Archivists Enhance Finding Aids to Improve Research Results

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Archivists in Vanderbilt’s Special Collections and University Archives have taken advantage of their time away from the library’s historical collections to improve the finding aids that allow patrons to discover archived materials and plan visits for research or instruction. The level of detail found varies widely. For example, one finding aid’s entire description for a box could be “Correspondence – 1950s-1980s” while another may list the hundreds of letters in a box in chronological order.

In one such case, the papers of astronomer and professor Edward Emerson Barnard include 34 boxes described as simply “Correspondence – Incoming.” Special Collections has the 1970’s finding aid for these boxes with the sender, recipient, and date information for over 10,000 letters in chronological order, but not in a format that could be searched. Molly Dohrmann, Special Collections manager of public services, spent three months of her work from home period painstakingly entering over 8,000 of these records. The entire range is now searchable by name and date, making a patron’s search much more efficient.

Other archivists worked through more than 44 collections to add, update, or enhance information. This involved converting databases to an accessible format, such as the George Boswell Papers,a listing of 1200 folk songs collected in Middle Tennessee between 1948-1952. Other times it involved entering entire collections into ArchivesSpace, such as the 40 page collection guide to the papers of Rev. Dr. Melvin Watson, religious leader, educator, and important figure in the Civil Rights Movement.

Over three months, archivists created or updated some 32,000 records in ArchivesSpace, representing a 17 percent increase in searchable information.

Please contact Vanderbilt Special Collections at with any inquiries or access assistance.

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