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PACSCL Hidden Collections Processing Project » Drexel University

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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.

Evening College Materials on Exhibit

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

While processing the Evening College records, I was aware that Drexel University Archives was putting together an exhibition in honor of Veterans Day, I came across two folders worth of materials related to students of the Evening School who fought in World War II. I informed the Head Archivist about the materials and several items from the collection did in fact become part of the exhibition.

In 1941, Dean Laura Campbell organized a memorial service in honor of the students who lost their lives in the war. The memorial service program, a newspaper article about the service and a few of the letters from parents to Dean Campbell stating if they could attend or not, and if so how many tickets they required are included.

An online version of the exhibition titled, “Scholars Who Served: A History of Drexel’s Veterans” is now available!

The materials from the Evening College records can be seen in the World War II section or in a list format following this link.

It was wonderful to see how our work with minimal processing made a collection immediately useful for the archives and its patrons.

End of Year Report: 2009

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

PACSCL/CLIR “Hidden Collections” Project
July to December 2009
Well, the first six months of the “Hidden Collections” Project have come and gone and it has been a whirlwind! The entire project team was assembled, manuals and standards were created, student processors were trained, 18 collections were processed at the rate of 2.84 hours per linear foot, and we learned that minimal processing works for almost all collections, not just late 20th century institutional records!

The project team consists of Project Archivist, Courtney Smerz; Student Processors Leslie O’Neill, Laurie Rizzo, Eric Rosenzweig and Forrest Wright; and me, the Project Manager. We worked with a wide variety of collections which span the 18th to 20th centuries and cover, at the broadest level, the topics of Quakerism, colleges and universities, and medicine. These collections include institutional, family, and personal papers.

As proposed in More Product, Less Process by Greene and Meissner, institutional records do work best. On average, these collections, largely at Drexel University, were processed at an average of 2.18 hours per linear foot. Personal papers, at Drexel University College of Medicine and Haverford College, were the next easiest, and these were processed at an average of 2.25 hours per linear foot. Family papers are, by far, the hardest, taking significantly more time per collection. Our average for processing family records is 4 hours per linear foot (which is still in the minimal processing range, as suggested by MPLP). The issues that make family papers difficult, to name just a few, are the number of family members contributing to the collection, the time span of the collection which often crosses several generations, and the fact that a good deal of the correspondence is not actually addressed or signed with a person’s name. Quite frequently, letters are sent to “Dear son,” or signed “Your loving mother.” When working with one person’s records, this is not quite as daunting as when you have 4 or 5 potentials for the “mother” and an endless number of possible “sons.” The 19th and 20th century Quakers, the main source of our family collections in this first semester, have a few truly delightful quirks which made processing their collections just a tiny bit trickier. For example, they consistently name their children after relatives … so it is entirely possible to have several Jane Rhoads in one collection. Moreover, in these collections, once they married, in-laws became “mother,” “father,” “sister,” and “brother,” making even the most general identification of senders and recipients virtually impossible in the minimal processing world.

We also discovered that there are some downsides to minimal processing, particularly in the description of collections. Moving through a collection at the rate this project demands means that absorbing content is really difficult. For the first semester, I created processing plans (Courtney is taking over for the rest of the project) for the collections on our list and wrote biographical/historical notes. I think minimal processing at 2 hours per linear foot without the processing plans and rough notes would be absolutely impossible–sometimes the physical processing cannot be done in that time frame.

At this point in the project, I am not sure that I would recommend minimal processing at 2 hours per linear foot–it is just too fast. 4 hours per linear foot, I think, would be a completely different story. Minimal processing, of which I am a fan, really does work and more importantly, it makes the collection available to the researchers long before it could be if we demanded full processing. Although I have not had the luxury of trying minimal processing at 4 hours per linear foot, I am convinced those additional two hours would result in more content and more thorough and accurate biography/history notes and scope and contents notes. My biggest fear with our notes is that we don’t know enough to let the researchers know that the collection contains the material they are seeking. Time will tell once researcher discover these previously hidden, and now “unhidden” collections!

Following, a list of collections processed, the project timeline from June to December, and looking forward:

Collections Processed
18 Collections
255.5 linear feet at an average of 2.84 hours per linear foot

Drexel University

  • College of Engineering Records
  • Evening College Records
  • Library Records
  • Drexel University College of Medicine

  • American Women’s Hospital Service Records
  • Anny Elston Papers
  • Bertha Van Hoosen Papers
  • Bradford Collection
  • Knerr/Hering Collection
  • Haverford College

  • Bowles Family Correspondence
  • Douglas and Dorothy Steere Papers
  • Harold Chance Papers
  • Hilles Family Papers
  • James Wood Family Papers
  • John Davison Papers
  • Nicholson and Taylor Family Papers
  • Reinhardt, Hawley and Hewes Family Papers
  • Sarah Wistar Rhoads Family Papers
  • Vaux Family Papers
  • Project Time line: July to December 2009
  • July 8, 2009: Holly Mengel starts work as Project Manager
  • September 28, 2009: Courtney Smerz starts work as Project Archivist
  • October 2, 2009: Leslie O’Neill, Laurie Rizzo, Eric Rosenzweig and Forrest Wright are hired as Student Processors
  • October 13-15, 2009: Processing Boot Camp
  • October 19, 2009: Laurie Rizzo and Eric Rosenzweig start processing collections at Drexel University and Drexel University College of Medicine
  • October 20, 2009: Leslie O’Neill and Forrest Wright start processing collections at Haverford College
  • November 10, 2009: Refresher training
  • December 11, 2009: Finish processing at Drexel University and Drexel University College of Medicine
  • December 15, 2009: Laurie Rizzo and Eric Rosenzweig start processing at the Wagner Free Institute of Science
  • December 23, 2009: Finish processing at Haverford College
  • Looking forward:

  • Currently processing at the Wagner Free Institute of Science (due for completion on January 19).
  • Begin processing at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (tentative start date: January 20).
  • Currently processing at Bryn Mawr College (due for completion on February 18).
  • Librarians have a sense of humor!

    Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

    The final collection Eric and I processed at Drexel was the Library records. The collection was the largest we have processed so far (approximately 40 linear feet).

    The MPLP processing went well. To begin, we reevaluated our processing plan and established a different set of series than originally intended. We also had to decide what to do with a third of the collection that was previously processed at the item level, but not in an intellectual order. It took some time to decode the collection, but once we had a good plan of action, the documents all fell into place. It was fun having the opportunity to read through the collection. Librarians, so I have found, have a wonderful sense of humor.

    Some fun finds were:

    A leather bound gold gilded book from the dedication of the W.W. Hagerty Library in October 1983.  In an acquisitions policy binder, there was a memo that read:

    “Whoever finds this book: Well, this thing is so out of date that it is past the point of being laughable, therefore, we have decided to put it out of its misery by shelving it up here. And here it stayed until you picked it up, you dummy!!! Disregard anything and everything written in this book. The only reason we have not given it the heave-out is the basic librarian-like urge to preserve and protect all defenseless books.”

    There were several issues of what must have been an internal newsletter titled, “The Call Number,” that contained a series of humorous articles. One folder contained several buttons with library related slogans on them — one read: “Librarians get paid weakly.” Also, one of the library directors, Richard L. Snyder, made his Annual Reports to the President enjoyable by inserting humorous chapter headings, amusing anecdotes, playful commentary, and laughable stories. All of which demonstrated his main points of the report, in what only must have been considered a refreshing change of pace for the president of the university after reading one dry annual report after another. Some of the directors were much more formal, stating: “I hereby take the pleasure in presenting the (insert year) annual report of the Drexel Institute of Technology Library.”

    The Library records were both challenging and fun to process and Drexel University has been a wonderful repository to work at. We would like to thank both the Drexel University College of Medicine Archives and the Drexel University Archives and Special Collections for hosting us. Now we’re off to the next archive . . . The Wagner Free Institute of Science!

    Me and Roy

    Monday, January 4th, 2010

    Unknown size: small.

    In twenty hours, Eric and I processed the College of Engineering records (15 linear feet) at Drexel University. Almost half the collection was in original order, so a majority of our time was spent becoming acquainted with the collection. When doing minimal processing, original order has both its advantages as well as its disadvantages. It certainly makes arranging the collection easier, less time consuming, and more authentic, however, it puts you at a disadvantage when describing. We were lucky that the arrangement didn’t take us terribly long to do, which gave us more time to spend familiarizing ourselves with the contents of the collection. Even with the extra time, we couldn’t open every folder or look at every document — I would have liked to.

    Somehow, in a just a short time, I was on a first name basis with LeRoy A. Brothers, who served as Dean of the College of Engineering from 1958 to 1969. Approximately a third of the collection was his files, with his original order and folder titles, and a bulk of the entire collection was created during his administration. I was thoroughly impressed by Dean Brothers, even though his choice of folder titles sometimes perplexed me and other members of the processing team. His efforts working with the faculty and outside business community to constantly improve the curriculum demonstrated a high level of devotion to the students, their education, and the community at large.

    Conveniently for me he kept carbon copies of his responses stapled to the letters he was responding to, so it was easy to follow chains of events. I did eventually come across a handwritten note of his, and noticed why he typed most of his letters, even his personal correspondence. Needless to say, his handwriting was not the best (neither is mine, so we have that in common).

    There was one series of letters that I found particularly touching. When Brothers’ predecessor, Dean Harry L. Bowman, died it was several years after his retirement. The student newspaper, the Triangle, published a short obituary. In response, Brothers wrote a letter to the editor as a tribute to his colleague, mentor and friend. Brothers states that he wrote it because after seeing the brief front page story, it occurred to him that perhaps many were unaware of the contributions of Dean Bowman to Drexel and goes on to outline Bowman’s impressive career. Brothers writes that his own relationship with Bowman was a unique one; “I have often thought that I had all of the advantages of being his son without the disadvantages that sometimes go with the relationship between father and son.”  There are letters from President James Creese, Bowman’s daughter, and other faculty thanking Brothers for writing the tribute. Creese writes, “Aren’t we lucky to have been his friends and worked with him?”  President James Creese, President William Hagerty, and faculty members Larry Mains, Jack Kolb and Brothers were all pallbearers.

    Perhaps because I have never worked someplace for more than a few years, it surprised me that someone’s pallbearers would be their co-workers.  After thinking about it, I realized that these people worked together for twenty, thirty years and were at this time more than colleagues, these people cared deeply about each other, they were friends, confidants.

    Although this particular series of letters are not characteristic of the entire collection, which contains mostly professional and academic correspondence, these letters gave me a different perspective on the College of Engineering. It was interesting to see another side of these gentlemen and it gave me a sense of the connection between the individuals as I read their correspondence and annual reports. It exposed a personal side of these professionals.

    I’m Dreaming of Evening College records!

    Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

    Unknown size: small.

    Some people talk in their sleep, others sleep walk, I’ve been “sleep processing.” In my waking hours I didn’t feel like I was obsessing about the collection, but as soon as I closed my eyes I was surrounded by 36+ record carton boxes and I was looking through files and files of Evening College materials at Drexel University. “Who made this banner?”, “Why did the Drexel Wives Club use this gigantic background for this tiny pin?”, “How do you pronounce Gwiazda?”.

    In real life, processing the Evening College records with Eric has been a great experience. While becoming familiar with the collection we uncovered many significant events in the program’s history.

    Unknown size: small.

    The Evening College is one of Drexel University’s original programs and still exists today. The program went through several changes as it progressed from simply offering coursework at night, to offering vocational certificates, then diplomas and through much effort the program became accredited to award bachelors degrees in 1950. The alumni wanted the courses to either be transferable towards a degree or become an official degree program. The faculty and alumni worked very hard to make this a reality. The Evening College administration put a lot of effort in easing the transition which was the most difficult for previous graduates.

    One piece of interesting ephemera was a twenty year long history of the career of Howard W. Benfield who was head of student activities. Benfield’s written account covers the Evening College history from 1950 through 1970, which is when a bulk of the materials within the collection were created. Benfield also provides detailed information about the Evening College’s active student life, of which he oversaw and his experience as a counselor during the significant transition from a diploma school to awarding degrees.

    Unknown size: small.

    Among the neat finds was a large Banner for the Evening School, which Drexel tradition leads me to believe hung in the Main Building as part of the “Banner Drop” ceremonies; the official announcement of the school colors on May 20, 1937 on a note card with swatches; and a letter from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood expressing that Mr. Rogers would not be able to go to the Evening College’s Christmas party in 1977, but perhaps Mr. McFeely or the Purple Panda might be able to attend.

    Because of this project, the collection was immediately accessible and useful for the Drexel University Archives. Two folders of news clippings included information about Evening College students who fought in World War II. Among the news clippings was a program for a memorial service held by Drexel, news clippings about the memorial service and several letters addressed to Dean Campbell from the families of those being honored. The correspondence expressed appreciation to Dean Campbell for organizing the Memorial Service and how many tickets they would like. One letter stated that their son was very proud to be a student at Drexel. A few of these letters, the service program and the newspaper clipping were included in a recent exhibition in honor of Veterans Day.

    I think the materials that interested me the most and slowly solidified my waking life obsession with the collection were the various materials related to the 1956 Tidewater Granary explosion that destroyed the Student Union Building. The explosion occurred at 8:03 p.m. while Evening College courses were in session. 1800 students and 78 faculty were evacuated from the building, although there were several injuries sustained by Drexel affiliates, none were serious. However, the loss of the building meant the college needed a new place for student activities and classes. The Student Union Building was owned by the Day College and access for the Evening College was rather limited. The Evening College actively participated in the planning of the new building. In 1962 the Drexel Activities Center opened and was later renamed the Creese Student Center. When the Drexel Activities Center was completed the Evening students were given space for the Evening College’s Student Council and for the Evening College student newsletter publication Drexel Evening Dragon.

    It was amazing to see the development of the collection from an unknown pile of boxes to an organized series of materials that tell a story. The collection is a great addition to preserving the institutional memory of Drexel University.


    Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

    Unknown size: small.

    We trained our first group of student processors October 13-15, and we can only hope that the students learned as much as Courtney Smerz, project archivist, and I did! Our students, all bright and enthusiastic Drexel University iSchool students, are Leslie O’Neill, Laurie Rizzo, Eric Rosenzweig and Forrest Wright. The energy and interest they exhibited during this week reassured me that this project CAN be a success!

    In training, we covered an overview of the project, basic processing theory, minimal processing theory, pre-20th century paleography, biographical and historical notes, scope and content notes and abstracts, the Archivists’ Toolkit, and hands-on processing. This seemed like a lot to accomplish in a three day period.

    We planned for two days in the electronic classroom and one day for hands-on processing, but we quickly found that the two days in the electronic classroom was too much. So, on Tuesday evening, I placed a call to the remarkably flexible Drexel University crew and asked if we could start hands-on processing Wednesday afternoon instead of Thursday morning. Already, we learned that the hands-on work is where the real learning happens—across the board: photographs, writing notes, deciphering handwriting, and the Archivists’ Toolkit. ESPECIALLY the Archivists’ Toolkit! Because we finished the other training earlier than I anticipated, I attempted an explanation of the Archivists’ Toolkit without examples, and it was a dismal failure. The next day, however, our processors entered faux container lists into the Archivists’ Toolkit and every topic I had tried to explain the day before was made obvious.

    The same thing happened with hands-on processing at Drexel’s off-site storage facility. The environment is terrific for group processing: a huge table on which to spread out a collection, chairs all around, and not a soul to disturb with conversation about the best way to process. With Drexel University College of Medicine’s George Hay collection before them, our student processors started asking all the right questions and, with a little guidance, answered them. The collection was not processed at the rate of two hours per linear foot, but we talked about issues and made certain that our processors are prepared for working next week!

    The “Hidden Collections” Project has processed its first collection! A sincere thank you to Drexel University’s wonderful staff, Rob Sieczkiewicz of Drexel University Archives and Margaret Graham and Lisa Grimm of Drexel University College of Medicine, for helping to make our first hands-on training session possible and successful!