Alina Josan

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SAA Student Poster Re-Cap: “Reprocessing: The Trials and Tribulations of Previously Processed Collections”

Monday, August 25th, 2014

from the poster presented at the Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting, August 2014, Washington, D.C.

by Annalise Berdini, Steven Duckworth, Jessica Hoffman, Alina Josan, Amanda Mita, & Evan Peugh; Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL)

OVERVIEW:

PACSCL’s current project, “Uncovering Philadelphia’s Past: A Regional Solution to Revealing Hidden Collections,” will process 46 high research value collections, totaling 1,539 linear feet, from 16 Philadelphia-area institutions that document life in the region. Since the start of processing in October 2013, the team has completed 31 collections at 13 repositories, totaling over 1,225 linear feet. Plans have evolved over the course of the project due to previous processing in many collections. As the processing teams tackled the collections, the solutions devised for the various challenges they encountered developed into a helpful body of information regarding minimal processing. Future archivists and collaborators can use this knowledge to choose appropriate collections for minimal processing projects, and be prepared to handle unexpected challenges as they arise.

NOTED ISSUES:

  • Novice Archivists: Volunteers and novice archivists, while well meaning, can make simple mistakes that lead to larger problems.
    • Learn about the previous processors; their background and level of knowledge with the materials. Having a better idea of their relationship to the collection helps guide decisions in the new iteration of processing.
    • “Miscellaneous.” It is a very popular word, even with seasoned archivists. Attempts should be made to more accurately describe the contents of a folder, such as “Assorted records” or “Correspondence, assorted,” followed by examples of record types or 1 to 3 names of individuals represented.
  • Losing Original Order: Processors with good intentions can disrupt original order through poor arrangement, item-level processing, and removing items for exhibits or other purposes.
    • Use what original order remains to influence arrangement in a way that might bring separated records back together.
    • Lone items may require more detailed description to provide links back to other documents.
    • Be aware of handwriting: Previous folder titling can serve as a clue for separated items and original order.
  • Item-Level Description: Item-level description can render the collection’s original order impossible to discern and greatly diminish access.
    • Gain a broad perspective of the collection in order to determine the most intelligible arrangement of materials with an awareness of grouping like with like.
    • For item-level reference materials, such as newspaper and magazine clippings, merge materials into larger subject files and include a rough date span.
    • Be cautious when merging other records, such as correspondence. Arrange materials into a loose chronological order and include in the folder title the names of recurring correspondents, if possible.
    • Make sure to account for the new arrangement in one’s arrangement note. Reuniting item-level materials and describing those materials to the new level of arrangement will greatly enhance access to the collection.
  • Legacy Finding Aids: It can be difficult to tell how accurate an existing finding aid is, and the decisions made on how much of it to preserve can be complicated.
    • Again, knowledge of the previous processors’ education and history with the collection will prove helpful.
    • Consider the fate of the legacy finding aid. If the collection will be entirely reprocessed, is anything in the legacy finding aid worth keeping? Should the old and new simply be linked or should parts of the old finding aid be incorporated into the new one?
    • Proofread! Anything retained from a legacy finding aid should be proofread very carefully.
    • Keep ideas of continuity in mind while creating new folder titles and dates.
    • Format can be a problem. Will the format (e.g., hardcopy only) prove problematic for import? Scanning and OCR can be a time-consuming process.
  • Collection Size and Type: Size and type of collection can have a drastic impact on processing speeds.
    • If possible, choose larger collections to economize on time and money. Multiple smaller collections require more effort than one larger one.
    • Institutional records average a faster processing speed than family or personal papers. Keep this in mind when choosing which collections to process.

OVERALL RECOMMENDATIONS

  • Work closely with current staff; understand the history of the collection and the desired shape of its future.
  • Learn about previous processors to understand their training, background, and history with the records.
  • Edit and expand upon non-descriptive terms (e.g., miscellaneous) when possible. More detailed descriptions can assist in linking separated records back together.
  • Merge clippings and reference files together when feasible.
  • Make note of reprocessing decisions in the finding aid.
  • Proofread any reused documents or folder titles, keeping ideas of consistency in mind.
  • Be mindful of donor relationships in discussing past problems, especially in any public forum, such as a project blog.
  • Plan carefully from the outset. If possible, choose collections that best fit the project goals.
  • Remain flexible and be prepared to compromise.

FILES

"Reprocessing" poster for Society of American Archivists 2014 Annual Meeting

Poster for Society of American Archivists 2014 Annual Meeting

Processing speed by collection size graph

Average processing speed by collection size

Processing speed by collection type graph

Average processing speed by collection type

“Are not pond scum and pistache green somewhat similar?”

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Written by Carey Hedlund and Alina Josan.

Our first assignment for the Hidden Collections project brought us to the archives at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), where we worked for four months. We began by processing the Edwin Atlee Barber records. Barber was an early curator and director at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art while it was still located in Fairmount Part at Memorial Hall—only later called PMA with the move to the Museum’s current location.

A man of detail, wisdom and wit, Barber wore many different hats in his work and was a detailed and attentive correspondent. In a letter to Morris Carter of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Barber outlined his responsibilities:

DSCN2444“Secretary of the Corporation and various committees, Acting Curator of all the twelve departments of the Museum; arrange and install all of the collections, prepare all of the labels for printing; edit the Museum Bulletin and Annual Report, and prepare for publication all of the Guides, Handbooks, catalogues and Art Primers; conduct the Bureau of Identification of Art Objects; collect the annual Membership dues; act as Superintendent of the building and have direct charge of the guards and all other employees.”

As the Curator and Director of the Pennsylvania Museum Barber was directly involved in the minutiae of everyday operations, writing often to the Fairmount Park Commissioners of such things as leaking roofs and missing floor tiles, plumbing and heating malfunctions, and untamed landscaping.

From the files of the Commissioners of Fairmount Park:

Mr. Oglesby Paul, Landscape Gardener, November 19th, 1903

“My dear Mr. Paul:-

I hope you have not forgotten about the vines on Memorial Hall which were to be pruned at the proper time. If that time has arrived, I hope you will be able to give the matter your attention…”

No issue involving Museum staff was too insignificant for his attention:

Mr. Jesse Vogdes, Chief Engineer and Superintendent, December 4, 1907

“My Dear Sir:

Mrs. Hamilton, in the Woman’s room, needs a new uniform, as she appears to have had none for two years. Will you please send me an order on Wanamaker’s…as follows: Four collars, No. 14; four pairs cuffs, No. 8; four aprons; one dozen caps.”

Barber’s administrative correspondence is lively and occasionally divisive, and it documents the early formation of the Museum’s collections. His correspondence with John T. Morris, especially, reflects their shared passion to build a world class collection.

July, 29, 1911 

“My dear Mr. Morris:

I have your letter of the 28th…and I thoroughly agree with you in many of your statements, and I would be very glad indeed to buy modern work, provided it is as good or better than the ancient. To buy it simply because it is modern, however and is not in good workmanship as the old, does not appeal to me. I agree with you that the best and rarest pieces..should be procured for the Museum at any price…”

And, all the while, his negotiations with donors were carefully tended. After agreeing to exhibit a donkey cart, a handful of letters between Barber and the donor, trace a discussion about the option of also borrowing the donkey harness. Barber tactfully concedes that a donkey may not be necessary:

The donkey cart.

The donkey cart.

Mrs. Richard Waln Meirs, May 28, 1913 

“My dear Mrs. Meirs,

We would be very glad, indeed, to place on exhibition the harness belonging to the Sicilian cart which you kindly lent us recently. This has attracted so much attention that I think it would be greatly improved by using the harness also. To be sure, we have not a stuffed donkey to use it on, but our carpenter can make a frame which will show it to good advantage. If you care to lend this to us, we shall take the best care of it and it will, of course, be subject to you order anytime.”

While attending to the day-to-day management of a museum and school, and an active publication and exhibition schedule, he also maintained an active correspondence with scholars and collectors, particularly in his chosen specialty, ceramics:

Mr. Thomas Clarke, New York, September 24, 1910 DSCN2449

“My Dear Mr. Clarke:

On my return from Europe, I find the memorandum which you sent to Mr. Kent of the Metropolitan Museum…

Is wet tea leaf brown similar to the tea dust soufflé glaze? Can you tell me the difference between dragon’s blood and pigeon’s blood red? Are not pond scum and pistache green somewhat similar?

I hope to be able to get in to see you some time when in New York, in the meantime, I shall thank you for enlightenment on these points.”

Barber held several long, collegial exchanges with expert craftsmen, notably Henry Mercer Chapmen and Taxile Doat. Towards the end of his life, while preparing an exhibition and the publication of “Fakes” and Reproductions Barber corresponded with both men. With Mercer he debates the qualities of “legitimate reproductions” and he consults with Doat, drawing on Doat’s earlier experience as a master craftsman at Sevres:

December 29, 1911 IMG_5350

“My dear Mr. Doat:

I saw yesterday a large cylindrical jardinière…The dealer who owns this values it at $900, although in my estimation it would be dear at $9…Thanking you for any facts you may be able to send me…”

These are just a few of the things that we found as we processed this. Researchers with more time for discovery and examination would, no doubt, uncover many more interesting treasures.