Amanda Mita

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A challenge from the Superintendents

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

When I first approached the Archdiocesan Superintendent of Schools records at the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center (PAHRC), I was concerned to say the least.  In fact, I was panicked.  The collection, which documents the administrations of three superintendents spanning a period of thirty years, is all of 9.2 linear feet, which is small compared to most collections.  One hopes that a collection of this size can be dealt with quickly.  However, given that half of the collection consisted of loose, unsorted papers stuffed in document boxes and the other half processed by no less than 8 different LIS students at Villanova University in the 1960s, I assumed we would never meet our processing deadline.  Little did I know upon the terror of first viewing the Superintendent records that it would be the first collection my partner and I completed processing in well under our 4 hours per linear foot limit.  When all was said and done, MPLP processing allowed us to transform twenty-three boxes of disarrayed records into an accessible and usable collection at a swift processing speed of 2.6 hours per linear foot.

My biggest concern while processing this collection was how my partner and I could responsibly process 9 boxes of loose, unsorted records and somehow meaningfully interfile those records into the arrangement we imposed upon the collection.  We did not have enough time to view every loose record individually.  Item-level review is not a luxury afforded to MPLP processors!  Therefore, we could not be entirely sure that we were spot-on with regard to chronology.  We also realized early on that some of those unsorted records were bound to be interfiled within the wrong series, since we were not processing at item level.  Bearing in mind Greene and Meissner’s principle of processing “good enough,” we allowed ourselves to become comfortable with the idea that a few records may be misplaced, which seemed well worth the sacrifice if it meant that the majority of those loose records would finally be given an intelligible arrangement and made accessible to researchers.  When faced with a predicament such as this, it is important to remember that whatever has been done according to the MPLP methodology can be undone.  Those potentially misplaced records would not be buried and lost forever and could very easily be repositioned according to a more refined arrangement at a future point in time!

MPLP is not a final solution.  MPLP is a step in the right direction, though not without its imperfections and limitations.  With MPLP, one should always assume slight imperfections, and collections that have been processed minimally should indeed be revisited and refined when more resources become available.  While easily corrected imperfections are a real possibility of MPLP processing, access is an absolute certainty.

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