Print Page   |   Sign In   |   Register
TL v67n2: Archiving the Archives
Share |

Archiving the Archives


This article is based on a presentation at the Tennessee Library Association Annual Conference (Knoxville, TN) in April 2017.


Cumberland University has been around for a few years--175 to be exact--and in that time, as one could imagine, there has been quite the accumulation of “stuff” in the university’s archives. In March 2016, the Vice President of Academic Affairs (VPAA) tasked the three full-time librarians in the Vise Library to have the archives whipped into shape by the fall semester in order to celebrate the university’s anniversary. Though this project is nowhere near finished, we have completed some tasks that helped us make headway in cleaning out the clutter. Here is how we started and what we discovered that may help others who are facing a similar situation.

1. We worked with a volunteer archivist to map out a plan. Our VPAA connected us with a volunteer archivist who gave us a three-page plan of tasks to help us determine what we needed to do in order to give us a workable space. Some of these tasks were pretty much impossible, both for budget and time, such as installing floor-to-ceiling windows and crawling through the ceiling of the archives to see how secure the room is against intruders. However, some of the suggestions were doable: clean out items we did not need (like old shelving) and add more shelving and work areas.

2. We put policies into place. In the past, if we received an archives research request, the librarian who answered the phone call or email would usually try to fulfill the request as quickly as possible. We realized this is not the best use of our limited time and staff, so we implemented a policy that informs requestors that we may take up to two weeks to fulfill research requests. This gives us leeway when all of those little unexpected but urgent tasks pop up (you all know exactly what we’re talking about!). Read about our other policies on our Archives and Special Collections Guide.

3. We relied on outside help. The volunteer archivist encouraged us to apply for a grant from the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and thankfully, we received a grant for $1,500! We will use the grant to purchase much-needed supplies that we could not have bought otherwise. We are also in the process of requesting a work-study student who is an upper-level history major and will only work on projects related to the archives. We are also toying with the idea of working with a history professor who is very supportive of the library to see if we can develop a class or internship that will offer students hands-on experience and allow us to have more help.

After presenting on our experiences at the 2017 TLA Conference, we realized we are not unique in our struggles. Other librarians expressed challenges in finding adequate time to devote to the archives or identifying qualified staff members to assist in organizing the archives. If your archives fall under this type of situation, please realize that you are not alone and that there are plenty of individuals willing to provide information to get started. Just breathe and realize that the problem cannot be fixed overnight, but the clutter can be chipped away bit by bit.


Amber McKee and Ashli Wells are librarians at Cumberland University. Want to keep up with their progress or share what has helped your library? Contact them at or


creative commons attribution no commercial




Membership Software Powered by YourMembership  ::  Legal