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PACSCL Hidden Collections Processing Project » Blog Archive » Description in MPLP is counter-intuitive

Description in MPLP is counter-intuitive

Written by Holly Mengel on February 7th, 2012

Courtney and I both felt strongly, from the very beginning of the project, that sacrificing description for speed was a risk in this project.  Although we know that every collection could still use additional work, we worked hard to make it so that the repository did not feel that additional work was necessary before they made the collection public.  Moreover, we knew from the start, that many of the collections would NEVER be worked on again.  Unfortunately, that is just how it is.

Unknown size: small.

So what have we learned about description?  We learned that description takes a lot of time—in fact, that is probably the first thing we learned in this project when we tested the manual and discovered that even an experienced processor could not arrange and describe a fairly straightforward collection from start to finish in 2 hours per linear foot.  As a result, Courtney and I created processing plans that included a preliminary biographical/historical note before processing started.  In general, we have learned that it generally takes roughly the same amount of time to describe a collection as it does to arrange a collection.

I’m not going to lie … I am pro description … few things give me more professional pleasure that a beautifully crafted folder title or a paragraph in a scope and content note that I know will help a user determine if this collection is going to help them with their research.  That is the whole point—letting researchers know that we have the stuff that they need.  As a result, the PACSCL/CLIR team took it seriously.  Description is the one part of training that has probably evolved most over the course of the project.  We developed exercises to help our processors write better and more descriptive folder titles and structure notes so that they are both concise and informative.  The project didn’t have a lot of time, so we tried to make our processors think like a user and learn to quickly assess the contents of a folder.  For the most part, we are really pleased with our finding aids and I think, nine times out of ten, researchers will be able to determine by the finding aid if the collection is worth their time in looking at it.

One of the really interesting things we learned is, to me, still the most counter-intuitive.  A collection with extremely tidy existing arrangement usually results in a collection with less thorough description.  I am going to use two specific collections to illustrate this issue.

The first collection is the Dillwyn and Emlen family correspondence, 1770-1818, housed at the Library Company of Philadelphia (unquestionably one of my favorite collections in this project—as well as being one of my biggest disappointments, archivally speaking).  When I sat down to process this collection, I was really confident—the collection was 2 linear feet and was already arranged.  At one point in time, it had been bound in volumes and at another point in time, the letters were removed from the volumes and placed in very acidic folders.  Every letter had a catalog number written on the document.  While a few of the letters were out of chronological order, the vast majority of the collection was arranged very effectively; each folder containing letters from a span of dates.

Unknown size: small.

This collection desperately needed to be re-foldered.  Not only were the folders highly acidic, but they were too small and some of the letters were showing a bit of damage.  I re-foldered the 130 folders in the collection which took about 2.5 hours.  Then I entered the folder list into the Archivists’ Toolkit which probably took only about 15 to 20 minutes.   So in roughly 3 hours (three quarters of my allotted time), I had the collection rehoused and the folder list in the Archivists’ Toolkit, which left me 1 hour to write a scope and content note.  Should have been easy, right? Well, no. Because this collection was perfectly arranged, I did not need to look at even one document in order to create the container list.  Moreover, the container list is not very helpful to a researcher.  All it contains is a list of dates which means that the scope and content note should be full of the subjects addressed in the correspondence.  Problem is, I did not know anything about the letters.  There was no way that I could read enough of the letters in an hour to discover all the topics addressed in the letters that will almost certainly be interesting to researchers.  I did my best—I valiantly scanned through as many letters as I could and wrote down key topics that popped up more than once or twice, and as each minute passed, my heart sank just a little more—I knew perfectly well that I could never do this extraordinary collection justice, even with twice the time.  Prior to beginning processing, I had performed my research for the biographical note and I had discovered that several authors had used portions of the collection in their published works … so I turned to them for expertise on this collection.  They wrote about only a tiny portion of the collection, Susanna Dillwyn Emlen’s bout with breast cancer.  I soaked up every bit of information in their books and included it in my scope note in order to give users the most information possible, but I feel like the project failed this collection.  Perhaps I feel this so strongly because I had been so confident in significantly improving access to it.

Unknown size: small.

I have beheld the second collection, the Belfield collection, 1697-1977, housed at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, with equal amounts of awe, excitement and horror since I first laid eyes on it.  Never have I seen such a mess of a collection—please see just a few photographs as words cannot effectively describe the condition of this collection.  Courtney and I spoke with Matthew Lyons of HSP and he said that he was not expecting much more than good box level descriptions of the contents.  Even with these reduced expectations, we thought it wise to double our forces and therefore, Michael, Celia, Courtney and I all worked together on this collection.  I am happy to say that this collection will, for quite a few series, contain folder level description, but even more than that, the scope and content note for this collection is rich, deep and full of the flavor of the four generations of family who lived at Belfield.

So why does a collection that was the biggest (filthiest) mess of all time result in a better finding aid than a small and beautifully arranged collection?   I know it is because we were forced to sift through the messy collection in order to create any order, and it is amazing how much one absorbs simply by looking at the collection.  In the end, I feel that this is one of the biggest rapid maximal processing successes of the entire project.  We took the collection from utterly unusable chaos to an order that could certainly be refined, but is beyond serviceable.

When selecting collections for a minimal/rapid maximal processing project, consider your time frames and what result you want from the project.  If you want a container list in a hurry, select a well-organized collection.  If you want fuller description, a collection that needs some arrangement will probably be the best choice.  From a purely selfish perspective, I would pick a wreck of a collection over a tidy one every time—the sense of accomplishment and success is so much sweeter than that despair I still feel when I think of Dillwyn and Emlen letters.

I mentioned in an earlier blog post that there are about 3 collections that I don’t feel enormously benefited from this project.  In every case, the collections had existing arrangement that I felt either prevented me from starting from scratch or were in good enough order that I did not learn valuable content that I could then share with researchers.


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