Sorting Cattle from Chaos: Processing the Kansas City Stockyards Collection

While the word "chaos" may seem a bit extreme, it is often what an archivist sees when confronted with a large collection that has no original order. Before Missouri Valley Special Collections (MVSC) staff acquired the Kansas City Stockyards Collection, its 6,000-plus items had been scattered about the Livestock Exchange Building. Any discernable order to the items — some over a century old — had been lost, and many were in fragile condition. Despite this daunting introduction, it was clear that the collection warranted preservation as an essential part of Kansas City history. Now, at the conclusion of a 2½-year project, this important collection has been arranged, described, and preserved and soon will be accessible to researchers.

How does one begin to make sense of decades of drawings, blueprints, maps, photographs, and documents of all shapes and sizes? As one of the archivists who worked on the Stockyards project, I know firsthand what a challenge this process can be. Fortunately for me, my MVSC colleague, collections librarian/archivist Kara Evans, completed the most difficult part of the project before I arrived on the scene. Kara began by creating a detailed inventory of every item, a painstaking process that helps to establish intellectual control over the collection before it can be arranged. The inventory, which took nearly nine months to compile, amounts to an impressive spreadsheet containing descriptive metadata about each item – size, date, condition, creator, and more. During this process, items that hold particular historical significance were noted, as well as those that needed preservation work.

After the initial inventory, Kara began the full arrangement or "cataloging" process, a crucial task that unifies the multitude of items into a cohesive, logical, and searchable collection. When arranging a special collection, archivists ideally maintain the order in which the items were originally created. This was not possible with the eclectic Stockyards materials, and Kara had to construct the arrangement by scrutinizing the inventory data within its historical context. With so many items, this was no small feat, and Kara subsequently became an expert on Kansas City’s history as a national center of the livestock industry. She likened the arrangement process to "turning over every piece in a massive, chaotic puzzle and figuring out how the pieces fit together to create a complete picture."

Photograph showing Kansas City Stockyards property and Kaw River area between 23rd Street Viaduct and Central Avenue

Indeed, gleaning history from such a wide range of documents, many of which were not clearly identified, demands a great deal of time, research, and patience. "It was like going on an adventure of discovery," Kara said. "I loved it, but there were definitely days when it all felt a little overwhelming." Such is the life of an archivist.

The delicate physical condition of many items was also one of the greatest challenges Kara and I encountered while processing the Stockyards materials. Dealing with preservation issues alone can occupy much of an archivist’s time, especially with a collection of this magnitude, and the ability to prioritize is essential. We created hundreds of custom sleeves to protect tattered items, many of which were large maps and blueprints that spanned several feet. Some items were digitized to provide safer access to potential researchers. Others, having been tightly rolled for decades, were too stiff and brittle to open. Using an archival humidifier, they were carefully uncoiled and flattened—a process that turned nearly unusable drawings, blueprints, and land abstracts into accessible primary documents.

Part of the collection during initial processing

We archivists may not be known for our brawn, but physically arranging the mostly oversized Stockyards collection demanded a surprising amount of physical labor. The entire collection had to be rehoused, meaning that the large, cumbersome items were placed into new, acid-free folders and archival boxes or rolled onto special tubes. While the work could be tough at times, Kara and I feel privileged to be among the first people to care for these important items that have long been hidden from view.

A few of the rolled items after completing arrangement

So what does the Kansas City Stockyards Collection look like after all of this work? Over two years of processing can be boiled down to 20 map drawers and over 66 shelves packed full of Cowtown history, as well as one central artifact – the official finding aid for the collection, which will be available to researchers in January 2016. Many researchers may be particularly interested in materials relating to the construction of the Livestock Exchange Building, the American Royal Exposition Building, and various meat packing plants, as well as extensive series of area maps, land abstracts, and materials relating to flood control in the West Bottoms. For more information about the items in the Kansas City Stockyards Collection, please contact Missouri Valley Special Collections.

A damaged 1905 Kaw River Topographic Map is place into a protective sleeve

Generous funding for this project has been provided by private donors and by the Council on Library and Information Resources as part of the Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives initiative, which is generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

About the Author

Joanna Marsh is a Special Collections Librarian, Missouri Valley Special Collections.


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