I just recently completed an Alternative Spring Break at the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies. As a musician and also as an archivist, I am always seeking experiences which combine both of my fields. The Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies is very likely the most extensive collection of Jazz materials in the world. Housed on the top floor of the John Cotton Dana Library at the Newark campus, one can hear the faint pleasant sound of jazz permeating the halls as soon as the elevator door opens. Partially a museum, with display cases featuring Ella Fitzgerald’s dress and John Coltrane’s saxophone, it also hosts an extensive browsable reference collection, and contains an impressive array of recordings available for the serious researcher or casual aficionado. The handful of expert staff impressed me by their thoroough knowledge of Jazz, and their good-natured inclusion of me from the very first day.
My task was to assist in the completion of processing the Wilma Dobie Collection. Wilma Dobie was a lifelong jazz enthusiast and jazz journalist. Among her friends were some of the greats of the jazz world, and her correspondence allows an intimate view into the lives of these musicians. As a primary contributor to several important jazz publications, her accounts of the jazz musicians and festivals are lively and detailed. Consisting of approximately 34 boxes of materials, this collection was thoroughly organized and processed by a grant, except for two boxes. My task was to make method from the madness on the processing desk.
As someone jumping into a project with a pre-established processing style, I had to both understand the jumble of paper on my desk and determine their organization within the standing order. Tracing the work of the project archivist was a very educational experience: to see the thoroughness of the finding aid and careful organization of the materials in a collection that probably would have overwhelmed me if I had to tackle it on my own from scratch. Additionally, upon making sense of the physical materials, I encountered for the first time an honest-to-goodness EAD (Encoded Archival Description) finding aid. As an archival student who is pampered with the user-friendly interface of Archon at the University of Illinois Archives, facing the raw coding was a very intimidating and eye-opening experience.
In addition to my project, by speaking with all of the staff members, I was able to glimpse into the many roles that are needed for an archives to exist. A cataloger for new recordings, someone who focuses on acquisitions and making sure the archives “dots every i and crosses every t” when acquiring new material legally, IT folks who tend to the computers and database, someone who monitors preservation conditions within the stacks, and the out-going friendly and knowledgeable staff who greet visitors and assist with their research needs. I feel very privileged to have spent my spring break visiting the Institute of Jazz Studies. The experience I have gained from this week has been very inspiring and rewarding!
For more information on the Women in Jazz Project at the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, click here.