An Archivist’s View, Part One

By Bethanie

In the spirit of American Archives Month, we’ve decided to discuss the role of the archivist in a personal fashion.  That being said, a brief introduction is in order.  As you can tell from above, my name is Bethanie.  My presence on Florida Memory up to this point is with the series of blog posts on the Koreshan Collection.  I work at the State Archives as a Project Archivist where my main responsibility is arranging and describing the aforementioned collection.

Each archivist comes to the field in a different way.  Some seek out the profession directly while others happen upon it. On the whole, I identify most with the former rather than the latter method. What follows are my thoughts, opinions, and experiences as an archivist; my metaphorical archival soap-box. 

A portion of the Koreshan Collection

A portion of the Koreshan Collection

So, what is an archivist? Or, more importantly in terms of this post, what does it mean to be one? One of the first bits of advice I was given when I started as a student in an archival education program was the importance of an archivist elevator speech. In other words, a 20 second speech designed to explain and justify my role as an archivist to anyone who asked.  Fast forward two years, and I’m still working on it.  I suppose part of my problem is in my inability to condense my thoughts.  A much easier, though longer, way for me to explain begins with my experience.

I decided I wanted to be an archivist while at my internship for my history degree. I worked in a historical society in Western Pennsylvania where I transcribed correspondence written by a member of an expedition to the North Pole.  I enjoyed learning about the early 20th century through one man’s life in letters.  Needless to say, I was hooked.

Next step: master’s degree.  Fortunately, I lived within an hour of a university where an archives specialization in the Library and Information Science program was offered.  Thus began my archival education.

Theories and best practices, arguments and discussions.  Debates over Sir Hilary Jenkinson and Theodore R. Schellenberg.  Functional analysis vs. Macroappraisal vs. Documentation Strategy vs. countless other approaches to appraisal. Drills on provenance, original order, and a determination to always, always respect des fonds.   I, along with my classmates, spent many months in a theoretical think tank. After a long class of discussing a topic ad nauseum, we’d eventually come to the same question: why?

Enter, experience.  While interning at a university archive and participating in collaborative projects with a local museum, the endless discussions started to make sense. Their relevancy beyond the classroom became apparent as we applied best practice and theory to the task at hand. 

As a project archivist I draw from my education and that of fellow archivists daily.  It’s a constant back-and-forth activity.  There seems to be a divide between a concentration on theory and on the reality of everyday archival operations. I think the truth of the archival profession is somewhere in between. While theory and practice are necessary in the archival sphere, theory requires experience in order to be fully appreciated. Of course, that’s just my point of view!

Stay tuned later this week for my thoughts on the archives profession today!

The Koreshan Unity Collection: An Inside Look into Processing a Large Archival Collection (Part Six)

Preliminary inventory: Check.

Transfer to State Archives: Check.

Initial sort of boxes: Check.

Now it’s time to begin detailed processing; but where to start? Something especially intriguing, such as members’ personal correspondence? Something likely to be very heavily used and with great exhibit potential, such as photographs? Something fun, such as the Koreshans’ sheet music collection?

Fox Trot for Orchestra

Fox Trot for Orchestra

Lunar Festival Overture

Lunar Festival Overture

We decided upon a two-pronged approach, addressing both the photographs and the administrative and operational records of the organization first. Not only will the photographs be heavily used, but about 1,000 of the images will receive item-level cataloging and be made available on the Florida Memory website with the assistance of a federal grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

Most of the photographs were grouped together in plastic cases or scrapbooks. Most were fairly well identified, and those that were not were usually easy to identify based on their context among better-identified photos. The photos included a small number of glass plate negatives, primarily portraits of Cyrus Teed that also exist as prints, but also images of Teed’s body after his death that apparently are the only such images in existence (see Part Three of this series). The glass plate portrait below did not survive the trip from Estero to Tallahassee; fortunately, the rest of them did, and they are being placed in custom enclosures to prevent any future damage.

Broken Glass Plate Portrait

The administrative records were also a logical choice to address early in the project, since they document in detail the operations of the organization from its beginnings, and provide a foundation for understanding the organization and the rest of the collection. Original constitutions, minutes of meetings, bylaws, organizational correspondence, legal and financial records, property records, and more have been identified and organized, moving from inaccessible piles of envelopes in boxes such as this:

Unorganized Administrative Records

to well-organized, clearly-identified archival folders and boxes such as these.

Organized Administrative Files

Along the way, we’ve discovered a number of unexpected items in the collection. More on that next time!

Koreshan Unity, by Beth and Bethanie (Part Five)

The Koreshan Unity Collection: An Inside Look into Processing a Large Archival Collection (Part Five)

Our first few posts have mostly focused on the Koreshan Unity collection as a whole. But now that we have an initial sort of the boxes, we’d like to talk about processing efforts at the box level. Here’s where archivists really get their hands dirty – often literally!

As discussed in previous posts, with the general absence of original order or any obvious organizational scheme, each box proves to be different from the last. Even after we completed our initial sort of the boxes, we knew that we had an enormous arrangement challenge in front of us. However, we had no idea of the extent of the problem until we started closely examining the contents of each box. Typically the records had been placed in envelopes of various sizes. Many of the envelopes bear handwritten content listings and an alpha-numeric code, a remnant of one of many rearrangements imposed upon the collection since its birth in the late 19th century.

Here is an example:

However, due to continued handling and rearranging of the records, the individual items we found inside each envelope often bore no relation to each other or to the envelope’s content listing.

Administrative records tend to have a standardized form with their context readily available and are more easily identified and arranged despite their initial disorder. This owes to their main function of documenting the daily operations of the Unity, quite often for financial and legal purposes. For example, the box pictured below houses financial records that were relatively easy for us to identify and organize once we removed them from the envelopes or other enclosures in which they had been stored.

On the other hand, tackling a poorly organized box of correspondence or personal records proves much more challenging when properly identifying and arranging the records relies on a context that is not readily discernible. More about this soon!

Koreshan Unity Collection (Part Four)

The Koreshan Unity Collection: An Inside Look into Processing a Large Archival Collection

We now know a bit about Cyrus Teed, founder of the Koreshan Unity, and about the collection of records and papers accumulated by the Unity and its members. But how do we transform that collection from the initial state of near-chaos in which we found it into an organized, accessible collection that is easy and inviting for researchers to use?

In addition to generous financial assistance from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) which allowed us to hire a full-time Project Archivist, it has taken a lot of planning and hard work that began long before the Koreshan Unity collection arrived in Tallahassee.

The work began in September 2008 with a visit to the College of Life Foundation, the Estero, Florida headquarters of the successor organization that continues to administer the Koreshan Unity’s remaining business affairs.

Koreshan image

One lower room of the building housed the Koreshan Unity archives. All four walls of the room were completely shelved from end-to-end and floor-to-ceiling, and all the shelves were filled with envelopes of various shapes and sizes crammed with records and papers. Looking back at the room as we first saw it, we can see three of these walls in the left foreground and the center and right background.

Koreshan Collection

The records in this room included everything from late 19th century Cyrus Teed writings, to financial records and State Park records from the 1970s, to piles of disorganized photographs of every time period, subject and image quality. What to do?

Here’s what: We began a preliminary inventory of the collection by numbering every shelf in the room and preparing a rough listing of the contents of each shelf based on envelope descriptions and a cursory review of their contents. Koreshan State Historic Site staff were very generous with their time and helped complete the preliminary inventory after our visit, packing the records in boxes labeled to coordinate with our assigned shelf numbers, and preparing a rough list of the records already stored in boxes. Months later, the bulk of the packed collection was stacked in what had been the College of Life library awaiting transport to the State Library and Archives. Looks better already, doesn’t it?

Koreshan Collection

Following the May 2009 transfer of the collection to the Archives, staff conducted an initial sort of the boxes and envelopes of records into general categories based on the information from the preliminary shelf and box inventories. We expected that these general categories – administrative records, Cyrus Teed papers, member family papers, subject files, tracts and articles, photos, etc. – would form the initial basis of record series that would be more fully identified during detailed processing of the collection.

Koreshan Collection

So here we sat with stacks and stacks of boxes in rough groupings that we hoped to transform into logical, well-organized record series. Where do we go from here? To the next post in this series, of course! Keep an eye out for Part Five.

The Koreshan Unity Collection (Part Three)

The Koreshan Unity Collection: An Inside Look into Processing a Large Archival Collection

What – or who – could convince over 200 individuals to exchange their comfortable lives for a celibate religious communal settlement in a remote corner of southwest Florida?

As we continue processing the papers of the Koreshan Unity, supported in part by grant funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), we learn more about the early members of this fascinating movement and its charismatic founder, Dr. Cyrus Teed.

A Utica, New York physician with interests in alchemy, physics and metaphysics, Teed conceived what would become known as Koreshanity in 1869 after experiencing a late-night religious vision in his laboratory. During what he called his “illumination,” he saw a beautiful woman who revealed to him a series of universal truths which formed the fundamental principles of Koreshan belief (more on this in future posts). We can never be certain whether Teed’s experience followed being knocked unconscious by an electrical shock, as some say, or a period of intense meditation, as others say.

Following his illumination, Teed began writing and speaking about his beliefs. He joined a Shaker community in 1878, then in 1880 founded a communal settlement in Moravia, New York. The community failed, as did a subsequent attempt in New York City. Teed’s persuasive oratory finally enabled him to assemble a firm core of followers in Chicago in the late 1880s, incorporating his organization there as the College of Life in 1886. Teed assumed the name Koresh in 1891 and, a few years later, began moving his followers to Estero, Florida, where he intended to establish the “New Jerusalem.”

Excerpt from Teed’s journal noting Washington D.C. trip in 1896

Excerpt from Teed’s journal noting Washington D.C. trip in 1896

As the Koreshan community grew and flourished in the early 1900s, tensions arose between the Unity and politicians and citizens of nearby Fort Myers, leading to a brawl on October 13, 1906, in which Teed was hit in the head and face several times. His health declined quickly following the fight, and he died on December 22, 1908.

Reincarnation was one of the truths revealed during Teed’s illumination nearly 40 years earlier, and he and his followers expected that his death (and theirs) would be followed by physical resurrection and immortality. Among the thousands of photographic images in the Koreshan Unity collection are several glass negatives of the deceased Teed in the bath tub into which his followers placed him as they awaited his resurrection until, a week later, the Lee County health officer finally ordered the dismayed followers to bury the body.

In a final sad twist, the mausoleum in which Teed was finally buried washed to sea during an October 1921 hurricane; the body was never found.

Recounting of the Ft. Meyers brawl in the Unity’s newspaper, The American Eagle

Recounting of the Ft. Meyers brawl in the Unity’s newspaper, The American Eagle

[UPDATED: Page 2]

Recounting of the Ft. Meyers brawl in the Unity’s newspaper, The American Eagle (page 2)

Recounting of the Ft. Meyers brawl in the Unity’s newspaper, The American Eagle (page 2)


Koreshan Unity Collection (Part Two)

The Koreshan Unity Collection: An Inside Look into Processing a Large Archival Collection (Part Two)

In 2009, the Koreshan Unity collection was transferred to the State Archives of Florida and staff began their initial assessment and planning for processing the collection.

The collection had been rearranged numerous times over the course of its century of existence, so archivists could not determine in what order the records might have originally been filed or used – what archivists refer to as original order.

Here is a typical box as it appeared upon arrival at the State Archives:

Unprocessed box

In the absence of original order or any obvious organizational scheme, archivists began by identifying general categories of activities or topical areas under which all of the records appeared to fall. Archivists then began a rough sort of the boxes into these categories, forming preliminary record series, or sets of files that document certain functions or activities of the organization.

In late 2011, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) awarded the State Archives grant funding to conduct detailed processing of the collection. The grant enabled the Archives to hire a full-time project archivist whose work we are highlighting throughout this series of posts.

Processing the collection

Koreshan Unity Collection

The Koreshan Unity Collection: An Inside Look into Processing a Large Archival Collection (Part One)

Ever wonder what archivists mean when they say a collection is in process?

This is the first in a series of posts about processing a large historical records collection. Join us as we transform hundreds of boxes of disorganized, mislabeled files into an accessible, understandable, research-ready collection.

Assisted by National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant funding, the State Archives of Florida is processing the records of the Koreshan Unity, a late 19th/early 20th century religious utopian community whose members shared a common belief in Koreshanity.

Among the Unity’s unique beliefs was their guiding principal that the Earth existed as a concave sphere. As a result, Earth’s populace lived inside the Earth, with the planets existing in the center of the sphere where the Earth’s core would otherwise have been.

Poster depicting Koreshan beliefs

Poster depicting Koreshan beliefs


The Koreshan Unity collection contains many thousands of documents and photographs illustrating the members’ beliefs and the expression of those beliefs in their communal lifestyle. The collection accumulated for a century throughout the Unity’s existence. In 2008 and 2009, State Archives staff traveled to Estero, Florida, to evaluate the collection and identify materials of historical importance to be transferred to the Archives. Here is what we found in Estero:

Koreshan Unity Archives as stored in the College of Life Building: Estero, Florida

Koreshan Unity Archives as stored in the College of Life Building: Estero, Florida


With extensive assistance from Koreshan State Historic Site staff, archivists prepared and transported the historical records to Tallahassee so they could be preserved and made accessible.

Because the Koreshan Unity collection provides a unique look into both the archival process and Florida history, we’ve decided to share this journey with blog readers and patrons of the State Archives of Florida. Watch for future posts for more on the history of the Unity, collection processing activities and interesting finds in the collection.