The form helps me organize the records into the intellectual categories that will be the most helpful to researchers.

Sarah Mundy, archivist



A blue and silver mechanical pencil rests on top of a gray notebook with an elastic closure and two page markers, one solid and one striped, both displayed on a beige table.
Collector Jacob Proctor depends on both digital and analog tools while in the field.

When visiting and evaluating collections in the field, there are two tools that I am never without: my iPhone and my Leuchtturm1917 notebook. Although the former has taken over many of the functions long performed by the latter, I still find both to be invaluable tools for taking notes and recording observations on the content, organization, and scope of every collection I look at.

Jacob Proctor, Gilbert and Ann Kinney New York Collector



Wooden desk with black microfilm scanner, keyboard and mouse. The screen shows scans of microfilm frames, and there are boxes of microfilm, sticky notes, a blue marker on the desk, a cup with pen and markers, and white and blue walls in the photograph.
Lindsey Bright’s workstation where she scans microfilm to make it available digitally for researchers all over the world.

One of my primary responsibilities as part of the reference department is assisting researchers in accessing our microfilmed materials. Our new FlexView microfilm scanner has made this part of my work so much easier and faster. Once scanned, I’m able to look at large segments of film at once, to identify where a particular collection begins or even to evaluate the condition of the film and the images. This machine and its software are incredibly responsive, allowing for clarity in microfilm images that is often quite difficult to obtain.

Lindsey Bright, library technician



Slip of white paper taped to a white wall with organic material, unidentified, amphibious organisms removed, see box 14, written in pencil.

Acid-free paper is my friend. There’s the reassurance it evokes when you fold it as a barrier around an acidic document that might otherwise “fry” and discolor any other item sitting next to it in the folder. I also use it constantly for creating scanning notes in collections I’m processing for digitization, or for “flags” to explain the removal of an item for rehousing. The former resident of the office I now occupy left behind what has to be the most intriguing example of one of these flags that I’ve ever encountered. I keep it pasted to my wall to remind myself to always expect the unexpected. Archives are like that.

Stephanie Ashley, archivist



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