What the heck is a Vertical File? This is a question I had when I began working in archives. We have three such large archival collections here at Hoole — University of Alabama Pamphlet Files, Alabama Vertical Files, and Rare Vertical Files — and I knew they were home to a variety of strange and wonderful things. But what is a vertical file, exactly, and why do things end up there?
A vertical file is a type of artificial collection, which means it was pulled together by archivists from among an archive’s holdings, rather than donated as a group. According to the Society of American Archivists glossary, these are “materials, often of an ephemeral nature, collected and arranged for ready reference” (source). The key word there is “ephemeral.”
In archives, ephemera are “materials, usually printed documents, created for a specific, limited purpose, and generally designed to be discarded after use” (source). Basically, these are items that may be interesting or helpful or just really cool — and therefore of lasting value –but were perhaps never meant to hang around as long as they have. A vertical file collection usually thrives on these kinds of items.
So these are things worth saving and providing access to that are maybe not substantial enough to warrant creating a whole collection around them. Think of it as the archives catchall. Our wonderful catchall collections occupy 150 boxes and take up 52.5 linear feet on the shelves. Let’s take a look at what kinds of things you’ll find in each, with a few examples
UA Pamphlet Files
This is an eclectic gathering of documents, loosely organized by subject. Much of the content is fliers, programs, and speech texts related to campus events or campus organizations’ activities. In addition, many items come from the Alumni Association, and from various academic units of the University.
Alabama Vertical Files
This collection is organized alphabetically by subject. The finding aid gives a good summary of its contents: materials, both published and unpublished, that document the history of the state of Alabama. These include items such as reprints, pamphlets, typescripts, and photocopies of documents relating to individuals, organizations, cities, and a large number of other topics.
Rare Vertical Files
This collection is highly organized, with most items falling into the following series: Almanacs, Art Catalogs, Associations, Biography, Business, Education, Guidebooks, History, Literature, Travel Brochures. See the finding aid for specifics.