Vol 35 | No 1 | Fall 16
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The Sleeper Mosaic

ImageLike a finely assembled work of art, the personal papers of author and historian Jim Sleeper (1927-2012) bring together over 50 years of historical writing, photographs, newspaper clippings, maps, and artifacts to create a magnificent opus palladianum of Orange County, California history. No less impressive than the multitude of pieces that constitute this collection are the number of hands that helped prepare the papers for their debut as an open resource in Special Collections & Archives. The long list includes loved ones, friends, archivists, library professionals and many UCI student employees.

Of greatest importance is Sleeper's wife of 47 years, Nola, who, in 2014, selected UCI as the repository to expertly care for her husband's life's work. Nola made herself available to archives staff until the transfer of records was complete, and continued to answer questions and offer insight as the papers went through archival treatment.

In August of that year, 124 boxes of Sleeper's research files, subject files, topical files, manuscripts, scholarly writings, and annotated copies of books were delivered to the Langson Library. But, before the collection would be research-ready, a little archives magic needed to happen. Archivists refer to it as processing and, generally speaking, processing transforms disarray into order, and provides greater accessibility of archival materials. Although Sleeper's collection was not terribly untidy, it did require some proper archival housing, a clear arrangement, and a detailed description before it would be open to the public.

ImageTo get the collection into a stable environment, a large-scale re-housing effort was coordinated. Using student help, staff oversaw the transfer of files from everyday banker's boxes, which actually accelerate paper decay, into acid-free boxes. Basic descriptions were written in pencil on the exterior of the boxes, and each box was tracked by receiving its very own shelving location, label and entry into a database.

Once the Sleeper papers were physically protected, it was important for the archivist to place it intellectually within the proper context and note significant areas of Sleeper's work. Usually, the information necessary to accomplish this is found through background research or via an in-depth survey of the material itself. Luckily for UCI, Phil Brigandi, local Orange County historian and close friend of Sleeper, was available and willing to contribute his valuable knowledge to the project.

Enjoying a friendship that spanned 35 years, Phil and Jim were mutually passionate about presenting local history with wit and flair and wrote entertaining books and articles on Orange County history. Because Phil shared a devotion to historical research with Jim, and worked with him on several projects throughout the years, he intimately understood the ways in which Jim worked. This was crucial to understanding the correct organization of his papers, and imperative to cracking the code that unlocked Jim's system of index cards.

About the index cards, Phil writes

"At first glance, Jim Sleeper's index cards can seem rather daunting. A closer inspection will show that they are rather daunting. Tightly-typed and full of abbreviations, the cards were designed for his use alone. But with a little work, they can still yield many valuable references to material in his collection. They are especially useful in accessing the tens of thousands of newspaper clippings in his Newspaper Clippings files."

ImageThe index cards make up one entire series of the Sleeper papers and have their own description, user guide and concordance; which Phil was able to produce much more effortlessly than would have been possible by an archivist who was unfamiliar with the materials. Nola, in particular, deeply appreciated all of Phil's contributions. She said that the papers "are in infinitely better shape than Jim was able to leave them in, and I am grateful for that." Phil's work resulted in the excellent narrative description of Sleeper's papers that is found in the online finding aid.

And what of the archivist? The mortar, if you will, of the tessellation? Throughout the project the archivist coordinated all processing tasks and, in the end, joined the pieces together into one unified design. There were books to sort, cataloging functions to arrange, and permanent storage solutions to be made. Phil's narrative descriptions needed to be seamlessly connected to the content descriptions and loaded into an archival management system. Most of all, there was the online finding aid to render and post, thereby making what is perhaps the largest private research collection on the history of Orange County accessible to students, faculty and independent scholars, as well as those who desire a glimpse into the lively writing and multifaceted collection that is the Jim Sleeper papers.

For more information contact Kelly Spring, Archivist for Special Collections at kspring@uci.edu.