Attic to Archives

Online Exhibit

Previously on display Jun 15 - Sep 26, 2009 in Shields Library Lobby - Special Collections

Have you ever wondered how a group of old papers becomes a research collection? A great deal of research, writing, and hands-on cataloging takes place between the time that files are moved out of an attic or garage and the day that researchers come to use them in the Special Collections reading room. This exhibit will take you through the steps involved in bringing a historical collection to life.


Images (unless otherwise credited) are the property of the Regents of the University of California; no part may be reproduced or used without permission of the Department of Special Collections.

Archives and Special Collections

Liz Phillips

Processing Archivist

For more information, please contact Special Collections, (530) 752‑1621,
Attic, old Sutter Basin Company building. Robbins, California, 2008
Attic, old Sutter Basin Company building. Robbins, California, 2008

Taking Notes
Note-taking is the first step in working with a new collection. What are these papers, exactly?

Official Record
Archivists make an official record of each collection and update each collection’s file as more information becomes available.

Sutter Basin Company Records, D-491

From the Sutter Basin Company Records, D-491.

This unprocessed collection documents the history of a land reclamation company in Sutter County. The company’s records fill about 150 boxes and also include maps, ledgers, and artifacts.

Intellectual Groupings
Intellectual groupings (also called series) reflect the types of material in the collection.

Processing Plan
A processing plan helps an archivist visualize the work that needs to be done.

Processing Plan
Archivists smooth out folded and crumpled documents, remove paperclips, and put the materials in new acid-free folders and containers.

Machine Plates
Photograph by Tim Silva
Sutter Basin Company address machine plates.

Tools of the Trade
Gloves help keep grit and skin oils off photographs. A small tool such as this microspatula is handy for opening stuck envelopes and prying out staples.

Archivists at Work
Left to Right: University Archivist John Skarstad and Manuscript Archivist Liz Phillips

An archivist spends a lot of time researching the creator of the collection and learning about the collection’s subjects. The goal is a concise history that will be informative without overwhelming the researcher with too much information.

Virgin and Unreclaimed Lands

“Virgin and Unreclaimed Lands”

…The soil in the tule basin is the richest in the world and every foot of it, when reclaimed, will be rated as garden land. … Capitalists, realizing its worth, have recently commenced the reclamation of this vast territory….

Sutter County, California: a Productive Soil, an Ideal Climate. Yuba City, Calif.: Sutter County Board of Supervisors, ca. 1915.

Scope and Content

The scope and content section of a finding aid tells the researcher about the themes and types of materials in the collection and points out anything unusual.

Related Collections
Do we have related collections?

Would they be helpful to a researcher?

Once the archivist has finalized the collection’s arrangement and corrected any mistakes, it’s time to number the folders.

Final List
Next step is to make a final list.

Finding Aids
Archivists often create finding aids in Encoded Archival Description (EAD).

Online Archive of California
These EAD finding aids go to a joint Web repository such as the Online Archive of California.

Completed Collection
A completed collection and its finding aid: California State Beekeepers Association Archives. (D-075)

Apiary and garden of E.L. Sichrist, 1934.
Apiary and garden of E.L. Sichrist, 1934. From the California State Beekeepers Association Archives, D-075.

Special Collections Reading Room
Now that the finding aids are finished and the collection is in archival-quality housing, it’s ready to be used for research. All the work the archivist has done on the collection was with one goal in mind: to help researchers get the most out of their time at Special Collections.