Legacy finding aids: a trial (by any definition)!

Written by Holly Mengel on February 13th, 2012

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77 “substandard” or legacy guides are now in the Archivists’ Toolkit and final editing is underway.  And I am happy about that … however, almost none of these look as good as they could or should.  Garrett Boos, Archivists’ Toolkit cataloger, and I spoke many times about the limitations of this part of the project.

We decided that there were several problems:  working remotely from the collections; the format, structure and quality of the finding aids that were given to us; and, to be perfectly honest, our own expectations for the final product.

Before Garrett started, I decided that working remotely was going to be the most logical way to approach this part of the project.  Garrett worked in our office at Penn and entered the collections into our own instance of the Archivists’ Toolkit.  We then exported the finding aids from his AT and  imported them into each repository’s instance of the Archivists’ Toolkit.  I decided to have Garrett work at Penn primarily because of logistics—otherwise, he would have had to work at 18 different repositories and, as we have learned, technology and space are two of the greatest challenges of the project.  Not to mention the instances when security clearances would need to be run, etc.  However, now that Garrett is done with the project, I have been trying to decide if it would have been better for him to work on-site and I am torn.  On the one hand, it would have made a lot of factors easier—especially checking on locations, vague titles and missing dates, to name only a few.  On the other hand, it would almost certainly have stopped being a “legacy finding aid conversion” project and turned into a “reprocessing” project. So I guess I need to stand by my decision to work off-site, even it was limiting.

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The reason I say that it would have turned into a “reprocessing” project is because Garrett and I think that at least 60% of the collections should have had some physical and intellectual work before the finding aid was considered final.  As with all aspects of this project, the legacy finding aid component was an experiment and therefore, the grant allowed repositories to send us any “substandard finding aids.” This resulted in several types of “tools.”  Garrett took them all on:  lists, card catalogs, databases and more traditional finding aids.  The biggest problem we found was that very few of these guides were organized hierarchically which meant that we had to do a lot of guessing—was something a folder, or was it an item?  Should the paragraph connected to a folder title be added as a scope note or was it actually part of the folder title?  What to do with the information about the contents of a letter, or the condition of the material?  What happens when there is no biographical/historical note and no scope and content note?  Thank goodness for email and helpful repository staff! 

I should say that there were a number of finding aids that came to us in absolute perfect shape … putting that finding aid into the Archivists’ Toolkit was a piece of cake and the resulting finding aid was beautiful. Others that were written before finding aids were standardized did not work nearly so well. Because we forced non-hierarchical guides into AT, a system designed to organize information hierarchically, some of the finding aids are actually less user-friendly than the originals. Many of these legacy guides had item level description, something our stylesheet doesn’t handle well, resulting in what Garrett and I have termed, “really ugly finding aids.” Moreover, of 77 finding aids, only 15 did not require some enhancement of biographical/historical or scope and contents notes–which is pretty tricky when working off-site. Titles and dates almost always needed to be reformatted for DACs compliance. Our primary goal was to maintain every bit of information that was in the original, but it worries me that we have created online guides that are potentially overwhelming and off-putting to researchers.

Some repositories have told me that I should not worry—that getting the guide online is enough.  Others, though, I know are really disappointed with the result. We surveyed our participating repositories about the effectiveness of the project and their satisfaction, and while we have not heard from all, the component of the project that proved least satisfying is the legacy finding aid component. I know that it is, by far, the part of the project with which I am least pleased.

Does this mean that you should not do a legacy finding aid conversion project?  No!  Do a legacy finding aid conversion, but do it with some structure and guidelines!  In order to have a successful legacy finding aid conversion project, we learned that repository staff will have to do some (or alot of) front line work prior to unleashing the guide on the cataloger.

Before handing over a finding aid, repository staff should identify (in pencil is okay):

• Folder title (underlined in one color)
• Folder date (underlined in another color)
• Box number
• Folder number
• If there is additional material, into what field in the Archivists’ Toolkit/EAD should it be entered?
• Biographical/historical note (does not need to be narrative, but the information should be provided by an “expert”)
• Scope and content note (same as the bio note)

If, as you go through this process, it becomes obvious that reprocessing is necessary, take the collection off your conversion list and place it on a priority list for processing.  Processing the collection may be quick and speedy and your result will almost certainly be better! In fact, I think, in some cases, we spent more time forcing data into AT than it would have taken to reprocess the collection.

Identifying these essentials should result in finding aids that are more standardized and allow researchers greater access to your awesome stuff. Don’t count on it being a quick process, however: the prep work is time consuming, the conversion is time consuming, and the proofing and editing is REALLY time consuming. This is not a task that can be placed only on the person converting the finding aid … even after the finding aid was in AT, Courtney and I, with fresh pairs of eyes, found lots of mistakes in spelling, hierarchy and grammar which would have been embarrassing and, even worse, would have potentially prevented people from finding that for which they were looking. Which is, of course, the whole point of all our work!


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