Chaos to Order, in 4 hours or less

Written by Michael Gubicza on June 3rd, 2011

Written by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen and Michael Gubicza.

Unknown size: small.

When we first saw the boxes holding the Belfield papers, stacked on shelves in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, we said to each other: “Ohhh boy, I bet there’s good stuff in there!” That was our Pavlovian response: the collection was stored entirely in candy-bar and liquor boxes.

Our next response was anxiety about our 2-hour-per-linear-foot target processing speed: the collection was stored entirely in candy-bar and liquor boxes. Were these boxes packed by a child or a drunkard?

Unknown size: small.

We’re still not sure who packed the boxes, but they were truly a mess. Sometimes documents were folded up and tied together in little packets, but more often the materials were just loose. The Belfield papers seemed insurmountable. But we’re proud to say that we managed to process them more or less on time. With help from Holly and Courtney we finished before our 6-week deadline was up, although if you count man-hours we clocked somewhere around 3.7 hours per linear foot. That’s not bad—it’s almost twice our target speed (2 hours per linear foot) and a bit above the project average (2.8 hours per linear foot), but it’s just under the speed Greene and Meissner suggest for minimal processing (4 hours per linear foot, and that’s for large 20th century collections of business records).  It is well under the speed of traditional processing, which can take up to 40 hours per linear foot!

Unknown size: small.

Most importantly, we are pleased with the finding aid we produced. We didn’t quite manage folder-level description, but we did at least provide subseries-level description. And now that everything is arranged in folders and document boxes, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania can finally grant physical access to the materials.

As much as we dreaded having to paw through the disorganized boxes of the Belfield papers, in retrospect we’re almost glad they were such a mess at the beginning. It forced us to do lots of research and explore related subject material in order to understand the collection well enough to arrange it properly. Don’t get me wrong, this was still minimal processing. We didn’t spend weeks checking books out of the library. But whenever we needed some additional context, we did hop on the computer for a quick Google search or visit to Ancesty.com. Over the course of 6 weeks of processing, we covered a lot of interesting topics. Lucky for us, the Fisher-Wister-Starr-Blain families happened to be involved in some fascinating things. We learned about Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, Colonial Dames of America, the Sesquicentennial Exposition, stamp collecting, world travel during the Great Depression, twentieth century psychiatry, and nineteenth-century industry and legal practice, just for starters. The Belfield papers will prove to be an amazing resource for researchers in these, and many more subject areas, and we are proud to say that we were able to make the collection serviceable for them—in less than 4 hours per linear foot!

 

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