Working with Archival Collections at the Library: A Student’s View

My name is Alvaro Gonzalez (here I am, pictured above), and I’ve been working at the Archives and Special Collections for three years now. In my stay here I’ve had many jobs, but my favorite job is processing an archival collection, which consist of things like personal papers, photographs, and old records. Processing an archival collection is hard work and presents a surprising number of intellectual challenges for archivists. This is what I found out, when I became “an archivist” and helped process the Swarts PICO/PACT Collection as an undergraduate work-study student in the Department of Archives and Special Collections at the Hannon Library. An archivist is in charge of how information is categorized and to an extent how it is interpreted. Processing a collection involves interpreting old documents, categorizing them and sometimes rehousing them if damaged.

A large part of how we interpret information comes from the way in which the material in a collection comes to the department; we create series, ie, subject categories, based on how the material was originally arranged.  Unprocessed collections like the Swarts PICO/PACT Collection often come in huge boxes, with documents detailing meeting notes, agendas, and plans of action. The most daunting part of the process is finding a place for loose items that do not belong to any group of similar materials in the collection. When categorizing collections one often comes across a material that has no apparent place in any of the pre-established series that are set up to organize a collection. Creating a new series for one item would only complicate the organization of the series. This leads to the creation of a miscellaneous folder where items that are completely unrelated to the larger collection are placed. AG at desk

Donated by Dr. Heidi Swarts, of Rutgers, who conducted research on community organizations, the Swarts PICO/PACT Collection details the actions of two organizations in the San Jose area. The banker’s boxes she gave us contained documents that outlined the history of two different community organizations, People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO) and People Acting in Community Together (PACT).  PICO (Pacific Institute for Community Organization), of Oakland, California, is dedicated to organizing local communities–usually low-income–for social action.

Working through the collection I was surprised at its content.  These organizations mobilized communities through empowering community members. PICO and PACT did not have an agenda to push; they simply gave people the power and the resources to have their voices heard. Community members are the ones who are most familiar with issues in their neighborhood, which is why empowering people to speak for themselves yields much more successful results than speaking for them.

As I pored over the boxes of materials I found myself in awe of the notes, strategies, and plans for the future. In my experience, it is rare to see people so invested in bettering their community. In my time at LMU I’ve found myself wanting to engage in more service for my community in hopes to impact the lives of my community members. Service, however, isn’t enough to have a real impact on people’s lives. The PICO/PACT letters gave me a real example of methodically and intentionally empowering communities so they could speak for themselves. My interest in the subject matter ended up bringing forth complications when dealing with the materials. To see the end product of my work as an archivist, take a look at the finished guide at the On-Line Archive of California, an archival portal for collections throughout the state. Here’s the URL: