Replica canal schooner Lois McClure and tugboat CL Churchill on Lake Champlain near Burlington, VT

A Behind-the-Scenes Look into the Archival Process

By Kelly Bartlett, Lois McClure Archive Project Archivist

After nearly 20 years on the water, our 1862-class replica sailing canal schooner, Lois McClure, will retire in October 2023. Alongside the miles traveled and memories shared by those aboard Lois, there also comes the institutional responsibility and physical process of preserving the mission of this historic project. Earlier this year, I was given the opportunity by Lake Champlain Maritime Museum to create an archive focused solely on Lois, utilizing my degree in Archives & Records Management to ensure that the project’s memory is accessible to all, and that the wealth of knowledge gained through this endeavor continues to be drawn upon.  

As we prepare for the retirement of the Museum’s 1862-class replica canal schooner, the Museum team has been hard at work preserving all the records associated with the project since its inception in 2001. Over the spring and summer, I’ve gone through boxes of paper records, thousands of digital photos, and all project files related to create the Lois McClure Archive, which is now available for researchers and interested parties to access. Today, I’m sharing a behind the scenes look at what an archive is, why it is created, and how to access the objects within it.

(Top image: Lois McClure and CL Churchill on Lake Champlain, 2011)

What is an archive?   

An archive is a space that holds records of enduring value. This may include photographs, letters, reports, maps, manuscripts, and a variety of other objects that are considered important to those affiliated with the archive. The fairly broad definition of an archive allows archivists, who are fully submerged in the collection, the opportunity to curate a space that preserves objects aligning with the mission and vision of the repository and containing permanent importance. The role of an archivist is to assess, collect and organize, preserve, and provide access to the collection. Objects found within an archive can be utilized in a variety of ways, however their primary function is for research and education.

Artifacts on Lois McClure used for interpretation, 2005

How is an archive different from a library or museum?  

Archives can often be found in libraries or museums, which can make parsing the difference between the two challenging unless you find yourself working within them. Nevertheless there are some key differences.  

Similar to a library, an archive is a collection of preserved and accessible materials that are often used for learning and research; however the contents of an archive are often irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind objects and not books that could be replaced if they become worn or damaged.  

Museums typically have archives from which they can draw upon for exhibits or research, but museums and archives are not the same. Often a museum will collect, study, and create programs based around physical objects, whereas an archive consists largely of paper and electronic records. Our current collection from Lois McClure has a variety of these kinds of records along with physical objects such as antique dolls, lanterns, and artwork, making it an important part of the Museum. 

Jack McCramels with the peppermint oil box he donated, 2007.  This box from Lyons, New York once held bottles of peppermint oil that won the First Prize Medal at the Great Paris Exposition of 1867. 

How can I use an archive?  

If a research collection is open to the public, you can request access to it. However, this can be a daunting, even slightly overwhelming task. Archives can be massive and hold years of information. To help archivists and their researchers gain a handle on what is in a collection or to assist them in locating an object, these professionals rely on what we call Archival Catalogs and Finding Aids. Archival Catalogs contain a large series of information provided by the archivist, and while critically important, these can be quite overwhelming. As a solution, a Finding Aid is often best for those looking to gain their footing within a given archive or collection.   

A finding aid helps to consolidate information about the collection, such as acquisition, access, scope, organization, and arrangement.  

In our current collection visitors can find acquisition information, a brief history of the collection, scope and content notes for major pieces of the collection, alongside contents description. They are informative yet brief to not be overwhelming. For example, here’s a snippet from the scope and content note about the Captain’s Logs (to be featured in an upcoming blog post):  

“The Captain’s Logs are a series of daily posts written by those aboard the Lois throughout the entirety of the schooner’s touring years. Posted as an online series, at the end of each touring season the Captain’s Logs were featured in the tour’s annual report and printed out as part of the collection.  These can be accessed both physically and electronically and are filed by date.”  

The catalog itself has every Captain’s Log noted with important descriptive metadata (data about data!) such as a description of its appearance, its contents, when it was created, and where the objects can be located.  

Archives are important homes for primary sources that drive a lot of exciting research and educational programs available within libraries and museums. While sometimes the terminology can be tricky the contents of archives are wonderful springs of curiosity and learning. Many archives can be available for public inquiry and visitation. To learn more about the Lois McClure Archiving Project, you can do so here.

The archival process does not stop here. We want to receive your contributions! If you have a favorite memory, story, photo, or video of your experience with Lois McClure to share, please submit it to our Memory Box to be reviewed for inclusion in the Lois McClure Archive.