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Dipping Our Toes In: Processing the San Antonio River Authority Records

July 11, 2016

This post was written by our San Antonio River Authority Records Processing Interns, Gina Watts and Abra Schnur.

When people outside of library and archives work ask about the San Antonio River Authority Records (SARA) project, I’ve told them that it’s a little bit like we were handed 140 disorganized boxes and told to run with it. To some, this may sound like a nightmare, but to an archivist, this situation could probably be described as both business as usual and incredibly satisfying work. Now that we are a few weeks in, we’d like to take some time to delve into the decision making work of arranging a large living collection and ultimately the effect these decisions will have on the usability of all of this great information.

If you’re a Top Shelf regular, you may have seen this post, detailing the beginning of another large project, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project/Willie C. Velasquez Records (SVREP). Every acquisition is different, and in our case, we were spared the storage unit filled to the brim with falling-apart boxes and loose sheets of paper. Because our boxes came to us in a more organized way, complete with inventory and labels, our work is necessarily different than that of the staff working on SVREP. Despite starting out in decent shape, though, each box still has a way to go before being archivally sound. For one thing, records are not housed in acid-free folders and boxes, but there are also frequent discrepancies between the inventory and folder labels and the records that are actually inside. Correcting these issues is crucial to making the collection overall more usable to the community.

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Before and after processing

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Even with an inventory to work from, there are adjustments to make. This shows the discussion of rehousing material, indexing items, and files missing from the designated box.

For us, the difficult work was sorting out the projects that SARA has completed under the direction of the San Antonio Channel Improvements Project (SACIP). SACIP was authorized by the US Congress in 1954 and created a partnership with the US Army Corps of Engineers (COE) to provide funding for better flood control for the San Antonio region. Projects associated with SACIP have been going on ever since, with the COE providing funding for construction and SARA and the city at large providing upkeep for the structures. For their part, SARA acts as the local sponsor for flood control in Bexar and surrounding counties, voicing local concerns and interests, and provides required land and easements, relocates utilities, and builds bridges and other betterments to the beautification to the city. This partnership has resulted in the majority of the recognizable parts of the San Antonio river system, including Olmos Dam, work on San Pedro Creek, and improvements to the Riverwalk.

With all of this work comes a small mountain, or 140 linear feet, of correspondence, blueprints, maps, photographs, and contracts, much of which is associated with a particular project (or occasionally, a particular phase of a particular project in a particular unit – you get the idea). Getting the arrangement right means knowing the organization inside and out.  Even with extensive research, we still make decisions about where a certain project belongs and then have to rethink our decisions the next day. But by keeping meticulous notes about file locations, we can revisit that decision easily and make adjustments. Through all this, we like to think we have found a way to meld the majority of SARA’s existing filing structure with archival descriptive standards, something that we feel is important for a living collection such as this one.  By doing so, we will make sure every file can be found by SARA employees and local researchers alike and open up fascinating windows into history through items like these:

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Olmos Dam progress photo taken prior to SARA’s existence, 1926

This photo was potentially used by SARA during its own Olmos Dam modification projects. This historical photo offers insight to early 20th century developments and flood control practices in San Antonio.

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Protected 100-year-old tree in King William, 1967

Can you find the SARA employee for scale? This photo was an attachment to a letter to the COE recommending that the widening of the river take place to the west so that established trees and residences would be left intact.

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Old San Juan Dam view, 1988

The rectification of the San Juan Dam and the Asylum and No Name Creeks restored the flow of water down the acequia and repaired the acequia where it crossed the creeks. Restoration of the flow of water in the acequia satisfies the oldest water right in the State of Texas with a date of December 31, 1731. (via

Stay tuned for a progress update on SARA as we move forward. Only 70 boxes to go!

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