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PACSCL Hidden Collections Processing Project » Blog Archive » Did we process 52 cubic feet in one day?!

Did we process 52 cubic feet in one day?!

Written by Dan Cavanaugh on May 31st, 2011

When Devin and I started working for the PACSCL/CLIR Hidden Collections project, I thought that we would at most process 7 or maybe even 8 cubic feet of materials in a single day. My assumption turned out to be very wrong. Over the course of one day in March, Devin and I processed 52 cubic feet of materials. The discovery that we had processed so much in such a short time prompted me to ask two questions: How did we do it? And, did we really process all of those materials?

Before I can answer these questions, let me give some information about the collection Devin and I were processing at the time – The Religious News Service (RNS) records at the Presbyterian Historical Society. The creator of these records, RNS (now called the Religion News Service) is a news service that has been dedicated to providing information about religion and ethics to newspapers and radio stations in the United States. Since its founding in the 1930s, the service has distributed a wide range of publications including syndicated articles, editorials, and photographs.

The RNS records contain copies of nearly every publication and photograph distributed by the organization between the late 1930s and early 1980s. During that period, RNS not only covered a wide range of subjects (e.g. World War II, the civil rights movement, ecumenical movements, evangelism and religious cults), it was also very prolific. According to our calculations, the RNS collection consists of over 600 cubic feet of materials.

Devin and I faced a major challenge when we began the RNS project, how were we going to process such a large volume of materials in ten or less weeks? Before we started the RNS project, we were told that we would not be able to use exactly the same processing methods that we had used for other collections at Presbyterian Historical Society. For example, early estimates showed that it would have likely taken Devin and me at least two months to type every folder title in the collection into the finding aid’s container list.

So, what did we do? How did we process over 600 cubic feet in a little over two months? Well, there were three major factors that contributed to the timely processing of the RNS records collection.

  1. The RNS records collection is ideally suited for minimal processing methods. The original arrangement and folder titles of the collection were so clear that little additional arrangement was needed. Every RNS publication was organized by publication type and in chronological order. If Devin and I had wanted to find a single RNS publication for any given day between 1940 and 1981, we could easily find it. Also, if Devin and I had wanted to search for materials covering a major historical event, we could consult the collection’s series of subject files where additional copies of the RNS publications had been filed by topic.
  2. Rather than examining the materials in every folder we sampled the materials in the collection. Devin and I pulled 8 folders from every cubic foot box and examined the materials they contained. We took notes about these materials and later used the notes to develop a finding aid for the collection.  We were confident that this approach would allow us to develop a fairly accurate view of the entire RNS records because of the nature of the materials in the collection. Early in the project we discovered that while most of the RNS publications contained unique information, certain editorial patterns (e.g. the format of the publications, the kinds of subjects that were covered, the writing style) persisted throughout the entire collection. Because of these patterns, Devin and I were able to gain a good sense about the information researchers would likely find in the RNS records through our sample.
  3. We had some help. Devin and I would not have been able to finish our work with the RNS records without the help of David Staniunas at the Presbyterian Historical Society. David sampled a large portion of the photographs and photographic negatives in the collection and shared his notes with us.

Having explained how we processed the RNS records, let me address the other question posed at the beginning of this post—did we really process the RNS records? I don’t know if I have an answer. On one hand, and I think everybody who has been directly involved with the collection would agree, more work could and should be done with the RNS records. For example, it would be great if we could examine every folder in the collection and describe it at the file level. On the other hand, I recognize that additional work would take a considerable amount of time and money. If we had waited until these resources became available, the collection may have remained hidden for a long time. To paraphrase what Holly has written in an earlier post on this blog, our work will ideally be a first step in the arrangement, description and preservation of the RNS collection.

These issues of course are at the heart of the debates about processing that are going on within the archival profession. I do believe that we have made a valuable contribution to the future of the RNS records. Hopefully, with the completion of the collection’s online finding aid, more researchers will be able to learn about the RNS records and soon make use of the rich and extensive materials.


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