The P&S Journal: Spring 1998, Vol.18, No.2
A Day in Special Collections
An Archivist's Work Is Never Done
By Sally McLain
When Steve Novak was a little boy, he and his sister decided to index the family’s National Geographic collection. That singular childhood event sent him on his way to a career focused on organization and order: Steve Novak grew up to be an archivist. Starting with that boyhood activity, Mr. Novak followed a path that led him to the Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library where he is now head of archives and special collections.
Among New York archival circles, the Health Sciences archives and special collections have acquired a bit of a reputation. Many professional archivists express their admiration for the wonderful and thorough collection of rare books, but in the same breath acknowledge the immense load of paper housed in the collection. “We have here one of the most fabulous collections of rare books relating to the history of health sciences,” says Mr. Novak, “but the archive collection is notorious for being a big job, even though it’s made up of some very interesting stuff.”
Until last spring, Mr. Novak headed the Juilliard School archives—a small but well-organized collection of the school’s records as well as some personal papers. He admits that although he was fully aware of the contrast between Juilliard and his job at hand, he looked forward to the challenge of the undertaking at Columbia.
A first visit to archives and special collections gives one the chance to confirm and call into question all the stereotypes. The collection includes lots and lots of old books—none of them noticeably worm-eaten but many with vellum pages and gilded leather bindings—files of papers and records, dark and fragile photographic prints, and some leaky ceilings. Despite those cliches, the archives are well-lit, seem to be free of cobwebs, and lack the expected musty odor. On lower level 1 of the library, Mr. Novak’s office adjoins the main reading room where many of the rare books are housed. To the other side of his office is a work room where a library assistant, Paul Yohannes, handles special requests and processes materials. Most recently, Mr. Yohannes cataloged the library’s collection of P&S student notebooks—a collection that dates back to 1785.
Downstairs from those offices and the reading room, on lower level 2, are two cavernous storage rooms literally filled with more rare books and boxes of papers, manuscripts, and records plotting the history of P&S. In the archives room, archivist Robert Vietrogoski spends his days processing the voluminous materials. Both he and Mr. Novak admit that before you can thoroughly organize an archive, you must first get “intellectual control” of the paper. And there’s a lot of paper, so much in fact that it is measured in cubic feet—Mr. Novak estimates there’s enough to fill about 1,500 file cabinet drawers.
Mr. Vietrogoski has office space among dozens of shelves filled with student records from this century, the papers of Health Sciences deans past and present, and papers, and other collected papers and manuscripts. To give an idea of what has been saved, Mr. Vietrogoski and Mr. Novak open a box marked “facilities” and pull out an old blueprint for an office renovation and a yellowed memo regarding an air conditioning concern. “This box includes 68 years of correspondence, much of it just like this air conditioning memo,” says Mr. Novak. “This is more than anyone would ever need for conducting research on the history of a medical center. Everything was kept.” The “everything” to which he refers is a 700-cubic-foot collection of administrative records from the Health Sciences campus—officially designated “Records of the Office of the Vice President for Health Sciences”—that date back to 1903. The papers are the collected working files of the vice president and P&S dean documenting practically every aspect of life in the four schools of the Health Sciences, including information on important scientific endeavors and more mundane issues such as air conditioning installation in the 1960s and parking problems of the 1950s.
“This is probably the most important task this department faces now,” says Mr. Novak. “These records are still consulted by administrators on a regular basis and by gaining control of them, we will increase administrative efficiency and gain a valuable historical record of life on the Health Sciences campus in the 20th century.” He explains the task right now as a matter of bringing the files together and compiling a comprehensive list of them. “Most of these were completely disorganized with files on the same topic in as many as eight different locations. We will finally know what’s in these records and where they are located.”
Part of an archivist’s job is deciding what is worth keeping. An untrained person might assume everything is worth saving, from the most inconsequential memo to a receipt for flashlight batteries. In saving every piece of paper, the facilities department, for example, avoided mistakenly throwing away something of importance, but that presented this small archives staff with a lot to sort through. “Without records management, all sorts of stuff wound up here,” says Mr. Vietrogoski. “This isn’t normally a function of an archive,” he says. But then, this isn’t a normal archive.
As Mr. Novak puts it, the Health Sciences archive just sort of happened. Over the years, the directors of archives and special collections have tended to be rare book specialists, which is altogether a different specialty from archives, he says. The fact is, however, that since the early 1980s paper has accumulated at such an incredibly fast rate that previous directors, with their small staffs and limited expertise in archival work, couldn’t keep up. But in the last two years, through the leadership of Dr. Pat Molholt, assistant vice president and associate dean for scholarly resources, a staff has been organized to tackle the thousands of cubic feet of
“Awareness that the archives end of the archives and special collections unit was in serious need of attention did influence our choice of staff,” says Dr. Molholt. “On the whole, however, the special collections are pretty well defined and it’s a matter of maintaining them and promoting their existence. The archives work is just the opposite. We are only now getting our arms around the issues and beginning to lay plans for records management which, in my view, is the first step in building a logical and comprehensive record of the Health Sciences.”
Perhaps that sounds like a simple filing job; however, it’s not just a matter of alphabetizing everything in filing cabinets. In addition to the material making up the comprehensive historical record of the Health Sciences are the papers of noted medical researchers, a collection of historical photographs depicting the medical center for the past century, more than 250 letters of Florence Nightingale, and P&S student notebooks and records dating back to the 18th century. It’s a massive undertaking, but Mr. Novak and his team—Mr. Vietrogoski, Mr. Yohannes, and Tom Leiner, an archives technician have already begun to produce some order.