Past The Guardian, Through The Labyrinth: Navigating School Archives

by Lou Liberty | Jan 26, 2012

All adventures begin with a "call", an urge to explore, discover and bring back Treasure. If the call is answered, the first challenge often met is a Gateway Guardian. This Guardian requires a "payment" for passage through the entryway to The Path that leads to the Treasure.

Once on The Path, the adventurer finds that the road is not a simple one. In fact, it is more often than not very convoluted, full of trials, and requires great effort to negotiate well. It is easy to become lost in a Labyrinth. Without doubt, the Treasure is at its heart, but getting to it requires considerable ingenuity and expertise.

Of course, you recognize the framework of heroic adventure tales as best delineated by Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Whether the story being told is from classical mythology or fairy tale, from India, Africa, or the United States, the salient points are present: The Guardian, the Gateway, the Path, the Labyrinth, the Trials, the Treasure.

Independent School Archives

Researching Independent School Archives has many of these same characteristics. If you as a researcher heed the call and take the journey exploring Independent School Archives, treasure can be yours. It helps to have those characteristics all heroes possess for successful journeying -- preparation and some knowledge of the challenges before you.

So who are the guardians of Independent School Archives and how are these archives arranged? The answers vary.

Archiving is often a complicated activity, depending on the type of archive involved. For example, the National Archives (NARA) are massive and extremely complex. Various laws come into play as well as various policies depending on whether archives are private or public. Archives are not libraries, so materials do not circulate and catalogs of contents are not always readily available.

As you know, there are official archival designations just as there are the library classification systems like the Dewey Decimal and the Library of Congress. These archive classification and cataloging systems facilitate searches because they are standardized. Even though these archiving systems are often detailed and complicated, the researcher is confident of finding the same type of materials under a certain heading in an archive employing them in Alaska or Alabama just as one is confident of finding materials in libraries under designated headings.

Whatever system is employed in major archives, those archives are most likely directed by a professional archivist. None of this is necessarily true in regard to Independent School Archives.

Becoming The Archivist

While some schools do employ a professional archivist, most likely, the archivist is someone like me, emeritus faculty, who was asked to form a school archive with no archivist training. That is what I did at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. What training I received was caught on the fly as I dealt with a mountain of papers, documents, photographs, videos and various artifacts. Fortunately, the New Mexico State Archives offered some excellent and free classes.

The first thing I learned was how to become the fierce Guardian At The Gate. I had to learn to be diplomatic yet firm regarding access to materials whether the request came from inside the school or from the outside. Legitimate requests for access to information were always granted. Access was granted more rapidly if the request for information was specific. For example, one researcher who was helping establish an historic building designation asked if the school archive had aerial photographs of the original school buildings that are now part of Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque. We did and she was provided with good photocopies.

Rarely does a researcher in school archives deal with original items. Instead they are presented with photocopies from which they can take notes unless there are extenuating circumstances. In the case of the aerial photographs and the historic building designation, Sandia Prep provided photocopies to be enclosed in the researcher's report with source credit to the school.

Archives & Branding

Keep in mind that an Independent School Archive is not only a repository of the school's history; it is also a fund of information for marketing the school. In addition to keeping the history of the school, the archivist is responsible also for helping maintain the public face of the institution. Also keep in mind that these schools are private and as such are not required to provide information if asked. Building a professional relationship of trust with the school archivist is extremely important in gaining access to materials.

Identify The Guardian

If you wish to research Independent School Archives, the first thing you must do is research school websites and identify the school archivist. Determine if he or she is a professional archivist or faculty or a librarian evolved into the school archivist if you can. For a list of Independent Schools and their websites, the best source is the National Association of Independent Schools or NAIS.

Choate Rosemary Hall is an example of a website with excellent information regarding its archive. As you can see from the website, the archive has its own page which publishes significant information. The Choate archive page states its mission, gives information about its collection and special collections, about gifts, staff, hours and contact information.

Verde Valley School is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Its website refers only to its history. It is difficult to tell if there is an actual archive or if anyone is in charge of this kind of information. Obviously, phone calls or e-mail correspondence is required to find out the possibilities of research at Verde Valley.

Doing your homework regarding Independent School Archives makes it possible for you to converse with the Gateway Guardian and successfully pass into the Labyrinth for your research. What may be required in numerous situations are several information gathering conversations with the school archivist if the school's website does not have its own informational archive page stating contents and policy. I have found school archivists to be almost universally kind and helpful.

The Organization Of Archives

As to the arrangement of the Independent School Archive, they will not follow any standard system of classification. Because these archives are part of an Independent School, the systems at various schools will be just that, independent of other organizations. In other words, they are likely to be as individual as are the schools. Here again, school web pages can give you clues as to organization. Some state their system directly, with others, a conversation with the school archivist will be necessary.

At Sandia Prep, I did not use a standard archive system. Instead, I was fortunate to meet Terry Gugliotta, the archivist at the University of New Mexico. Her advice was fundamental to organizing the Sandia Prep Archive. Terry reminded me that schools are different from businesses, libraries, the National Archives, just about any organization. Her advice to me was to organize the archive according to the organization of the school itself. With those words, the chaos before me as Sandia Prep Archivist clarified into order.

What is likely is that most Independent School Archives you contact will more or less be organized in the same way. So what are the major parts of Independent School Organization?

First, there is Administration. This may be only the school's day-to- day administrative structure or it may include the Board of Trustees. Some of the subcategories are Headmaster, Departments and Department Heads; also divisions like Lower, Middle, and Upper School depending on the grades at the school. The kinds of information here can vary greatly but some of the items you will most likely not have access to are payroll records, employment records, financial statements and budgets of contemporary stature, legal papers, and minutes of board meetings.

Another area of organization is the various Academic Disciplines. These are materials, items, photographs relating to History, English, Math, Science, Drama, etc. These can be broken down into subcategories like American Literature, Creative Writing, and Physics; also by grade level. What is not available to the researcher are individual student transcripts and records that are protected by federal privacy laws.

Sports are another major category for school archive organization with its obvious subdivisions by activity and grade.

Student life is where materials related to clubs, organizations, dances, activities, events and programs would be found. These items would most likely be classified by "all school" and by "grade". This area provides some of the richest research material.

Alumnae are another major category of an Independent School Archive. The older the school, the more important this area becomes.

These general categories may be applied multiple times to papers, documents, photographs, video and digital materials, and artifacts. At Sandia Prep, I established a threefold archive: 1) Documents and Papers, 2) Visual Media, and 3) Artifacts.

Some school archives remain mostly paper and items. Some school archives are fully digitized. Some school archives are a combination. As always with Independent Schools, be prepared for variety.

You now know how to prepare. Your payment to the Guardian will be your specific requests. With those you will easily be admitted to the Labyrinth of riches waiting in Independent School Archives. You have a general map of the path. With diligence, you will bring back the Treasure that research is and enrich our heritage. Good luck on your quest.

Additional Resources

The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Joseph Campbell

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

Sandia Preparatory School

New Mexico State Archives and Libraries

National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS)

Choate Rosemary Hall

Verde Valley School

University of New Mexico - Archives


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