By Kiri Raber
This summer I had the amazing opportunity to intern at the Florida State Archives in Tallahassee. I worked a total of 324 hours, and I worked in several different departments in order to get a small taste of the many moving parts that make up archival work. I began my time in collections management, where one of my first solo projects was organizing and creating the Hudson, Cason, Ives, Love, and Wilson family letters, 1887-1929 collection. This was a collection of handwritten letters all sent to the matriarch of the family, Mary Hudson [Warren] between 1887 and 1929. The letters contained information about births, sicknesses, farming, and life in general for a family living throughout Florida in the early twentieth century. I then worked on reading through an unpublished manuscript and adding that into the database, the Monroe Eugene Fletcher papers. Once I completed that collection, I began working on processing an acquisition from the Florida Fish and Wildlife commission, a large project that would take up the rest of my time in collections management. The series contained historical media consisting of photographs, slides, negatives, VHS tapes, and audio cassettes. Working in collection management helped me to better appreciate the work and time that archivists put into their acquisitions, as well as all the effort that goes into creating the metadata and back end of the catalogue.
My next department was Photography, and this department really helped me to tap into my creative side. While working there, I was fulfilling a request from a patron to have low-resolution scans of photographs from the building of the Gandy bridge in Tampa/St. Petersburg. Hailing from Tampa myself, I took a lot of joy in scanning the photos, cropping them, and touching them up a bit. The photo staff also taught me how to use Photoshop to color balance and repair photos for when patrons ask for more high-resolution photos. I then worked within the Reference section of the archives for a week. Reference is the side of the archives that the public can see, and this is where patrons and researchers can ask questions to aid in their research, as well as where the reading room is located. While working here, I learned how to find legislative documents that the State Archive houses, as well as helping to find resources on Black politicians in Florida during Reconstruction and information on Fire Trucks in the small town of Howey in the Hills. Even when our own databases were not as fruitful, it was great to help point patrons in the right direction for their research needs and I learned what it meant to work as the face of the Archive.
The final department I worked in was Florida Memory. Florida Memory works to digitize archival collections to help showcase Florida’s rich history and culture. While looking in the records of Governor Millard Caldwell, I stumbled across a lynching case that occurred in 1945, when an unknown person or persons took a young Black man named Jesse James Payne from his cell in Madison County and murdered him. When looking through Florida Memory, the person who was guiding me and I discovered that there was not a lot of information on Florida Memory that touched on lynchings. The EJI ranked Florida as number one for the number of lynchings per capita between the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, and we decided this would be the collection I would digitize to better help showcase this reality. The investigation that followed the death of Jesse James Payne seemed to me to be rushed and haphazard, and no one was ever prosecuted for the murder of Jesse James Payne. The sheriff responsible for the safety of Payne wasn’t even suspended, though Caldwell himself called the sheriff inept. Once all the items were digitized, I then was tasked with cataloguing them, growing the number of documents related to lynching in Florida from less than ten to over 100. All the documents I digitized and catalogued are now available to the public through Florida Memory.
Overall, working at the Florida State Archives this summer provided me with invaluable insight into the inner workings of the State Archives. The ability to work in multiple departments helped me to appreciate just how widespread skill sets for working in the archives need to be, and the opportunity to see a collection move from its acquisition to its digitization helped me to see the many different facets of archival work. Most importantly, my time in the Archives helped me to see all the labor that goes into creating something even so minor as a date next to a name. As a historian working within digital archives, these are things that I often took for granted as givens, things that seemed inherent among the collections as if the context had always been there. Now, however, I can better understand the way in which context is created within the Archive, and thus the power that archivists truly have over their records and our collected memories. It is not something that can be taken as lightly as I thought before, but it is something we must be careful and conscious of. Thus, archivists must remember that they are complicit in what is saved and seen within the archive and must constantly be aware of the future and impact they have on their collections.