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Into the Archives: Processing the Lautenberg Papers

September 20, 2016
Photo of Sheridan Sayles

Sheridan Sayles stands next to cataloged boxes of Senator Frank R. Lautenberg's correspondence.

Photo of sheet music

Sheet music for "Vote No on 789," sent to Lautenberg to protest a bill on music licensing.

Photo of record

A vinyl record of a 1988 campaign ad.

When Sheridan Sayles took on the role of archivist for the Senator Frank R. Lautenberg Papers, there were certain things she did and did not expect to find.

Constituent correspondence, press clippings, and research files for new legislation—these were anticipated and well-represented in the collection. But sheet music for “Vote No on 789,” a song protesting a music licensing bill, or a vinyl record of a 1988 campaign ad-—these came as a bit more of a surprise.

It’s all in a day’s work for Sayles, who, along with a team of two graduate student assistants, has been tasked with sorting, arranging, and describing the contents of some 2,200 boxes which the senator’s office donated to Rutgers in 2013. “It’s by far the largest collection I’ve ever worked on,” she said.

But how exactly does this mass of material get shaped into a research collection?

First, a general survey was conducted to determine what should be kept at Rutgers. Personal effects were returned to the Lautenberg family and official committee records were transferred to their rightful homes in Washington. Next came basic weeding and sampling to eliminate, for example, hundreds or even thousands of duplicate constituent mailers. Finally, the more substantive work of archival arrangement could begin.

Sayles describes the job as one that requires careful consideration for both the future and the past. “I work on how to refolder the papers so that researchers have a good understanding of their contents while keeping as true to the office’s labels as possible,” she said.

But a collection like this presents challenges beyond its sheer size. It also reflects more than 30 years of changes in technology, comprising formats such as U-matic tapes, prime computer files, floppy disks, and nearly every type of hard drive popularly used since the 1980s.

For Sayles, the nature of these materials creates a race against time. “At a recent archives conference, I learned that half of all magnetic media--VHS tapes, cassettes, and the like--will have failed by 2027,” she explained. “And since there are over 200 hours’ worth of video and about the same length of audio, we’re in a fight to digitize these materials before they degrade.”

Moreover, at times it can be difficult to grapple with the subject material of the papers themselves. “It’s never a good day when the first folder I have to process includes reports about genocide in Armenia, war in Bosnia, or the attacks on September 11,” Sayles said.

Ultimately, however, Sayles finds it gratifying to know that such a valuable resource and point of distinction for the university will soon be made available to researchers. And while the processing—-which was slated to be completed in June 2018--is well ahead of schedule, much work remains to be done. “Things like preventative conservation, digitization projects, and eventually exhibitions,”
she said when describing what’s in store. “We’re on just the first step of a long and exciting process.”