From Chaos to Context

An archivist of the American Jewish Historical Society explains all the work that goes into organizing disorganized collections.

The maintenance of original order—the organization and ordering of records as established by the records creator—is a fundamental archival principle. It allows archivists to preserve record contexts and relationships within the collection and guides the archivist as they provide access to the records.

I am processing the records of HIAS’ Communications/Public Affairs Department (this department changed names several times), and many boxes arrived to my processing table in no discernible order.

HIAS Communications files pre-processing

There are many possible reasons for this, including that the records may have long been out of active use and were shifted around too much in agency storage, the order may have been displaced when a new employee took over the position entailing responsibility for the records, or because of shifting organizational priorities. It is probable that several of these factors are responsible for the lack of original order.

Without clear sense of original order, I am often in the position of having to impose order on and rebuild the context of HIAS’ Communications and Public Affairs records. This process is a bit like doing a puzzle—there are a lot of small pieces of information I need to put together in order to determine an appropriate intellectual order for these materials.

The records I’m working with generally span from the 1940s through the 1990s. Thus, it is imperative that I have a strong understanding of twentieth-century Jewish and humanitarian history. Because these records served as HIAS’ mouthpiece, I must also understand the changing needs and priorities of HIAS as an organization, needs which typically shifted along with the aforementioned histories. These two pieces of information allow me to make educated guesses about the provenance—within the Communications/Public Affairs Department—of a record or record group sans additional information. For example, a pamphlet published in Cyrillic with no other information is most likely related to the crisis of Soviet Jewry, which dominated much of HIAS’ work in the last 40 years of the twentieth century.

This process is a bit like doing a puzzle—there are a lot of small pieces of information I need to put together in order to determine an appropriate intellectual order for these materials.

The last piece of information necessary to making sense of unorganized boxes is the history of the Communications/Public Affairs Department. For example, Brenda Schaefer and Roberta Elliott were heads of the Department in the 1980s and 1990s. Thus, a box of seemingly disconnected files can suddenly make sense if one or both of those names show up in the majority of the folders or documents.  This indicates that these documents came from the files of those employees and can thus be placed together in the absence of other linking characteristics.

Imposing order is not a simple process, but with the right background knowledge and pieces of information, it is possible to tame the most chaotic of collections.

HIAS Communications files post-processing


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AJHS Temporarily Closed

In support of New York City's efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the American Jewish Historical Society will be temporarily closed. The health and safety of The American Jewish Historical Society’s staff and visitors is our top priority, and we are continuing to closely monitor the evolving COVID-19 Situation.  During this time all in person events will be cancelled or postponed, and the library and other facilities of the five partner organizations will be closed to the public. 

Our building is closed, but our staff, and the stories we work to preserve and share, continue to be here for you.  The stories from our archives will continue to be accessible through our online catalogue, new virtual program offerings, and and digital platforms. Please check social media for ongoing updates and virtual offerings.