Guest Post: Alexandrea Penn on Raven Award Experience

(36033) American Top 40 with Casey Kasem, circa 1980s.

What do Casey Kasem, Lily Tomlin, and Jeffrey Tambor all have in common? They are all Wayne State alumni, and their portraits are part of the Wayne State University Photograph Collection. The University's Public Relations Department (formerly Media Services) is responsible for capturing images of staff members, faculty, and students in order to record the members of their campus. The photographs in the collection span over fifty years, up to the early 2000s.

Alexandrea Penn was the Winter 2017 recipient of the Ronald Raven Annual Award. The following is her summary of the internship.

As part of my Raven Award project, I worked on rehousing university photographs created by the PR Department. When I began, the photographs were located within more than a dozen storage boxes shelved within the audiovisual stacks of the Reuther Library. The photographs needed to be removed from the box, sorted in alphabetical order, and then rehoused in file cabinets to provide better access. This process was not always straightforward. Often I would discover photographs that were not part of the portrait series, but rather belonged in other areas of the collection. Additionally, some portraits had been further defined by campus unit or subject, such as the football team or the theatre department and thus needed to be kept together as a subgrouping.

I quickly discovered there were more of these subgroups than expected, and there was no clear record of what they were. Some groups of individuals shared some common link, but we were unsure what that link was. Following best practices of archival processing, it was crucial to maintain the order set by the creator. In this case, that meant an index produced by the Public Relations Department years ago.

Rehousing photographs can be a complicated process. I checked to make sure there was no mold or other damage to the images and removed damaging staples. An additional complication was remarrying negatives that had become unattached from their corresponding prints. Though maintaining original order protected against loss of information, photo negatives will eventually be separated and housed according to best practices for preservation. The Raven Award project is now finished, and I am volunteering additional time in order to perform this crucial work. Currently housed in mail envelopes attached to photos by staples and aging tape, negatives will be placed in separate archival sleeves and boxes to lengthen their life span. Preservation standards dictate that negatives receive separate housing and controlled environment, particularly because they are often valuable as the original image, and preferred for any reproductions.

With the sesquicentennial anniversary of Wayne State just around the corner, many people will be interested in the history of the university's staff, faculty, and students. As I was filing the photographs, I was also responsible for flagging important people. This allowed me to learn a lot about the university I attend. I was able to identify the people whose names are on buildings throughout campus, such as former Wayne State President David Adamany or former Law School Dean Arthur Neef. In fact, I flagged images containing any of the University's presidents, such as William Keast and George Gullen, but also many VIPs, such as Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson, and Walter Reuther. Facilitating research requests, the strict alphabetical order and special interest flagging will also assist in selecting images for digitization to add to the Reuther's online photograph collections.

As an archival student, sometimes it is difficult imagining putting theory into practice. While working on the Raven Award project, I was able to gain some hands-on experience working with photographs and learning the inherent challenges of misidentification or missing identification. Because I was also taking a course on preserving audiovisual materials at the same time, it provided valuable perspective. The project was a great opportunity to experience archival work and I am grateful to the Reuther Library and Mr. Raven for allowing me this opportunity. I am especially grateful to Deborah Rice for working closely with me on this project.

The Ronald Raven Annual Award provides a tuition stipend and semester-long internship in the Wayne State University Archives to Wayne State University graduate students in the fall and winter semester. The details of the award are located on the Reuther Library Scholarships page.