August 2, 2016

Facilitating Access: The Work of an Archivist

by Christy Eckerle

Photo Editor for Montana The Magazine of Western History


These days, it’s easy to find information. Just type a question into Google’s search bar, and within less than a second, answers appear. But what if the information you need is from 1880, and it’s contained in acid-free boxes in our archives? How do you find it then?


Lot 35, Bud Lake & Randy Brewer Crow Collection.  "Crow's Child or (Pappoose)."
[Studio portrait of young Crow girl with dog].  Photograph by O. S. Goff, Fort Custer, Montana. 
Archivists work behind-the-scenes for hours—sometimes days or weeksto make historic documents findable. Take, for example, contract archivist Sue Jackson. She has spent the last few months arranging about two thousand historic photographs of Crow people, places, and events and putting them in acid-free sleeves. Next, she’ll give every photo a catalog number. Then, she’ll catalog the entire collection, meaning that she’ll type a description of every photoall two-thousandincluding the photographer, date, subject, and title. After Jackson finishes describing each photo, the information, known as a catalog record, will be uploaded to our MHS online catalog and to OCLC, where it will be available through WorldCat. Jackson expects the final catalog records to go online sometime around January 2017.


Lot 35, Bud Lake & Randy Brewer Crow Collection Throssel #T116
"In the Tobacco fields (note: Medicine Crow 4th from right facing camera)"
1906-1911.  Photograph by Richard Throssel
Once the catalog records have been uploaded to our catalog, you can type a search and locate a photo in seconds. To actually see the photos, you’ll still need to visit our Research Center Photograph Archives, or, for a small fee, you can order a print or scan. Thanks to Jackson’s meticulous cataloging, you won’t have to sift through all two thousand photographs to find the one you want.


Stereograph Collection – Rinehart
"Spotted Jack Rabbit," 1900. 
Photograph by F. A. Rinehart, Omaha, Neb.
The photographs that Jackson is cataloging came to us from collector Bud Lake, who spent over thirty years buying historic photograph of Crow people from dealers, shows, and even eBay. By the time he was done, his collection held photographs dated from 1880 to 1940. There are portraits of people wearing their regalia, photographs of Crow fairs, and images that show early reservation life. Lake plans to use some of the photographs to illustrate a biography of Crow chief Plenty Coups, forthcoming from the Montana Historical Society Press. But in the meantime, Lake has done the world a service by entrusting those photographs to us. Gradually, we’re making them available to you.

The moral of the story is that historic documents—including photosbelong in public archives, where heroes like Sue Jackson will make them accessible. Then, they can be found and used by historians, students, or anyone else who has an interest in the past.