Evan Peugh

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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

More Pragmatism, Less Protocol

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

Griffin1

More Product, Less Process is a great way for putting our workflow into perspective in archives. Some tasks do not require a lot of detailed attention, and a cursory run-through along with some healthy description should suffice for making archival materials accessible. Other tasks may require a bit more work, but in the grand scheme of things will not suffer from the prioritization of other duties. MPLP is ideally suited for these types of situations, but when one is confronted with a stack of papers with no obvious relationship or readily determined content, more work is necessary. So what do we do when a collection contains records of both types?

Griffin4Such was the case with the Martin I. J. Griffin Collection at the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center. Griffin was a Catholic historian during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and thus has some interesting research files. Some of these files easily fit into categories and can thus be minimally processed, but others are almost unusable without further item-level description and conservation. Examples include scrolls of brittle paper and assorted research files, all of which are written in Griffin’s cryptic handwriting, and these materials cannot be described further due to the time restraints of MPLP. We thus have a collection that is mostly processed, but I cannot call it complete until the miscellanea is dealt with.

Of course, we cannot simply abandon our working model every time we come across materials that areGriffin3 not suited to MPLP; we must press on! But in retrospect, what is best for such a collection is a synthesis of MPLP and standard item-level processing. Since there are two types of needs for these hybrid collections, we should use a hybrid working model. This type of synthesis does not come naturally in an administrative environment, however, since schedules are often designed around predictable processing rates.

Where does this leave us? I’m not sure, but I know that we must approach collections pragmatically, and address each collection’s specific need. MPLP, traditional processing, or both, we need to use whatever method is appropriate. This does not mean that processing projects will necessarily be designed to accommodate such circumstantial decision making. Nevertheless, within the confines of established procedure we can certainly try our hardest to act in the best interests of collections and vocalize our dissatisfaction when this proves insufficient.

Griffin5

“Two Gun” Bessie and the case for better folder titles

Monday, April 14th, 2014

One of the issues with working with a legacy finding aid is that previous descriptions can easily fall short. Such is the case with the MOLLUS collection, and we tried to go back through folders with unclear titles to fix this problem. One such folder, titled “Front, 1941”, provides an excellent example of why accurate folder description is important.

Jessica and Evan process MOLLUS.

Jessica and Evan process MOLLUS.

Upon further inspection, “Front, 1941” contains a series of newspaper clippings related to the sudden resignation of Dr. Bessie Burchett. Dr. Burchett, known as “Two gun Bessie” for her tendency to carry two pistols to defend herself, was a Latin teacher at West Philadelphia High School who strongly opposed communism. She even wrote a book on the communist infiltration of American schools: Education for Destruction. In fact, Burchett was so strongly against communism that she was revealed to have Nazi sympathies. When news of her political extremism broke, there was a cry of public outrage against her, and rather than awaiting her inevitable dismissal, Burchett elected to resign.

The case of Dr. Bessie Burchett provides an interesting snapshot of Philadelphia and the United States during an era of extreme political movements. But if a researcher were to come across the title “Front, 1941”, the researcher could never be aware of the treasures in the folder unless they opened it because the folder title provides so little useful information.

Processed MOLLUS at home in the new Union League secure vault.

Processed MOLLUS at home in the new Union League vault.

This means that an archivist must choose between properly titled folders or item level description, and when using MPLP the latter is out of the question. Folder titles should thus properly identify contents, and it is important to conscientiously consider such titles. For “Front, 1941” we had some difficulty coming up with a title that adequately captured the contents, but after a while we settled on “’Front:’ Clippings regarding Philadelphia school teacher Bessie Burchett, especially regarding anti-communism and Nazi sympathy, 1941”. This title is a much more accurate description of the folder contents.

So much for this folder, but how many other folders are out there that fail to describe their contents? How many more stories like Dr. Burchett’s are hiding in the crevices of archives, waiting to be discovered?

Star-spangled MOLLUS at the Union League

Thursday, April 10th, 2014
MOLLUS whiskey label.

MOLLUS whiskey label.

When I was told that I would be processing the collection of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, or MOLLUS, at the Union League, I expected this to be an interesting project. While the name of the organization is impressive, I was certainly not disappointed by the contents of their collection.  Founded on April 15, 1865 in response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, MOLLUS was established to preserve and celebrate the memories and camaraderie of Civil War veterans. MOLLUS membership was composed of Union officers that fought in the Civil War or their male descendants, and the organization has thus included and associated with many interesting characters throughout its 148 year history.

My first encounter with stardom occurred on my first day at work, when we discovered some letters MOLLUShandwritten by William Tecumseh Sherman. The moment of discovery when one suddenly realizes that they are holding a document written in the hand of someone so famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) is tremendous. A simple piece of paper can swiftly turn into an artifact of great intrinsic value upon brief examination of a signature, and the mundane thus transforms into the spectacular instantaneously. For a history-obsessed rookie archivist such as myself, it was a pretty great find, even though I couldn’t necessarily read Sherman’s handwriting.

The excitement certainly did not stop there, as we soon discovered some correspondence with General Douglas MacArthur. Documents signed by President Rutherford B. Hayes, who served two terms as the Commander-in-Chief of MOLLUS, were also uncovered, as well as many more records of notable Civil War veterans.  In addition to written documents, we also chanced upon numerous photographs of MOLLUS members, with moustaches, beards, and sideburns as impressive as their names.

Stonewall Jackson, sans epic beard.

Stonewall Jackson, sans epic beard.

Robert E. Lee, sans beard.

Robert E. Lee, sans epic beard.

Another interesting find was the discovery of two Civil War scrapbooks, which contain contemporary newspaper clippings and other primary records of the war. The scrapbooks also contained a group of portraits of notable generals and admirals from both sides of the war. From amongst these I was delightfully surprised to find portraits of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson without their signature epic beards.

These many discoveries left me star struck, and I could not imagine that I would encounter another collection as interesting as MOLLUS. Nevertheless, this was only the beginning of my involvement with this great project, and I’m sure that I will continue to be pleasantly surprised by what the various local archives have to offer.