Touring an Archival Collection With the University Archivist

Courtesy of Manuscripts Archives & Special Collections @ WSU Libraries,

This past semester I took a tour of the archives where I work, Manuscripts Archives & Special Collections at Washington State University Libraries in Pullman, WA.  The actual date of the tour was February 2, 2012.

Touring the university archives was a fun and informative experience.  I cannot think of a better way to start to understand the archiving profession than to tour an archival collection with the actual archivist.  Our guide for our tour was Mark O’English, the University Archivist for Washington State University.

The take-aways from this visit are the following:

60,000 rare additions, some dating back to the 16th century

it takes approximately ten hours to process one linear foot of recently acquired materials

Archives audience: scholars nation-wide, scholars in the Pacific Northwest, and university constituents

It serves the “collective memory of the institution

Acquisition of materials is primarily through individual donations and private purchases

Materials collected include manuscripts, photographs, audio and video tapes, films, printed and published materials (books, maps, broadsides, etc.)

MASC’s total collection holds approximately 17,000 linear feet of primary source material and 38,000 printed items, or roughly 5,000 linear feet of printed material

If you’d like to read about my entire experience please read on.

The archives are a part of MASC, which is located off the main atrium of the Terrell Library on the ground floor.  Once you enter the unit, you are greeted by a service desk to the right and to the left is an exhibit area.  Behind the service desk is a large enclosed room, called the Donald W. Bushaw Reference and Research Room, where archival materials may be viewed and studied.  There is office space located behind the desk and to the right through a door way, which is also where archival media materials are digitized and meta-data for those and other materials are created and entered.

On the same floor, Mark showed us the rare books collection.  This collection is housed in a climate controlled room off the hall away from the main offices area.  The collection is extremely large, with rows and rows of shelves housing 60,000 rare additions, some dating back to the 16th century.  If you like the smell of old library books, then this is place to be.

At the end of the hallway from the main offices is an elevator, which is separate from the other elevators open to the public.  We took it down to the next floor, where the archives are stored.  This area is also climate controlled and is larger than the rare books room we saw on the floor above.  From the floor to the ceiling there were cardboard boxes, each one cubic foot, on shelves running the width of the room.  Each box had a number and the title of the collection it belongs to.

Mark took us around the perimeter of the archives, pulling a couple of boxes off the shelves here and there to show us their contents and to talk a bit about them.  His enthusiasm for his work and what he was presenting to us was apparent, he was excited to present and browse each box.  He pointed out Senator Foley’s (D-WA) large collection, then there was the McWhorter collection, and as we made our way around the archives, he showed us the area where new archival documents are received and sorted.  When we walked through this area there were materials recently received from a local book store that had been haphazardly boxed up and sent over, approximately ten boxes the size of paper stock boxes.  Mark noted the current organization of the materials and stated the less organized the materials were the greater the amount of time it would take to appraise them.

From there we walked through the archival stacks, where Mark graciously answered our questions.  He also shared more information with us about the WSU archives.  For instance, it takes approximately ten hours to process one linear foot of recently acquired materials.  Also, he has noticed an increase in the amount of reference questions the unit has received via the phone and email, double the amount of research and reference questions received two to three years ago.  He said the cause was that the unique items within the archival collection were receiving more attention, but could not put his finger on exactly why.  He also brought up an interesting issue, what to do with all the digital content currently being created and how to deal with future compatibility issues with technology.  For instance, he is currently digitizing films from a 16 millimeter and it requires special equipment to convert this media, where in the future the technology for the storage of digital historical documents may be in a different format than we now use.  His concern is well warranted and this will certainly pose another challenge to the profession.

My personal experience from the archival tour was an eye-opening one, since my library work experience has been in Access and Reference Services.  I had no idea of the size, quantity, or the content of materials housed in the WSU Library archives, I only knew this is where I sent patrons seeking those types of materials.  Through my interactions with Mark and by gaining a greater understanding of the libraries’ MASC unit, I have gained a greater interest in and a deeper appreciation for the manuscripts and archives aspects of the library profession.

Below I have broken up the answers to the questions.  This should make it easier to compare archival collections between organizations and posts.

Repository’s main audience(s)

According to Mark, there is not just one main audience for the archives collection.  He said there are three general groups he would use to describe their audience, because of the uniqueness of the collection.  The first two distinct audiences Mark discussed are scholars nation-wide and those from the Pacific Northwest.  For instance, the university archives house the McWhorter collection.  These are photographs and papers from L.V. McWhorter, who interviewed members of the Nez Perce Native American tribe regarding their experiences and history of the Nez Perce War, 1877.  This collection is one of the most used in the archives, according to Mark, because of its uniqueness.

The third, significant audience Mark mentioned is the university and its constituents.  This includes the university administration, faculty members, and students conducting research.  The MASC unit also provides instructional classes for using the archives for research and assists these groups when appropriate.  There are no restrictions as to who the archives serve, since the unit is a part of the state university’s library system and Washington State University is a land-grant institution, most materials are available to all who would like to use them for conducting research, with few exceptions.

Why Does it Exist?

The University Archives officially serves as the “collective memory of the institution,” according the MASC Web site.  A significant portion of the archival collection is attributed to university documents, including those from the Capital Planning and Environmental Planning departments.  The archives collection maintains other records and collections as well, partially attributable to its unique past.

The MASC unit took its current form in 1977 when two collections, Humanities Special Collection and Manuscripts-Archives department, were combined.  These two collections had co-existed until this time and once combined boasted a collection of rare books, political papers from people connected to the university, business and agricultural documents, papers regarding specific topics of interest, such as the Nez Perce Indians, documents related to the Pacific Northwest, literary collections of Northwest authors, government documents, documents from university presidents and administrators, the literary collection by and about Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and American women authors.

Institutional Affiliation

MASC is a unit within the Washington State University Libraries Department.  So not only is it a part of the University, it is also a part of the Libraries.  While it is partially funded through the Libraries’ university budget, it also receives additional sources of funds through grants and other various sources.  This allows the library unit some autonomy with its acquisitions.


There are nine total staff members working in MASC.  There is Rare Books Librarian, who is the Department Head, a Manuscripts Librarian, a Metadata and Digital Projects Librarian, University Archivist & Photographs Curator, Rare Book Cataloger, Graphic Designer, Digital Projects Production Manager, Office Assistant, and Conservator.  It should be noted that there are approximately four part-time staff members, two of which are archival or history internships.  While there is only one Archivist, most of the staff can assist patrons with using the archives in some way.

Acquisitions to Collections

The Archives receive materials through various channels.  One of those channels is via donations and gifts from private and other sources, although Mark mentioned these opportunities occur less and less.  These materials come from the University and from large individual donations, such as the private comic book collection from past faculty members and a photograph collection of the Palouse and Eastern Washington area by a Japanese American immigrant at the turn of the twentieth century.  Other methods of acquisitions to the collection in the past have been through purchases via appropriations from the university and by the Friends of the Library, and documents acquired from state & federal agencies.

Types of Materials Collected

The unit collects a variety of materials, including manuscripts, photographs, audio and video tapes, films, printed and published materials (books, maps, broadsides, etc.).  Also collected are rare books, personal correspondence, and political papers of individuals connected to the university.  Most of these materials are either associated with the university in some way or are additions to already existing collections that were originally donations from private individuals.

The types of materials found within the archives and the materials currently sought are characteristic of both a collection and institutional archival unit.  WSU Archives is not focused mainly on the documents produced by the university libraries or the university, the unit has focused its efforts outside of the organization to materials that include the history, subjects, and the geography related to Washington State and its individual citizens’ contributions.  The unit also collects materials from the university, which the archives are technically a part of.  In this way the unit collects the materials of its own organization for posterity, although there is no clear-cut collection policy for these types of materials.

Viewing the Materials, Openness

Access to MASC materials is provided to users through the library’s OPAC and the finding aids created, maintained, and provided by MASC on their Web site.  The materials in MASC do not circulate like other library materials do, all the items managed by MASC are a closed collection.  All their materials must be requested from the archivist, where they are brought to the enclosed reading room for use by patrons.    These materials do not go beyond the unit’s research room and only the items listed in the library OPAC are available for use.  Patrons must register with the desk attendant, use care in handling the materials, keep the collections in the order they were presented in, and use pencil to take notes (no pens are allowed in the research room).

Patrons may pay for copies of the materials as long as the copyright for each piece is not violated and it is a reasonable amount.

Size of the repository

Combining MASC’s Web site with the data from Mark, MASC’s total collection holds approximately 17,000 linear feet of primary source material and 38,000 printed items, or roughly 5,000 linear feet of printed material.  The archival materials are split up among three separate locations within the main library on campus.  The first location is within MASC, one floor below the main offices, where climate controls are in use and the most used/requested and popular materials are kept.  Many of the documents are primary sources produced by the university, such as planning documents, are kept on the fourth floor of the library because they are not often used, which is the second location.  The third location is in the basement area in what Mark referred to as cages, where these collections are not used as regularly as those located within the MASC department and used more often than the university planning documents.

More information

MASC Web site: : This site allows users to search the MASC materials specifically and the library OPAC for archival materials.

Has anyone had the chance to tour or use an archives or archival collection?

Thanks for reading!


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