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More Product Less Process: Embracing flexibility in finding aids at Drexel University Archives

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Written by Rob Sieczkiewicz, Archivist, Drexel University Archives

Drexel University Archives and Special Collections was one of the first repositories to participate in the PACSCL Hidden Collections project; processors came to Drexel in Fall 2009. As a result we have changed our procedures for publishing finding aids.  In the spirit of the “More Product, Less Process,” our goal is to provide access to collections as quickly as possible, with minimal concern for pretty finding aids.  We had been using Archivists’ Toolkit for almost 18 months before the PACSCL project processors arrived, and were enthusiasts.  Before AT, creating and publishing finding aids was a laborious process, with not so pretty results.  AT allowed us to export EAD easily, using a stylesheet created by the American Philosophical Society, slightly modified with Drexel information.  After a few months, we decided we to revise the spreadsheet to match our website, which basically meant that one of our staff of two had to teach herself how to edit EXtensible Stylesheet Language (XSL); this took a while, but the result was lovely.  At the same time, inspired by the UMarmot catablog created by Rob Cox at UMass Amherst, we moved our collection descriptions to WordPress, relieving us of the chores of HTML editing was WordPress.  The new platform and finding aid stylesheet looked great and worked just fine… until we needed to move away from WordPress and onto the same Content Management System (CMS) at the rest of the Drexel Libraries: Drupal.  Moving to Drupal broke our stylesheet leaving us with a lovely-looking Drupal web site and unreadable finding aids.  However, revising the style sheet to match that new site would have been a taken quite a bit of time.  Asking whether such an effort would be worthwhile, we determined that if the default Archivists’ Toolkit stylesheet was good enough for the PACSCL project, it was good enough for us.  Greene and Meissner say to invest your limited resources wisely – for us, the wisest investment was to put up the most basic finding aids, with minimal customization or adornment, and then process more collections, do more outreach, create more exhibitions rather than build the perfect XSL stylesheet.

We also upload finding aids to the PACSCL finding aids site.  This process is slightly redundant, however, and requires a bit of HTML editing.  Would it be a wiser use of resources to eliminate this redundancy?  Why put finding aids in two places?  We could simply link from the Drexel Archives web page to the PACSCL finding aids site.  For some repositories, such as those who lack access to an institutional web page (or simply lack a web page), this is the only option.  For others, giving up control of display is unthinkable.  But for some repositories, like Drexel University Archives, it presents yet another option to consider in the quest to provide the most access to our patrons by making wisest use of our limited resources.

Efficiencies and Access at Haverford College Quaker & Special Collections

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Written by John Anderies, Head of Special Collections, Haverford College

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Haverford College Quaker & Special Collections was one of the first institutions to be treated to the excellent work of Holly, Courtney and the fabulous student processors (hi, Forrest and Leslie!) hired for the Hidden Collections project. As a semi-official Guinea Pig, we really benefited from the extra time and attention given us by the PACSCL processing team.  All involved did first-rate work and brought some much needed order to 10 of the high-research-value collections in our backlog.  Participating in the project also jumpstarted our adoption of Archivists Toolkit to process new collections, has inspired us to find additional ways to open our holdings to researchers, and has provided our staff with ample opportunities to debate the pros and cons of minimal processing!

Today, we now record all accessions and process all new collections in Archivists Toolkit.

For accessions we record all gifts no matter the format (manuscripts, archives, books, photography and fine art) and any purchases that are not reflected in the acquisitions module of our ILS (such as manuscripts and photography).  Eventually we hope to include retrospective accessions in AT too.  In addition to the original 10 finding aids produced by PACSCL, we have completed 19 more in AT, all of which now reside on the PACSCL EAD Repository hosted at Penn, in addition to our local web server.

Our instance of Archivists Toolkit is installed on a Tri-College server located at Bryn Mawr College and serves the needs of four individual repositories across the consortia: Bryn Mawr Special Collections, Haverford Quaker & Special Collections, Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, and the Peace Collection at Swarthmore College.  Accessions and Resource (or collection) records for our four repositories are partitioned within AT.  However, we do share the tables for Subjects and People, which is very useful when the topics of our collections overlap, which they frequently do.

In addition to moving ahead on creating new finding aids in AT, we have spent the past year making our legacy finding aids more accessible.  Previous efforts at moving our finding aids into the 20th century had produced only a handful of fully searchable guides online and a mish-mash of Word files, PDFs, XML files, Excel files, ASCII text files, and Filemaker Pro databases living on a single staff computer, inaccessible to our researchers without the direct intervention of staff.  A decision to “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good” finally freed us from our paralysis and has produced extraordinary results.

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When the PACSCL crew left us in 2009 we had—in addition to their 10 finding aids created in AT—approximately 45 other finding aids online. By agreeing that it was better to supply our researchers with something “quick and dirty” than nothing at all and through the dedication of our students and staff, we turned all of the other finding aid formats into PDFs and mounted them on our web server.  These are listed on two web pages in both Collection Name and Collection Number order and the complete lot of nearly 250 finding aids is searchable using a Google Custom Search.  The results lists are not always pretty and neither are some of the finding aids, but for the first time the majority of our materials are discoverable online and our researchers seem pleased with the access.

As the work of the PACSCL team has discerned over the course of the grant, there are those collections which work well with minimal processing and there are those that do not.  Historically, we have never given the same level of attention to each of our collections.  Personal and family papers have often received more detailed processing than business papers and archival records.  While we have not adopted an MPLP approach at Haverford, we are interested in discerning ways of saving time and money while still providing rich access to our researchers and offering fulfilling and educational opportunities to our student employees and interns.  In the coming months we hope to try our hand at an “iterative” approach at enhancing collections by revisiting selected series within some of the collections processed to a minimal level under the PACSCL project.  And we aim to improve the remainder of our online finding aids bit by bit.

As one of the first institutions to dive into the PACSCL Hidden Collections project, we are pleased to see it wrapping up and hope that the other institutions who have participated have been as pleased and inspired as we have.

Reflections on Training and the PACSCL/CLIR Project, by Jack McCarthy, CA, Archival Consultant

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

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I recently had the opportunity to participate in the PACSCL Hidden Collections project Archival Boot Camp, the training session for the student processing archivists that will be working on the next phase of the project. While not involved in the PACSCL project myself, I am developing a project with somewhat similar goals that focuses on the collections of small, primarily volunteer-run organizations such as local historical societies, small museums, and other collecting institutions. Since my project may involve training entry-level archivists in surveying and processing collections held by these small repositories, I wanted to observe the training sessions of the PACSCL project to see how it was done in that project.

Overall, I found the Boot Camp to be a well structured, well-presented session and an effective method for training young archivists in the minimal processing practices that they will be implementing in the PACSCL project. Project Manager Holly Mengel and Project Archivist Courtney Smerz did a good job of presenting the rationale and theory behind minimal processing, providing guidelines for the minimal processing practices that will be employed in the project, and supervising the hands-on sessions in which the participants had the opportunity put those guidelines into practice. I especially liked the fact that Holley and Courtney were more interested in determining what worked and what didn’t in their approach to minimal processing than in trying to “prove” that theirs was the best approach. As per one of the goals of the PACSCL project, they are seeking to develop a model for applying minimal processing techniques to different types of collections – not just the large late twentieth-century collections that minimal processing was initially developed to address – and so they want honest assessments of both the positive and negative aspects of the methodology they have developed for the project.

Which brings me to the one problem I had with that methodology: While I found the guidelines and minimal processing practices presented in the Boot Camp to be sound and workable for the most part, and while I believe that the project is achieving its goal of making previously hidden collections more accessible in a cost-effective manner, there is one specific practice that is part of the project’s processing approach that I was uncomfortable with from an archival standpoint. It involves separating materials into distinct series when it is not clear that they actually constitute separate series, specifically the practice of taking a file that consists of a mix of different types of materials lumped together and separating these materials out into discrete series, but – and this is the critical point – without the opportunity to examine the items sufficiently to determine how they relate to one another and if they really do constitute separate series. Essentially, I feel that this is asking the processor to make item-level decisions but in a minimal processing time frame, without having the time to work with the materials enough to make informed decisions.

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One of the key first steps in the processing procedure in which we were trained entails spreading a collection out and determining, fairly quickly, what series the materials should be divided into. Often, this is obvious – these diaries constitute one series, these photographs constitute another, etc. – but sometimes it is not so obvious and the decisions are more difficult. For the hands-on portion of the training, held at the Independence Seaport Museum, we broke into teams of two at one point and each team was given a small collection to process. My partner and I had the papers of George Sproule, a prominent figure in the Philadelphia maritime and shipping industry in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. We determined most of the series (diaries, scrapbooks, photo files) without much difficulty, but there was one group of materials consisting of several thick folders containing hundreds of different types of items – correspondence, reports and business records, clippings, writings and speeches, ephemera such as invitations and event programs, and other materials – all lumped together in no apparent order. Our instructions were to separate these materials out into different series by type – correspondence in one series, clippings in another, etc. As we started to do this, I began to get uncomfortable, realizing that I really couldn’t tell what belonged together and what did not, as there were several instances in which we ended up separating materials that actually related to each other: a piece of correspondence related to an event program, or a newspaper clipping related to a speech for which there was a copy in the file. These were just a couple of the inter-relationships we were able to discern in a quick review of the records; I am sure they were many more cases of related items that we didn’t catch. By separating these items from each other I felt that we were severing the ties between them and hampering future users’ ability to see the relationship between them. I didn’t think that we had enough time to make the kind of series determinations we were being asked to make, at least with this specific set of materials.

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In my opinion, when presented with such situations, it would be best to adopt a “first, do no harm” approach. Given the limited amount of time available in a minimal processing project, if there are materials about which there is some ambiguity as to their organization or interrelationships, it would be best to just leave them as is. I do not think that this approach would significantly inhibit access to a collection. A researcher using a collection would, I think, be well-served by having such materials left as they were, but with a series-level scope and content note in the finding aid providing the necessary descriptive detail about the contents of the series.

This one critique notwithstanding, I found the Boot Camp to be a very worthwhile experience and the overall approach to minimal processing employed in the project to be excellent. I think that the PACSCL Hidden Collections project is doing a great service to the archival community on several levels: the participating PACSCL repositories and their users are getting important but hidden collections arranged and described, a group of young archivists is getting excellent hands-on experience in archival processing, and the archival profession is getting a tested model for making collections available relatively quickly and cost-effectively.