Making Order Out of Chaos at MOHAI
By Sheri Boggs
Sheri Boggs

The Sophie Frye Bass Library isn’t exactly a high-octane, information-interchanging environment. Most mornings the downstairs hallways of the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) were all but deserted and I’d feel kind of bad meeting the glassy stare of Bobo (the famous and long-dead gorilla from Woodland Park Zoo) on my way to work each morning. “Someone should come visit you,” I’d muse silently and then remember that it was only summer and the crowds of grade school kids would all be back in the fall.

A Portrait of Anders Beer Wilse (1865-1949)

Like many of my iSchool experiences, my Directed Field Work at MOHAI was another opportunity in which to feel really in over my head. Having worked in several Digital Initiatives projects in Special Collections at UW, I really wanted to get some experience with the writing of finding aids. I also wanted to get some experience working in a special library and quite frankly, from the time I was a wee librarian-to-be visiting the Latah County Historical Society at the age of seven, I’ve always had a thing for regional history. I was also okay with the fact that I had friends doing DFWs at the Smithsonian or in Rome while I was doing my DFW in a modest facility less than three miles from my apartment. “Small is good,” I reminded myself, and I began to feel a funny sort of insider-pride about the artifacts I passed on my way to work, the wooden water skis attached to a tiny pair of red Keds dating back to the ‘50s, the hydroplane “Slo Mo Shun IV” and a fabulously leggy Rainier Beer standing heron-like on top of a display case.

My work at the Sophie Frye Bass Library consisted of writing and doing research for finding aids intended to be added to the Northwest Digital Archives website ( My first project was easy – a finding aid for one album of photographs by Anders Beer Wilse, a Norwegian photographer whose images I’d previously worked with at UW. Under the excellent guidance of librarian Carolyn Marr and recent UW MLIS grad Jody Hendrickson, my projects became increasingly complex and towards the end I was wrangling with the oddly fascinating 70-years-worth of shipping lists, meeting minutes and correspondence of the Alaska Fisherman’s Union and fielding email reference questions almost like an old pro.

Interior, Restaurant ( 1906.01.16)

The most exciting thing I got to do was also the most chaotic, which was to process a bunch of stuff that had been donated by the Moran family. The Moran Brothers Shipbuilding Company had been a major employer in the Puget Sound area in the early decades of the 20th century and the faintly mildewed, dusty boxes I went through included pictures of their famous steamship the U.S.S. Nebraska, some regional interest books signed by their authors (including Edmond S. Meany), family snapshots from a trip to California and photographs of their magnificent estate on Orcas Island, Rosario. This might sound pretty straightforward, but we quickly learned that a lot of the photographs in the musty boxes were actually the same images we already had in our collection. Furthermore, how was I going to organize all this loose ephemera into neatly, foldered, user-friendly order, tucked inside varying sizes of gray Hollinger boxes?

I slowly sorted through it all. And then sorted it again. And again. And each time I considered a photograph, a book, a document, things began to click into place in my brain. Suddenly something Allyson Carlyle said in 530 came back to me, or my practice with the Internet Public Library in 521 would remind me of some resource I could use to better hone in on the context of my collection. For someone who came in to this program not knowing metadata from her elbow, these small moments were major. Theory from the classroom, concepts I’d wrestled with just six months earlier were suddenly clicking into place like the numbers of a combination lock. Second and third-years have probably all had experiences like the one I’m talking about (and probably a lot sooner than I did). First years, if you’re reading this and wondering if any of what you’re learning in 500, 510, 520 and beyond is ever going to make any sense, I promise you, that day will come.


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Page last updated: October 10, 2006