Keeping it together: Mason PhD student cataloged historical films for new museum

Silent films depicting big cities and scenes of the civil rights movement flicker across the screen as Jordan Patty watches and takes notes.

The George Mason University history PhD student worked as a contract media collections cataloger this summer at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture while he was working on his dissertation.

His goal was to make sure media and physical objects are included in the museum’s catalog.

Many of the films Patty reviewed are silent and document the civil rights movement and NAACP activities. They were probably meant to be used in documentaries or shown at meetings, he added.

“I’m mainly working on films that are home movies shot by amateurs—short films, black-and-white [films],” Patty said in an interview this summer. “Some of these black filmmakers created movies for the federal government about the situation with housing and development in New York City.”

In the Mason PhD in History Program, Patty said he learned in-depth information about different periods of U.S. history, which provided him with the proper historical context to catalog media items.

“The research skills I gained from various projects as part of my course work were also key to success as the media collections cataloger,” he said.

Patty’s minor field of study at Mason included digital public history, archives and museums.

At the new museum, Patty said there can be as many as 200 films in one collection from one donor; films are sometimes donated with physical objects.

Media is identified and cataloged separately from the non-media items they arrived with, he said, and accession numbers are assigned to each collection.

Cataloging steps include creating subject headings and including subject information about who is in the film and where the film is stored within the museum.

Before working for the museum, Patty worked as a manuscripts and archives librarian at Mason Libraries and was able to apply what he learned there to his role at the Smithsonian.

“I worked on media description as part of my overall job [at Mason],” he said. “I learned a lot about the different descriptive practices necessary to properly describe a media item.”

Patty continues putting his history and archival experience to work for the federal government, this time in a permanent role at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Md., a position he began this month.