Archives Stapled in Context

Written by: Christina DadyEsposito



In the library science world we affectionately refer to LAM institutions: library, archives, and museums. I’ve been thinking about the interplay between these cultural organizations a lot this summer. Especially because here at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site (MAVA) they have all three: a library for staff reference, an archive of institutional records, and a museum collection for public experience.

Each has their own rich history and plays an integral role in collective memory and history. The way in which they are understood, perceived, and used by the public is drastically different. The simplest way to consider those divides is to think of libraries for books, archives for paper, and museums for objects. Libraries are free to browse and touch, archives require an intermediary person between collection and user, and museums are strictly hands-off. Those lines are becoming ever more blurred with evolving best practices and technological innovations but the public interactions with these institutions remain entrenched along those simplest divisions.

Before I get sidetracked and delve into a complicated Venn diagram let’s get back to archives and my work at MAVA. In all of these cultural keeping modalities, context is key. Patrons or users don’t always get to experience the context of objects and archives due to time, space, and practical limitations. I wanted to take a moment to peel back some of the mystery behind archives processing and what context is potentially lost or assumed by it.

STAPLES! You will never look at them the same way after spending a whole work day removing them. They are typically removed due to preservation needs as they can cause damage to the surrounding paper. Depending on the archive and their resources of both time, supplies, and institutional practice, staples are either: left in place, replaced with plastic paper clips, or removed and the papers carefully handled so as not to lose their order. I have come to only remove staples on a case by case basis.

Why you ask?

  1.  I don’t like the plastic paper clips as they also bend and contort the paper – negating any long term preservation benefits. Additionally they come at a cost and create substantial physical bulk in the folder. (Side note: in the past interleafing paper would have been used to separate papers within a file, use of this practice again depends on the archivist and institution but it does add bulk and interferes with the perception of original order.)
  2. Time! Removing staples can suck up an incredible amount of time.
  3. I began to over-analyze the implications of context that a single staple can provide.

When I am working with a stack of files there are often multiple groups of stapled together paper. If I remove all of the staples, I fundamentally change the way a person may experience the relationship between all those papers. Unless they are taking the time to examine staple holes to determine which group stopped where, those papers will be viewed as continuously linked. (I confess that I have at times looked at staple holes to determine the order of papers – it’s all in a day’s work for an archives detective).

In another example, say a stack of papers were stapled together, then another paper was stapled, then another group of papers was stapled when the project finished or someone found that last bit of related correspondence. As an archivist I may remove all of those staples. But as a user down the line I might wonder why this folder’s contents are in such chronological disarray. The staples can tell you a lot about how the information was collected and used.

This brings up the bigger quandary of preservation and processing for prosperity interfering with the original context of the records. It has to be done because collections would be inaccessible if not cataloged and organized. But it is tricky to balance that need for accessibility with the need to preserve context.

Let’s hope you are now half as haunted by staples as I am.


Envelope with stamps on it


Archives find of the week: For whatever reason this comically stamped envelope greatly amuses me. Not something I ever thought I would see outside of a prank or in the movies.

“There’s a level at which words are spirit and paper is skin. That’s the fascination of archives. There’s still a bodily trace.” ~ Susan Howe

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