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Sometimes we throw stuff out

Without going on at length about archival appraisal and what that means and how we do it, sometimes it just comes down to throwing stuff out. Take this past Saturday, for example.

About once a month we have a Saturday workday here in A&SC. It gives us the chance to dress down (more than usual) and make all kinds of noise, and not worry about disturbing anybody else. These are days where all of us can work together on projects. And we either go out to lunch or order it in.

But back to this past Saturday. We had a couple of pending projects. The first was rearranging a rather large collection on the shelves.  That took the morning. But the afternoon was set for dealing with a large recent receipt of boxes of videotape that some university employees dug out from underneath the stage of the Wendy Williamson Auditorium and brought to us. We didn’t have time when the boxes came in to look through them, but now came the time. The boxes weren’t standard sizes and some didn’t even fit on the shelves, so we wanted to get them to sit a little more efficiently. What we’d been told were that these were videotapes of lectures from UAA used for distance delivery of classes in the late 1980s, early 1990s.  Or telecourses, as they were called in the catalog.

Well, sort of. The first set of boxes we pulled were marked as a history course. But when we opened them, there were bunches and bunches (that’s the technical term) of copies of the PBS program “Eyes on the Prize.”  ? And not just a full set, but multiple copies of the full set (about 7 videotapes each) of the program. Box after box after box. So Megan hauled out the videotape player and the tv monitor and we popped one in. And it really was copies of the PBS show. Apparently the tapes were used as the curriculum itself. Looks like students signed up for the course would borrow a set of the tapes for use at home. Which explains why there were multiple copies of each set. It doesn’t really explain why somebody felt a need to not only keep these, but stash them for nearly two decades under the stage at the Williamson, but these things happen.

So, since we’re not the archives for PBS and these tapes weren’t UAA record AND they’re easily accessible through other means, the tapes immediately became classified as non-archival. And thus, the following image:

throwing stuff out in A&SC

That’s MC in the front, showing off the tensile strength of two 20-year-old rubber bands holding together a pack of videotapes. She’s way braver than me, but I was cleaning out a lot of snapped rubber bands out of the bottoms of boxes and maybe she just hadn’t spotted those yet. And that’s Megan on the right, masterfully handling the remote to the vhs player. All those white bags in the front? Well, let’s put it this way: the cleaning crew probably really resent us right now for all the hauling they had to do this weekend.

All those bags are full of duplicate tapes. We did find a few sets of master tapes of classes taught by instructors actually employed at UAA (as opposed to a variety of educational curriculum service providers or PBS) and so we kept one set each of those. But the rest went out.  Even the Japanese culture lesson narrated by Jane Seymour and produced by a station out of Chicago.

What’s probably most scary is that we’re only one half the way through the tapes. So lots more destruction to come.

Way back in grad school, my mentor and professor, Bert Rhoads, once talked about a records retention schedule at an institution that was obviously way more organized than us. There, the records officer had managed to get on the signature list of required approvals on the purchase of storage equipment. You wanted a new file cabinet? You not only had to find the money, you had to convince the records manager that you needed one. In other words, that you were not keeping anything you shouldn’t.  Well, I don’t think we need that kind of authority to approve the building or use of storage areas. Even after seeing this stuff. But it is a good argument for looking more closely at the stuff we stash away before we stash it away. Thankfully it didn’t have the dirt or vermin that often affect materials tucked in a dark crawl space for 15+ years.

At any rate, throwing out stuff is often viewed as a guilty pleasure. Not by archivists, generally. For us it’s usually just a pleasure. It’s the freeing up of space to keep more one-of-a-kind materials. After all, if we kept this stuff, that would be some other large collection we couldn’t house. Or would have less time to describe. Like Arliss Sturgulewski’s papers. Or the records of the office of the Chancellor. And if my choice is between 20 copies of Jane Seymour talking about samurai culture and a collection of papers that document environmental health and safety for oil spill respondents (Alaska Health Project records), well, guess what we’re going to choose?

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