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Transmissions from The Timothy Leary Papers: Applying Archival Processing


A box of unprocessed papersA box of unprocessed papersPeople ask me what my work entails as I process the Timothy Leary papers. As I pore through the boxes, I am faced with over 400 linear ft. of material created and collected by Leary which I must process to make available for research. I encounter various media, such as photographs, video tapes, computer disks, prints and posters. I encounter quite a bit of paper.

My responsibilities include determining the record keeping structure and making decisions regarding the intellectual and physical arrangement of the material, describing the material according to archival standards, and physically re-housing for access and long-term preservation.

When records or personal papers are acquired by repositories, such as the NYPL, the material is "processed," producing a "finding aid" to allow researchers to search, locate, and request material from the collection.

Truck delivering the Timothy Leary Papers to the Library Services Center in Long Island City, New York CityTruck delivering the Timothy Leary Papers to the Library Services Center in Long Island City, New York CityWhen archivists mention terms, such as: records, collections, cataloging, processing, description and arrangement, we are specific in the usage. It's our professional jargon. When asked what "processing" entails, I often explain it simply as the arrangement and description of non-published material. Published or bibliographic material is "cataloged," a distinction in the US, although other countries may use the term "cataloguing" for archives. Regardless, the work of arranging and describing by archival standards is the same.

Archivist's Jargon

For the archival curious, one can refer to glossaries published by the International Council on Archives Committee on Descriptive Standards (ISAD(G)) or the Society of American Archivists. Let me offer a more refined definition for archival arrangement from the ISAD(G):

The intellectual and physical processes and results of analyzing and organizing documents in accordance with archival principles.[1]

I still haven't explained what processing to archival standards or principals really means. It requires arrangement and description. Archival description is based on the principal of provenance or respect des fonds. The fonds is the group of records created or collected by a person (in Leary's case), not mixed with the records from another creator. The fonds is the broadest level of description. The description from this level follows to finer, more detailed levels within the hierarchy. The archivist describes the fonds or collection as a whole with increasing detail, in possible sub-fonds, and then series, sub-series, folder and item-level description. This structure holds value and differs from the simple item-level, bibliographic description formerly applied to manuscripts.[2]

Due to the complexity of some collections, time restraints, and research demand, description may not be carried out to these finer levels as a whole or may vary within a collection. This flexibility allows for the accessibility to records on a time-effective basis.

The Leary papers, like other personal papers, blends qualities both from traditional archives (institutional records) and manuscripts collections. It contains records created during his work as a student, enlisted man, clinical psychologist, professor, lecturer, author, and actor, among his many personas. His papers also consist of his writings: handwritten notes, journals, drafts, typescripts, annotated and not. His papers contain some collected material, publications, posters, recorded music and videos. The collection also holds collaborative work, such as writings and correspondence authored by his wives. There are his father's records retrieved and assembled by Leary's associates. There is his mother's correspondence, given to him after her death. Some material may have been retrieved by private collectors. His papers are an assemblage of material produced in the course of his work, received by others, and collected for his consideration.

Novelty bumper sticker found in the Leary PapersNovelty bumper sticker found in the Leary Papers

Therein lies the challenge to honor the original order, while providing a logical system that promotes access to the materials.

The papers arrived at the NYPL after years of care and maintenance from Leary and his associates. His friends and colleagues also had a hand at organizing his papers and left some detailed inventories, aiding in the identification of his writings and other items. For this I'm eternally grateful. In fact, his former archivist and friend, Michael Horowitz, published the Annotated Bibliography of Timothy Leary, first published in 1988, providing an important resource for researching his papers and manuscripts.

This information aids in the arrangement and description of the collection, to honor the original order of the record keeping system and provenance. An example would be keeping enclosed photographs and clippings with letters and not separate them by format. The letter is kept with similar correspondence as a function of its use. This can be seen with email. Messages are kept in the email record keeping system in mailboxes: received, sent, drafts, and any other folders created by the user. Attachments are maintained. Most people do not alter this record keeping system. Unfortunately, with hard copy files, the system may be compromised by rearranging material, all too common with personal papers.

It is also common to find various levels of order and disorder within a collection.

Record carton containing loose papersRecord carton containing loose papersIf the provenance and original order is compromised or non-existent, series may be created based on criteria that will aid research, by format, chronology, or function. The work of intellectually arranging personal papers and archives is an art of applying these principles to create a type of hierarchical outline. This step may or may not be done simultaneously while physically rearranging the material. In case you are curious, this is the work I've been doing...

Sorting the Timothy Leary PapersSorting the Timothy Leary Papers

[1] International Council on Archives. "ISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description." ICA, 2000. Web. 1 Mar. 2012. <>.

[2] Roe, Kathleen. Arranging and describing archives and manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2005. 34-35.


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now i know

you've got your hands full - of a brilliant mind

I enjoyed this interesting

I enjoyed this interesting insight into the process of archiving a personal collection. And now I can use the word "fonds" in small talk to sound smart at the next cocktail party I attend.

Extraordinary project

Truly detailed summary of how you go about this endeavor. How long do you have to complete this project? Seems like the information Leary would have stored is endless.

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