The Tools We Use

For American Archives Month, Archives of American Art Staff are sharing tools, both analog and digital, they use to make collections accessible

Color image of white erasers in blue and white sleeves in front of a green and white mug full of pencils with a phone and jar of pens in the background next to a color image of a computer and microfilm scanner with images of scans on the screen.
From the everyday pencil to a specialized scanner that digitizes microfilm, a variety of tools are used to take collections on their journey from accession to access.

October is American Archives Month.To celebrate, we are revisiting a favorite topic: the tools that aid us in our mission to collect, preserve, and provide access to primary sources that document the history of the visual arts in America. These tools that range from the quotidian (the humble but mighty pencil) to the sophisticated (specialized programs that make born-digital materials accessible on our Digital Access Reading Room Terminal), demonstrate both the steadfastness of an indispensable classic and the way that technology has changed our work over the past several decades.

Elizabeth Botten, Archives of American Blog editor



Recent issues of the Archives of American Art Journal with corresponding color samples from the Pantone fan deck.

Many of the fabulous items in our collections and highlighted in the Archives of American Art Journal are monochromatic. The journal features a signature half-cover flap that adds a chromatic punch! Each spring and fall, as we finalize the design of our latest issue, we dive into our Pantone fan deck to select a new cover hue. Doing so makes me feel a bit like a kid in a candy store.

Emily D. Shapiro, Managing editor, Archives of American Art Journal



Mackenie Beasley demonstrates how audio and leader tape are held in the splice block while she prepares to tape them together.

Before I ever play a quarter-inch audio reel, I always make sure there is enough leader—basically blank tape—to thread the reel through the machine. That wouldn’t be possible without a splice block. I use this block to hold down the end of an open reel audio tape and the end of leader, where it holds them together while I “splice” or tape them together. It’s important for a couple reasons. One is because when I’m playing back tapes and digitizing, I don’t want to miss a sound and splicing leader on both ends helps me capture everything. But most importantly, I also use the splice blocks to repair old splices that have fallen apart or, in some cases, tape that snaps. I even have splice blocks for magnetic media including cassettes, VHS, and U-Matic. I wouldn’t be able to do my job without these vital blocks of metal.

Mackenzie Beasley, audio visual archivist


DARRT (Digital Access Reading Room Terminal)

The DARRT allows access to different types of born-digital files including video from DVDs, archives websites, and documents created in obsolete versions of programs such as WordPerfect.

As the Archives’ digital archivist, I am responsible for ensuring the integrity and authenticity of our born-digital material, as well as guiding policies regarding the creation, storage, preservation, organization, description, and access to these historical documents. Born-digital material is that which originates in digital form—think word processing documents, digital photographs or images, digital audio, and video files, as well as email, software, and databases. A recent addition to our Washington D.C. Research Center was the installation of a dedicated air-gapped born-digital workstation for researcher access, affectionately referred internally (at least by me) as the DARRT (Digital Archives Reading Room Terminal). Now, DARRT will enable on-site access of our processed born-digital materials for researchers who visit our Washington, D.C. Reading Room and have requested “Electronic Records” (or ERs) via our finding aids.

George Apodaca Collett, digital archivist and digital asset manager



Deloris Perry’s standing desk in action.

In my role as administrative officer, I spend most of my day poring over forms and spreadsheets on my computer. I utilize the standing desk as a valued tool because it allows me to stretch my legs, which helps my circulation and clarity to focus on my work.  I feel so much better when I can stand and be aligned to prevent neck and hip strain.

Deloris Perry, administrative officer



Rihoko Ueno bends the legs of a staple with needle-nosed pliers so it can be removed from a document.

I remove a lot of metal fasteners when preparing collections for digitization. Not only do staples and paperclips present a conservation issue because of rust, they also make it difficult for the technicians to digitize the documents. While some archivists might use micro spatulas for this task, I find that these needle-nose pliers give me more control and provide a better grip. Sometimes the metal fasteners are embedded in a stack of papers and are especially hard to remove, so I rely on these small pliers to extract them. Rihoko Ueno, archivist



Box markers are ever present in the Archives’ manuscript reading room, but are also used by staff when researching in collections to keep folders in order.

A box marker is a prosaic item—its job is to mark the place in a box where a folder has been removed—but I like to think of them as Flat Stanleys, wandering through our collections. Over the years each of our sturdy blue box markers has likely been used thousands of times in hundreds of collections – they’ve seen a lot in their travels!

Marisa Bourgoin, head of reference services



Pencils and erasers are always within reach on Jennifer Neal’s desk.

Pencils and erasers are everything to an archivist, we literally can’t do our jobs without them! Have you ever noticed ink blots on paper-based materials that pre-date fountain pens? That ink is permanent, and the last thing we want to do as stewards of our collections is use an ink pen and cause permanent damage. We even use special pencils to write on photographs—soft graphite pencils that will not make indentations on archival documents—but only when absolutely necessary. Lately I’ve been using mechanical pencils to write folder titles so there is less smudging, but my favorite pencils are the old school, yellow No. 2s.

Jennifer Neal, archivist



A collection survey in progress.

The collection survey is one of the most useful tools I use to process a collection. The survey is the physical act of looking through all the material within a collection and noting what types of records are included. As most archivists know, you never know what you’re going to get when you take the lid off a box. It could be filled with files from a teaching position that are mixed with personal letters and pictures of their cat. As part of the survey process, I transfer my findings onto a paper form called a processing proposal. The form helps me organize the records into the intellectual categories that will be the most helpful to researchers.

Sarah Mundy, archivist



Collector Jacob Proctor depends on both digital and analog tools while in the field.

When visiting and evaluating collections in the field, there are two tools that I am never without: my iPhone and my Leuchtturm1917 notebook. Although the former has taken over many of the functions long performed by the latter, I still find both to be invaluable tools for taking notes and recording observations on the content, organization, and scope of every collection I look at.

Jacob Proctor, Gilbert and Ann Kinney New York Collector



Lindsey Bright’s workstation where she scans microfilm to make it available digitally for researchers all over the world.

One of my primary responsibilities as part of the reference department is assisting researchers in accessing our microfilmed materials. Our new FlexView microfilm scanner has made this part of my work so much easier and faster. Once scanned, I’m able to look at large segments of film at once, to identify where a particular collection begins or even to evaluate the condition of the film and the images. This machine and its software are incredibly responsive, allowing for clarity in microfilm images that is often quite difficult to obtain.

Lindsey Bright, library technician




Acid-free paper is my friend. There’s the reassurance it evokes when you fold it as a barrier around an acidic document that might otherwise “fry” and discolor any other item sitting next to it in the folder. I also use it constantly for creating scanning notes in collections I’m processing for digitization, or for “flags” to explain the removal of an item for rehousing. The former resident of the office I now occupy left behind what has to be the most intriguing example of one of these flags that I’ve ever encountered. I keep it pasted to my wall to remind myself to always expect the unexpected. Archives are like that. Stephanie Ashley, archivist



This essay orignally appeared on the Archives of American Art Blog.