By Sam Smith, LCHS Intern, University of Idaho History student
I’ll admit that I had no prior experience with archival work before starting my time with the Latah County Historical Society (LCHS). As a University of Idaho history student I had accessed several online archives looking for primary sources in my efforts to write various papers. I was, and am, incredibly thankful for the hard work of those institutions in maintaining an accurate and accessible resource for researchers. As such, the opportunity to conduct an internship with the LCHS was naturally exciting to me. I would finally get to see and take part in the type of work – if only a small part – that had helped me so greatly!
My primary responsibility with the LCHS involved working with their map collection. This collection includes maps, site plans, and blueprints from the various communities within Latah County as well as the surrounding region. My work with the map collection stemmed from the recent change in digital archive software that had occurred before my arrival from PastPerfect to CatalogIt. While CatalogIt offers many beneficial characteristics which made it a better fit than PastPerfect, it did not make for a perfect transition process. Many archive entries did not make the transition perfectly and necessitated editing. In the case of the maps this meant that they did not transfer into a special “map” category and often were not updated to reflect their correct locations. Therefore, it became my responsibility to track through the archive entries and find these uncategorized maps, categorize them, and update any entries lacking critical information.
While my job did not outwardly seem very glamorous or heroic, it was nonetheless very important to the smooth usage of the archive system. CatalogIt has many methods that users can choose from to find information that they are looking for, especially if they do not specifically know what they are looking for. One of these methods would be to narrow search results down to one specified category. Naturally, if an entry is not in this category, it will not show up. This would make it very difficult and tedious for any researcher to come in and find information. I certainly know that if the online archives I have used did not organize their entries in a sensible manner I would have lost my mind and grades! Fortunately, this task was not as difficult as it was time intensive. The LCHS had already implemented an entry identifier system which made it easy to find the map entries within the archive and the process of categorizing them was just a matter of a few clicks. However, I was not just limited to categorizing these entries.
My second responsibility was to update some of the more spartan or potentially useful entries with pictures and more detailed descriptions. This was an incredibly interesting experience since I was allowed to use the large scanner at the Latah County Auditor’s office. After getting familiar with the scanning process, this action allowed detailed digital scans to be added to the LCHS archive for researchers to request. While the scanning process can pose some danger to the maps in question it certainly is worth the risk. With a quality scan, the original map does not need to be brought out of storage, physically handled, and potentially damaged. This is useful when dealing with some of the older and more fragile maps in the collection. Additionally, if a researcher cannot come to Moscow, the LCHS can still provide them with a means of accurately observing the map.
While I wouldn’t say that any of the work I’ve done was especially hard, it certainly can be hard to keep up with. I’ve come to appreciate all the small but ever compounding tasks that go in to managing an archive such as this. The researchers and historians who write detailed historical articles or the students who put together research papers for classes develop good research skills through their usage of databases and archives. That is a very important part of historical work, but it is not the only skillset necessary for them to succeed. Having the ability to organize and catalog information in an accessible manner makes it possible for those who are looking to find what they need. I’m glad that I could be a part of that. I also wish that more people in my position could have the chance to do this job. Knowing how the advanced search systems of an archive are set up and maintained can further the research skills of any student or historian. Having the ability to filter out what one knows will not answer one’s questions can save time and provide more informative results. In the future I will be applying my knowledge of how category search systems work to find information that is more relevant to my interests. This helps fill gaps in my understanding of a topic much faster than by blindly searching for basic search terms.