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Demystifying Mudd: The Curatorial Pickup

By Phoebe Nobles

“This must be the unglamorous part of working at the archives,” said our donor as we hauled a giant box of empty boxes up the stairs to his office. In fact, no! The “pickup” is among the glamours of archival work.

Our team of three left the loading dock of Mudd in a rented minivan around 8:30 in the morning, toting 50 pristine “Miracle” boxes, headed for a Brooklyn brownstone where a second-floor office had stored a diplomat’s papers for the past seven years. We crossed the Goethals and the Verrazano. We sat on the BQE. It was no accident that our trip coincided with street cleaning in the neighborhood. Syncing ourselves with alternate-side parking rules was the way to get our spot.

We noticed the stoop’s steep flight of stairs. Our donor let us in and led us up another flight, apologizing for the state of the office, but it was tidy by our standards.

Though Mudd Library receives an increasing amount of born-digital material, this pickup was an old-school, paper pickup. Our process was entirely analog, and dominated by physical realities—the parking spot, the stairs, the heat, a filing cabinet that prevented the office door from opening fully, a filing cabinet that needed prying open with a crowbar, the amount of space in the van.

Our donor gave us a quick guide to four large filing cabinets, in which files sat horizontally in long drawers—what was what and what was where. According to the wishes of the donor, we were to leave behind family photographs and condolence letters—relatively easy to set aside, as they were already in separate folders and labeled.

The “Miracle” box’s miracle is its transformation: When pressed upside down on the floor,  it transforms into an open receptacle from flattened cardboard. It represents one linear foot of shelf space back in the stacks.

Dan Linke, University Archivist and Curator of Public Policy Papers, who was making his “not-quite 100th” lifetime pickup, had estimated that we could fit 36 boxes into our minivan, and since we weren’t sure how many boxes we would fill, we prioritized material. Files of press clippings, which are widely available elsewhere, we planned to leave entirely behind. We boxed files of public statements and correspondence first.

As archivists, we are typically concerned with preserving the original order of the papers we collect, to the extent that an order exists. In this case, the order of some files had been established by the creator (the diplomat), and the order of the correspondence had been imposed by the donor (his biographer). We boxed the folders in the order in which they appeared in the drawers, and labeled them with their drawer number and date range. Though we are known (we hope) for using pencils, the Sharpie is queen at this early, box-labeling stage.

By the time we broke for lunch—falafel that could bring tears to the eyes of those who usually eat in the Princeton area—we had 23 boxes of subject files, statements, correspondence, and some audiovisual material. After lunch and street cleaning, with the van moved to its prime position, two of us began loading while another worked with the donor to box material from a seemingly bottomless closet.

With cabinets emptied and pushed aside, the donor was able to see parts of his floor and books on his bookshelves he had not seen for seven years. Still, it is not without some emotion that one parts with a great chunk of paper and the privilege of setting a coffee mug on it.

Our van filled with 35 boxes of archival material, we were off, with Dan driving even more slowly and lawfully than ever. We were inordinately grateful for the espresso and cake our donor had served us, as well as the summer reading recommendations from his daughter on her first day of summer after first grade. We were grateful that the skies had cleared and that we had not smelled any mold. A series of disastrous mishaps would make for a better blog, but unfortunately for our readers, the boxes were stacked in our processing room at Mudd by four o’clock, ready to receive an accession record and get in line for processing. All was well.

This Week in Princeton History will return on September 3. Notable events of the week of July 9-15 we’ve shared with you in the past have included a discovery of dinosaur eggs in Montana, a student debate on whether emancipation of America’s slaves would be sound policy, and disciplinary action taken after a dorm argument escalated to a sword fight

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