27 months, 125 collections — How’d we do?

Written by Courtney Smerz on January 18th, 2012

After two years of speed processing across the Delaware Valley, Holly and I thought it prudent to take one last look at the collections before calling it quits. From September to the end of November we traveled from site to site reviewing our work and gathering information on the quality and accuracy of our efforts. In doing so, we learned a lot about the limitations of minimal processing AND our approach to training.

We processed 125 collections and spot checked 103.  Our approach varied a little from collection to collection, but generally speaking we followed the same protocol across the board, and created a worksheet to keep us on task. We took note of the overall condition of each collection, and recorded data on the condition of folders and whether folder labels were complete and legible.  We remeasured each collection (including counting containers and volumes), and carefully reviewed the contents of several boxes (every fifth or tenth box, for example, depending on the size of the collection).  Within boxes, we counted folders and reviewed the title and contents of at least one folder (sometimes many more) in each box, comparing the physical collection to what was recorded in the finding aid.  Here’s what we found:

  • Collections or parts of collections that benefited from new housing were infinitely easier to review than collections that remained in their original housing, particularly when it came to counting files, and reading and understanding the information provided on folder labels.
  • Inconsistent and incomplete folder labeling was a recurring issue in 32% of the collections we reviewed.  In particular, one of the more frustrating problems we encountered was that students frequently sacrificed recording the box and folder number or collection name on folder labels.
  • Another major issue we encountered was mistakes in box and folder numbering.  9% of the boxes we checked had numbering issues.  9% doesn’t seem like a lot, but renumbering boxes and folders (141 of ‘em, to be precise) is incredibly time consuming.  One mistake in numbering, as you probably know, means the entire box must be renumbered and updated in the database.
  • We identified 17 items that were unaccounted for in finding aids.
  • Happily, 96% of the files we checked for accuracy in description, when compared to the finding aid, were correctly described!

What we learned:

We had the good fortune to find and hire bright and enthusiastic student processors — nearly all of whom planned to become professional archivists.  We sometimes forgot, however, that they were not yet professional archivists and, though we provided a lot of training and feedback in certain areas, we placed less emphasis on others, perhaps assuming the importance of some tasks to be common knowledge.  We absolutely provided instruction on how to handle, house and label the physical collection, but in training (and in supervision) I think we inadvertently placed more importance on the quality of the finding aid.  That we employed MPLP, where less work is done physically, probably exacerbated this problem.

Though we were not able to gather data for all of these issues, anecdotally, I can say, the biggest offenders that detracted from the overall physical quality of the processed collections were: (1) failure to replace all of the damaged and/or brittle folders, (2) failure to re-record information provided on file labels with deteriorating adhesive, (3) inconsistency in folder labeling, (4) neglecting to record the collection name or number on folder labels, and (5) neglecting to record box and folder numbers on folder labels.

These issues not only made the collections look messy, but made them difficult to use.  Incomplete and inconsistent folder labels will certainly make research and reference (particularly returning files to their rightful place) difficult. And the failure to re-record information from failing adhesive labels risks losing some or all identifying information when those labels inevitably fall off and are lost.

If we had the chance to do it again, we would definitely add to our training and change how we supervised the students. At the very least, we would incorporate reference exercises into boot camp to place greater emphasis on how the condition of the physical collection impacts research and reference. Though in our case, this was hard to avoid, I think there would be less remote supervision. While we pored over finding aids, making endless edits (four rounds of editing!), we should have made more time to review the actual collection together with the processors.  We had lots of conversations along the way about how to approach arrangement, but little time was made to discuss the mechanics of processing. Doing so would also have provided the opportunity for processors to fix their own mistakes (rather than Holly and I doing it for them, after they’ve moved on), which, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to learn.

We are revamping our training and processing materials to reflect what we learned over the last few months, so be on the lookout for a tweet or blog post announcing when they are ready.

 

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