Annalise Berdini

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I Love It When a Plan Comes Together!

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

One of the lessons I’ve learned during the course of this project is that often, despite your best efforts, processing will inevitably lead to snags that slow down your pace and extend processing time. When you’re aiming for 4 hours per linear foot in order to stay under the minimal processing time requirements, this can definitely cause some problems. While my partner, Steve, and I have had collections that matched the MPLP requirements closely enough to stay within that deadline, there have been times when it was a struggle to make the timeline work. Some forced us into item level processing. Some surprised us with accessions that had been completely removed from their original home or reordered for no apparent reason. These slowed down our processing time considerably.

How not to store blueprints.

How not to store blueprints.

But then there were the Hahnemann University Academic Affairs records at the Drexel University College of Medicine Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections. This collection has by far best matched the MPLP requirements at this point in the project, despite being the largest collection with which we’ve worked. This collection consists of 250 linear feet of Academic Affairs records, coming from all the various iterations of Hahnemann University. These include the Homeopathic College of Pennsylvania, Hahnemann University, and even a few records from its current Drexel University College of Medicine title. This large collection also came to us quite disjointed, with multiple accessions often originating from various faculty members’ offices or departments within the college, which made for a lot of overlap. However, despite this small challenge, the records themselves were in great shape for MPLP. None had been previously processed (aside from one small “collection,” whose enterprising owner had taken out all the records from their folders and stacked them loosely into a Xerox box, destroying most of the original order). Additionally, because the records came from specific offices and departments, they were often far more consistently organized than personal papers, making it easier to find links between the contents and to figure out what certain folders contained, without excessive detective work.

Because we did not have to focus on item level processing or learning how to re-work previously written folder titles, it left us free to focus on carefully constructing DACS compliant folder titles, and made physical processing that much easier, as many of the separate “collections” were left intact and made into series or subseries. For example, Series II of this collection consists of administration and faculty records. We created subseries based on the faculty member or department from which the records came, which meant very little reorganization, since these records were already split this way.

A student from 1883 -- what fine hair!

A student from 1883 — what fine hair!

As a result of having to spend less time worrying about archives “detective” work, we were able to come up with some methods to streamline the process even further. My favorite of these methods arose when it came time to create the container list. Generally, we had done data entry first and then wrote the scope note after all the physical arrangement had been completed. This time, we wrote the scope notes as we created our container list. It seems like common sense now, because this allowed us to have a fresher memory of what each series and subseries included, and we were able to make preservation and digitization notes as we went along. It helped us track some of the connections between series, as well as to look through the material to double check records that were especially unique within their series. I thought that it would extend the data entry process, looking over all those records again, but this time around Steve and I worked separately on different series, cutting data entry time in half and allowing us to become ‘experts’ on certain sections of the collection. This reinforced the knowledge we had already gathered while working on the collection, and contributed to the ease of creating the scope note as well.

Aside from the well-suited nature of the collection to MPLP, Steve and I also divided our roles more efficiently this time around. We split up data entry, re-boxing, and physical arrangement duties.  Having more time in one institution was also helpful, although a variety of ‘snow days’ meant that, despite finishing about 8 weeks ahead of schedule, there were still a couple of wrenches thrown in that could have considerably stalled us were we working with a less-ideal collection.

250 feet of beauty!

250 feet of beauty!

The takeaway here is that minimal processing works much better for some collections than for others. Repositories looking to get through some of their backlog should carefully consider the fact that not all collections are going to yield a 2-4 hour per linear foot result, regardless of applying MPLP methods. Often, previously processed collections in particular make that result extremely difficult. If a processing archivist is given a previously-processed item level collection with vague folder titles and no obvious original order, MPLP is probably not going to function like one might hope. However, when the right collection is chosen, the result can be a collection ready for researchers in a fraction of the time.

 

 

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

Surprise! The Marion Turner Stubbs Collection is…probably not what you expected.

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Many times, in archives, we come across collections that do not turn out the way we expect. Perhaps the processing time takes far longer than we anticipated due to a box full of deconstructed file folders with no arrangement. Perhaps someone has come in before the archivists and “preprocessed” without letting anyone know, and with their own idiosyncratic system. These kinds of challenges are common in the archives and add to the flavor of processing, so even when they make you want to tear some hair out, in the end, you find you’ve grown as an archivist.

The squirrel's tale. Provenance unknown.

The squirrel’s tale. Provenance unknown.

And then, there are the collections that, simply put, turn out to be a little different. Not at all what we anticipated. Revealing in ways that make the job as exciting as it truly is. I’m talking, of course, about collections where you open up an envelope and find a severed squirrel’s tail in the middle of a box of financial records.

The Marion Turner Stubbs collection at Temple University was one of these collections, and remains one of my favorites processed to date. Some of the materials were so unexpected and painted such an interesting snapshot of the time from which they came that this small and at times vague collection ended up being uniquely exciting.

These papers came from Marion Turner Stubbs, a founding member of Jack and Jill of America, Incorporated. The papers are mostly her husband’s, Dr. Frederick Douglass Stubbs, an extremely gifted chest surgeon in Philadelphia, and from her father, Dr. John Patrick Turner, a respected physician, police surgeon, and first African American serving on the Philadelphia Board of Education. TheseDiureticTherapy three people led enormously influential lives in Philadelphia, and were prominent, well-respected members of the community, so I went into the project hoping for some interesting background on their lives. I was not expecting…a squirrel’s tail. Nor was I expecting the records to mostly come from Dr. Stubbs’ research files, which at first, was a disappointment, if only because I wanted to learn more about these remarkable people and how they kept records of their many accomplishments. Honestly, the answer, based on this collection, seems to be that they didn’t keep very many. Most of the collection (aside from the research) consisted of plaques and certificates from the many awards these three received throughout their lives. Fun to look at, but not really helpful for providing some context about who they were as people, one of the best parts about working in archives.

Important questions.

Important questions.

However, these research files provided an amazing look at 1930s medicine and thought, especially with a focus on tuberculosis and even prohibition-era philosophies. Dr. Stubbs was, for much of his career, focused on the treatment of tuberculosis, and so most of the research pertains to new medicines and surgical options, even treatments centers for children. But there was also information debating the socialization of medicine, the effects of alcohol, and the emerging “Negro Medicine” field.

Here were research files placed in Stubbs’ own particular order (not always the easiest to understand, until we realized he worked both alphabetically and often by subjects, like “Hospitals”) and which included a variety of materials like pamphlets, correspondence, and article reprints. I did not expect these materials to shed as much light on the philosophies of the time period from which they came, considering they were from a fairly narrow subject area.

To be fair, this was one of my first collections processed, and was a lot smaller than the others, so my AcmeColorsexpectations probably weren’t as high as they could have been. However, the important thing I got out of this collection was that keeping this collection intact, and preserving the original order as much as possible really provided the true value of the collection. Separating out all of those medical journals from the correspondence could have been an option. But seeing some of the letters Stubbs wrote to other doctors in conjunction with this research painted a much richer picture. I did not expect to walk out of this collection with information about the uses of whiskey in therapeutic treatment, or the stance of the Philadelphia medical community on socialized medicine, or the colors available on Acme appliances for a particular year.

Part of the excitement of this collection, too, was the fact that despite my complete lack of subject knowledge on any of these topics, I was able to get the information I needed, even with minimal processing, to properly describe the files and create a finding aid that I felt touched on all the important aspects of the collection. Additionally, since the collection did not have as much information about the family, I had the chance to do some of my own research to find out more about what they accomplished and who they were. It was exciting to use some of the clippings in the collection to piece together important moments in their lives and fill in the gaps with information I had to go track down on my own. In fact, I was thrilled to find a variety of clippings available on flickr that documented some of Marion Turner Stubbs’ life.

So while this collection did not turn out the way I expected, I got to immerse myself in a time period that I had previously never explored, from a perspective that made it all the more fascinating. Also, I got to see the reaction of my Project Manager to opening an envelope expecting a letter, or perhaps a piece of cloth, and instead finding that squirrel’s tail. Truly one of the finest moments of my very short career.

The Abraham L. Freedman papers

Monday, April 7th, 2014

For our first project as student processors for the PACSCL/CLIR Hidden Collections Project at the Temple University Special Collections Research Center, my partner Steve Duckworth and I got to work with the Abraham Freedman Papers, a collection of business-related and personal documents from the Honorable Abraham L. Freedman, who notably served as Philadelphia’s City Solicitor and served as counsel in a landmark discrimination case against Girard College.

Freedman_Dilworth

Campaign materials for the Clark-Dilworth campaign.

This collection was, first of all, completely fascinating in ways I could not expect from papers that seemed mostly made up of case file documents and office memos. However, the fact that most of the order was Judge Freedman’s own made for a collection that was not only very well suited to MPLP, but also rich in contextual information that could not have been gleaned from the documents alone.  If anything, this collection was a case in proving how important that context can be to telling the whole story. These boxes were not simply filled with rusty legal bindings and onionskin, there was a whole life hiding in the spaces between the folders.

This isn’t the easiest concept to provide examples for, but one of the ways having this context helped us was when the original order filled in the gaps in our information. A folder full of bulletins from an event that didn’t seem to have to do with the rest of the box made sense when discovering the next folder was full of drafts of a speech Freedman gave there. Often, he kept his materials together so that searching wasn’t even necessary; everything was in its place with purpose. Each segment of his career was generally already together; his early private legal practice manuscripts in one section, his City Solicitor papers in another. Folder titles were clear and usually included accurate dates and descriptions; we were often able to tease out helpful research information without too much digging. There were often notes and edits on folder titles, clearly added when new documents were added; and often, not only were documents kept together by career, but often even by subject.

TU_Freedman_photo 2

Letter to Freedman signed by President John F. Kennedy.

Because we were able to use Freedman’s organization and order to figure out answers to our questions, this collection was quite easily minimally processed. Our only problems occurred when working with a smaller, separate accession within the collection, which had been previously processed and which unintentionally removed much of the context that Freedman’s order had provided. The stark contrast between processing those materials and Freedman’s original order highlighted how important it is to consider the shape of a collection before choosing MPLP as the processing method.

Aside from the ease of processing, learning about Freedman’s life was an experience in and of itself. Freedman was a huge advocate for equal rights and worked to end discrimination throughout his entire life. His correspondence with colleagues and friends is often beautiful and thoughtful, even for short notes. Some of his own personal writings, short stories and musings on his career, highlight his creativity and appreciation for the written word. For a first collection and foray into minimal processing, it’s hard to imagine a better place to have started.