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PACSCL Hidden Collections Processing Project » Minimal Processing

Minimal Processing

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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.


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.

Excel to EAD-XML to AT—the spreadsheet from heaven.

Monday, March 19th, 2012

Unknown size: small.

Although it seems like a million years, it actually was not so long ago that our students were processing at the Independence Seaport Museum.  While we were there, we were faced with one of the limitations of our minimal processing time frames.  The archivist there, Matt Herbison (now at Drexel University College of Medicine Legacy Center) had a few spreadsheets detailing information on ships’ plans—information that made the collections truly useful to researchers.  Problem was, there were thousands of entries in the spreadsheets and we knew that our processors could never re-key or copy/paste that information into the Archivists’ Toolkit in the time allotted for the processing.

Because we knew that this information would really make a difference for users, we thought and thought of ways to make this work, but our best solution involved saving the spreadsheet as a pdf and linking to it from the finding aid–not very elegant. And then Matt, who really is extraordinarily techie, created this amazing spreadsheet that solved the problem.  To sweeten the deal even more, he offered Courtney and me the use of the spreadsheet for the project.

I will now make a very bold statement:  this spreadsheet made it possible for us to finish the project within the time frame.  Not only did we use it at the Seaport, our processors used it for original data entry at repositories that had spotty internet connections, technical troubles, and/or did not adopt the Archivists’ Toolkit.  Our Archivists’ Toolkit cataloger used it as a starting point for almost all electronic legacy finding aids.

Matt has offered to share this spreadsheet with everyone.  It is available here and we have created a guide for using the spreadsheet.  In a nutshell, each column in the spreadsheet maps to specific field in the Archivists’ Toolkit.  It has three levels of hierarchy below the collection level, so it not the tool of choice if your finding aids has sub-sub series and items, but for most modern finding aids, it is the ticket.  I should say, though, that it is not necessarily a quick process if you are starting with existing data … time needs to be taken to combine columns, format data, and check for errors.  If you know how to use regular expressions, you can really streamline some of this work.  If you are doing original data entry, the use of the spreadsheet is incredibly efficient for getting container lists into the Archivists’ Toolkit.

This means that anyone with knowledge of MS Excel can create finding aids and take legacy information from an electronic format to xml.  Pretty awesome! I will say that a little knowledge of EAD is very useful and understanding the Archivists’ Toolkit will make decisions in data entry easier.  Many of our students preferred working with the spreadsheet rather than the Archivists’ Toolkit, but it is a matter of preference.  I think it is a little harder to see the hierarchy when using the spreadsheet, but it is a thousand times easier fix error in Excel than in the Archivists’ Toolkit.  Check it out, try it out and see if it changes your life.

Yes, I did say that … I think it could change your life!

Thanks SO much to Matt Herbison!

Description in MPLP is counter-intuitive

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

Courtney and I both felt strongly, from the very beginning of the project, that sacrificing description for speed was a risk in this project.  Although we know that every collection could still use additional work, we worked hard to make it so that the repository did not feel that additional work was necessary before they made the collection public.  Moreover, we knew from the start, that many of the collections would NEVER be worked on again.  Unfortunately, that is just how it is.

Unknown size: small.

So what have we learned about description?  We learned that description takes a lot of time—in fact, that is probably the first thing we learned in this project when we tested the manual and discovered that even an experienced processor could not arrange and describe a fairly straightforward collection from start to finish in 2 hours per linear foot.  As a result, Courtney and I created processing plans that included a preliminary biographical/historical note before processing started.  In general, we have learned that it generally takes roughly the same amount of time to describe a collection as it does to arrange a collection.

I’m not going to lie … I am pro description … few things give me more professional pleasure that a beautifully crafted folder title or a paragraph in a scope and content note that I know will help a user determine if this collection is going to help them with their research.  That is the whole point—letting researchers know that we have the stuff that they need.  As a result, the PACSCL/CLIR team took it seriously.  Description is the one part of training that has probably evolved most over the course of the project.  We developed exercises to help our processors write better and more descriptive folder titles and structure notes so that they are both concise and informative.  The project didn’t have a lot of time, so we tried to make our processors think like a user and learn to quickly assess the contents of a folder.  For the most part, we are really pleased with our finding aids and I think, nine times out of ten, researchers will be able to determine by the finding aid if the collection is worth their time in looking at it.

One of the really interesting things we learned is, to me, still the most counter-intuitive.  A collection with extremely tidy existing arrangement usually results in a collection with less thorough description.  I am going to use two specific collections to illustrate this issue.

The first collection is the Dillwyn and Emlen family correspondence, 1770-1818, housed at the Library Company of Philadelphia (unquestionably one of my favorite collections in this project—as well as being one of my biggest disappointments, archivally speaking).  When I sat down to process this collection, I was really confident—the collection was 2 linear feet and was already arranged.  At one point in time, it had been bound in volumes and at another point in time, the letters were removed from the volumes and placed in very acidic folders.  Every letter had a catalog number written on the document.  While a few of the letters were out of chronological order, the vast majority of the collection was arranged very effectively; each folder containing letters from a span of dates.

Unknown size: small.

This collection desperately needed to be re-foldered.  Not only were the folders highly acidic, but they were too small and some of the letters were showing a bit of damage.  I re-foldered the 130 folders in the collection which took about 2.5 hours.  Then I entered the folder list into the Archivists’ Toolkit which probably took only about 15 to 20 minutes.   So in roughly 3 hours (three quarters of my allotted time), I had the collection rehoused and the folder list in the Archivists’ Toolkit, which left me 1 hour to write a scope and content note.  Should have been easy, right? Well, no. Because this collection was perfectly arranged, I did not need to look at even one document in order to create the container list.  Moreover, the container list is not very helpful to a researcher.  All it contains is a list of dates which means that the scope and content note should be full of the subjects addressed in the correspondence.  Problem is, I did not know anything about the letters.  There was no way that I could read enough of the letters in an hour to discover all the topics addressed in the letters that will almost certainly be interesting to researchers.  I did my best—I valiantly scanned through as many letters as I could and wrote down key topics that popped up more than once or twice, and as each minute passed, my heart sank just a little more—I knew perfectly well that I could never do this extraordinary collection justice, even with twice the time.  Prior to beginning processing, I had performed my research for the biographical note and I had discovered that several authors had used portions of the collection in their published works … so I turned to them for expertise on this collection.  They wrote about only a tiny portion of the collection, Susanna Dillwyn Emlen’s bout with breast cancer.  I soaked up every bit of information in their books and included it in my scope note in order to give users the most information possible, but I feel like the project failed this collection.  Perhaps I feel this so strongly because I had been so confident in significantly improving access to it.

Unknown size: small.

I have beheld the second collection, the Belfield collection, 1697-1977, housed at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, with equal amounts of awe, excitement and horror since I first laid eyes on it.  Never have I seen such a mess of a collection—please see just a few photographs as words cannot effectively describe the condition of this collection.  Courtney and I spoke with Matthew Lyons of HSP and he said that he was not expecting much more than good box level descriptions of the contents.  Even with these reduced expectations, we thought it wise to double our forces and therefore, Michael, Celia, Courtney and I all worked together on this collection.  I am happy to say that this collection will, for quite a few series, contain folder level description, but even more than that, the scope and content note for this collection is rich, deep and full of the flavor of the four generations of family who lived at Belfield.

So why does a collection that was the biggest (filthiest) mess of all time result in a better finding aid than a small and beautifully arranged collection?   I know it is because we were forced to sift through the messy collection in order to create any order, and it is amazing how much one absorbs simply by looking at the collection.  In the end, I feel that this is one of the biggest rapid maximal processing successes of the entire project.  We took the collection from utterly unusable chaos to an order that could certainly be refined, but is beyond serviceable.

When selecting collections for a minimal/rapid maximal processing project, consider your time frames and what result you want from the project.  If you want a container list in a hurry, select a well-organized collection.  If you want fuller description, a collection that needs some arrangement will probably be the best choice.  From a purely selfish perspective, I would pick a wreck of a collection over a tidy one every time—the sense of accomplishment and success is so much sweeter than that despair I still feel when I think of Dillwyn and Emlen letters.

I mentioned in an earlier blog post that there are about 3 collections that I don’t feel enormously benefited from this project.  In every case, the collections had existing arrangement that I felt either prevented me from starting from scratch or were in good enough order that I did not learn valuable content that I could then share with researchers.

The decision to minimally process should be a collection-by-collection decision …

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Fairly early in this project, Courtney and I determined that “MPLP 2 Hours” was not going to be a wholesale success—most collections simply cannot be processed in that time frame, regardless of the shortcuts taken (our average across the board is 3.2 hours per linear foot).  And in some cases, those shortcuts resulted in a product that we did not feel was more useful to a researcher post-processing.  What we have determined is essentially this … it is difficult, if not impossible, to say that collections can be processed in a set or determined amount of time, but it is possible to make educated estimates allowing us to allocate human resources to process collections efficiently.

There are several factors that allow us to better determine a time frame for the processing of collections:  age, type of collection, and original arrangement of the collection are the three biggies. None of these factors work independently—they are all intertwined to help determine the time frame.  So, based upon the data collected for 125 collections, processors have physically processed collections with the oldest material dating from the:

17th century at an average of 4.1 hours per linear foot;

18th century at an average of 3.3 hours per linear foot;

19th century at an average of 3.4 hours per linear foot;

20th century at an average of 2.9 hours per linear foot.

Processors have processed:

artificial collections at an average of 3.6 hours per linear foot;

institutional/corporate records at an average of 2.5 hours per linear foot;

personal papers at an average of 3.7 hours per linear foot;

family papers at an average of 4.2 hours per linear foot.

Age seems like it should be the most logical factor, but in fact, it has proven to be the least certain factor in our ability to judge the time frame for processing.  We thought originally that old collections (pre 1850s for certain) would take us significantly longer to process, but this is not necessarily the case.  The age does not seem to deter us in being able to efficiently process an “old” collection.  Age does, however, quite frequently deter us from describing the collections well.  Quickly skimming for content in folders of 17th, 18th and 19th century handwritten material is not easy—and it absolutely results in less thorough description.  However, if the collection is arranged and available for research use, perhaps this is where we ask for help … as researchers use the collections, we can ask them to provide more robust description of what the correspondence, journals, etc. contain.  Finding aids CAN be iterative … especially with technology such as the Archivists’ Toolkit.  “Newer” collections may or may not be easier to process … certainly there is more typewritten material that makes it immediately easier to categorize series/subseries/folders and describe the contents of the folders more thoroughly.  However, in the end, the ease of the processing relies more heavily on the type of collection more than the age.

For this project, we have divided collections into four basic types:  institutional/corporate records, personal papers, family papers and artificial collections.  Again, there is no one size fits all … each collection is unique (is that not why archival collections are so awesome?).  Generally speaking though, an institution or company’s records can be processed most quickly, followed by personal papers and then family papers.  Artificial collections are usually the fastest or the slowest depending entirely upon the collector.  Usually, they are speedy—the collector is in love with the topic they are collecting and as a result, they arrange the collection for their own personal satisfaction and use—all the letters of a children’s book author are arranged chronologically by date sent or alphabetically by the recipients’ names.  If this is the case, the artificial collection is a dream to process and it usually requires only description.  In a few instances, however, we have found collections where the collector simply collects … they probably know that the stuff is important, but they are not organizers.  At that point, trying to create a system out of a group of randomly acquired material can be quite difficult.

Institutional and business records are usually quick and easy and this is because the functions of a business or an institution generally follow the same basic structures and are fairly predictable.  Usually, you will find financial records, minutes, committee records, administrative records, subject files, correspondence, etc.  Because the function generates the records, it is logical and easy to determine a good organizational scheme for the papers.  But as always, the collections are unique and we have found that different creators generate different levels of tidiness, logical order, and structure.

Personal papers are the next quickest to process (generally speaking), especially if the creator was involved in several major movements, careers, and/or activities.  However, the ability to efficiently process a person’s personal collection often depends upon how intermingled those pursuits are with family, friends, and work.

Family papers have been, fairly consistently, the most time-consuming collections to process.  The problems that arise with family papers that generally do not exist with personal papers are the intertwining relationships that make determining to whom a certain group of materials belong challenging, and sometimes, impossible.  When every generation in a family has a woman named Sarah, determining generations becomes a trial.   Many a day passed at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania with the following conversation: “So wait, this is Sarah Logan Wister Starr?”  “No, this is Sarah Logan Starr Blaine!”  Or:  “Here is a letter to Grandma Sarah from Sarah …does that mean it is Sarah Logan Starr Blain?”  “No!  It could be Sarah Logan Starr Blain OR Sarah Logan Wister Starr OR Sarah Tyler Boas Wister!”  Egads … I wanted to buy a baby name book for this family!  Not surprisingly, this kind of questioning takes time … lots of time.

The third main factor in determining time for processing a collection is existing arrangement.  A collection of 20th century business records thrown into boxes will take longer than a collection of 18th century business records that are housed in volumes.  A collection of family papers organized by the donor into distinct family member’s papers can probably be processed more quickly than a collection of personal papers that are completely unsorted.  I have intentionally not used the term original order which implies that the order was generated the creator.  Existing arrangement may have been generated by the creator, but in many cases, it is generated by an archivist who starts processing the collection but does not complete the project.  Unfortunately, the hardest collections to process efficiently are often collections that someone else has started to process.  Trying to understand an undocumented order that has been imposed or continue with an arrangement scheme that does not seem logical is much more difficult than imposing order from absolute chaos.  And without a questions, the collections that take the absolute longest are ones in which parts of the collection have received item level treatment.  Addressed in the next blog post will be how this type of existing arrangement affects description of collections.

So, basically what we have said here is that every collection is different and unique and there is absolutely no way to say that one time will work even within a date frame or a type of record. Our observations are backed by Greene and Meissner who say that “MPLP … advises vigorously against adopting cookie-cutter approaches … and [recommends] flexible approaches,” (page 176).  In order to make educated estimates for allocating resources, we believe that a base-line starting time frame is needed:  institutional/corporate collections should be given 3 hours per linear foot.  Based upon the existing arrangement, tack on another hour per linear foot if it is in a shambles.  If the bulk of the material is from the 18th century, tack on yet another hour per linear foot for increased perusal time which will result in more effective description.  So, in this case, your estimated processing time is 5 hours per linear foot.  Could you do it in three?  Yes, probably.  However, with allowances for age and existing arrangement, you will almost unquestionably have a better product, still at just over ½ the rate of traditional processing.

Based upon our experience, the PACSCL/CLIR project believes that the following base-line processing time estimates would work well:

Artificial collections:  3 hours per linear foot

Institutional/corporate collections:  3 hours per linear foot

Personal papers:  4 hours per linear foot

Family papers:  6 hours per linear foot

Our averages clearly show how quickly collections can be processed … but the base-line estimate with upgrades allows us to provide the best possible product while being mindful of available resources.

MPLP is good for your health!

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Unknown size: small.

During the summer, Holly and I tackled the Marketing and Public Relations Department records at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives.  This was a great collection for MPLP and, if I heard Holly correctly, we processed the collection in under 2 hours per linear foot!

According to Susie Anderson, the Museum’s archivist, this collection gets a lot of use, especially internally.  Before processing, the collection was difficult to use because it was accessioned in so many chunks over time that information on particular subjects, artists or exhibits were literally in dozens of boxes.  With no proper finding aid there was no way for Susie to know where everything was, and pulling all those record cartons off the shelf for every reference request was kind-of a drag too.

To get the job done, Holly and I commingled several alphabetically arranged subject files into one system, relabeled files and created our finding aid.  Now, for the most part (I’ll admit, we were not able to collocate everything), files on particular topics, people or events are arranged together and there is a folder level finding aid.  With any luck, Susie will only have to look in one or two record cartons to find what she needs and be satisfied that she has found it all!

After processing this collection I can verify that pulling over-stuffed record cartons on and off the shelf all day long hurts!  I don’t mean to sound like a total wimp (OK, I know, I sound like a wimp), but I feel for my fellow archivists who deal with packed record cartons on a daily basis and wonder, is that good for you physical health?  Well, maybe it isn’t bad for your health per se, but lifting those cartons on and off shelves over and over again certainly increases your chance of on-the-job injury.  At least now, thanks to minimal processing, researchers at the Art Museum can conduct more targeted searches in the Marketing and Public Relations Department records, and that means less heavy lifting for Susie.

In case you are wondering what’s in the Marketing and Public Relations department records, I can tell you, there are lots of interesting things.  There’s information on the Museum’s marketing strategies for special exhibitions and documentation of outreach efforts and events going back to the 1960s.  The collection is loaded with photographs (making boxes all the more heavy) of featured works of art and Museum events.  Snapshots taken during exhibit openings and other events were especially fun, offering lots of evidence of 1980s fashions in particular.

Temple University: Haven for Pinko-Commies and Itinerant Archivists

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Unknown size: small.

The academy is stereotypically seen as a haven for “pinko-commies” and other subversive intellectuals, so it seems fitting that the first collection Michael and I processed at Temple University was the records of the Socialist Review. Published from 1970-2006 under the various titles Socialist Revolution, Socialist Review, and Radical Society, this lefty periodical was an important forum for socialist discourses at the end of the twentieth century. SR, as it is often abbreviated, was not narrowly focused on socialism, however: its pages were filled with articles on American politics, labor, feminism, racial and sexual minorities, international relations and development, technology and the environment, and cultural and social theory. I even found a submission entitled “Latke vs. Hamentash: A Feminist Critique”!

Unknown size: small.

Michael and I have had the opportunity to process some incredible collections during this project, but the Socialist Review collection is one of my favorites. It is a fantastic resource for anyone studying the intellectual history of late 20th century American socialist ideology, or any number of new social movements (feminism, worker’s rights, environmentalism, etc.). Many prominent intellectuals were involved with the journal; I found myself star-struck when I stumbled across correspondence with some of my idols, including Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich. There is also a lot of material in the collection that is just plain fun, because the editorial board had a sense of humor and joked around a lot.  My absolute favorite item is a mock form letter for rejected submissions. Editors could simply check off the reason for rejecting a manuscript: “Stalinist / Workerist / Papist / Foolish,” or provide a more detailed critique: “Your succinct analysis and breezy style make this piece too accessible for readers of Socialist Review. Also you should be aware that a piece as relevant and contemporary as this is—in a word—too current for SR. With a lag time of 10-14 months…We’re primarily interested in material with strong library value—they’re our most important subscribers you know.”

Unknown size: small.

Ever-selfless, we archivists usually say that we do minimal processing for the benefit of researchers, so that they can have access to more collections with less wait time. Of course that’s our primary motivation, but since starting on the Socialist Review collection, I recognize how I, as a processing archivist, am also benefiting from MPLP. The National Archives was supposed to be Michael’s and my last stop on our grand PACSCL-CLIR tour. However, through our efficient use of minimal processing practices, we were able finish ahead of schedule. That meant we had enough time to move on to Temple University, where the Socialist Review papers turned out to be one of my favorite collections. MPLP benefits processing archivists because it allows us to work on more different collections, and that means the opportunity to discover even more important, interesting, humorous, and beautiful materials hidden in the archives!

Stay tuned, because with two weeks left in the project, Michael and I are lucky to have one more collection waiting for us at Temple University…


Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Unknown size: small.

Dr. Stella Kramrisch, the curator of the Indian Art Department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1954 until her death in 1993, exerted a deep and lasting influence on the field of Indian Art scholarship and collecting. For those who are unfamiliar with her life and work, her obituary from the New York Times offers an overview of her life and accomplishments (and, of course, our finding aid includes a fabulous biographic note). She was a force to be reckoned with in the art museum world, a cat lover, and a one-time hyena owner. If you are ever in the PMA’s Indian and Himalayan Art galleries, take a moment to check the provenance of the objects on display. About 2/3 of them were either acquired by Stella Kramrisch while she was curator, bought with funds in her name, or were part of her personal collection, bequeathed to the museum after her death. Clearly, the PMA would not be the institution it is today without her.

Processing her papers presented unique challenges for an MPLP-based processing style:

  1. It had previously gone through the hands of at least two people: an intern in the PMA’s Indian and Himalayan Art Department who had subject knowledge of Indian art and scholarship, and a project archivist at the PMA.
  2. The materials dealt with by these two people were separated in to two distinct chunks (located on opposite sides of the processing room, even).
  3. The project archivist and the intern described and arranged these parts of the collection to different degrees. The intern did not have archival training, but had enough subject area knowledge to write out very detailed folder titles (which were both helpful and problematic for MPLP!) and identify photographs. There was, however, no folder-level arrangement. The project archivist wrote an excellent inventory and arrangement suggestions, and labeled some of the sections of records with paper inserted into the record cartons. She left all materials in their original order, as they were when they were transferred from the Indian and Himalayan Art Department.
  4. Due to the importance of Dr. Kramrisch to scholars from various fields, this collection had been accessed many times between its transference to the archives (piecemeal starting in the mid-1990’s) and our processing. Biographers had pulled materials from their original folders and relocated those documents into new folders to better suit their research and writing needs.  And those are the alterations we know about.

Unknown size: small.

My processing partner, Christiana, and I were a little apprehensive before we waded in, expecting that reconciling the contrasting arrangements of two chunks of Stella’s papers would be time consuming and frustrating. We feared that the existing organization created by the intern wouldn’t work for the collection as a whole, and that we would need to pull the contents of those boxes apart while doing some serious interfiling and hefting of record cartons. We found, however, that we could largely keep those series and that the materials from the Indian and Himalayan Art Department would either fit into those or could be put into new (small-ish) series of their own.

We did, however, keep these groupings of materials in separate subseries. For example, there were materials processed by the intern and art department materials that fit into a “Writings and research notes” series. But rather than interfile these records, we put them in two subseries to preserve the distinction between the kinds of processing they received. We thus saved ourselves an awful lot of time that would have been spent interfiling and (I think) made it clearer to researchers how much the materials two subseries had been interfered with, thus making it easier for them to know what to expect when they open a folder.

Unknown size: small.

For me the most challenging aspect of this collection was dealing with folder titles written by someone with lots of subject knowledge, but no archival training. It was time consuming to reword someone else’s titles – which he had put hours of research into – and wrangle them into something that could be alphabetized in a subject file subseries. Titles like “Manuscripts and correspondence on a book on death that SK and Anindita Balsev were going to co-author” or (my favorite) “POPULAR WISDOM !?!” might contain useful information, but aren’t in a format that’s useful to archivists.

But the challenges combined with the opportunity to learn more about Stella Kramrisch made this collection incredibly rewarding to work with. The collection actually seems very similar to Stella herself: full of information, very valuable and obviously loved, but at times difficult to work with.

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.

Presbyterian missionaries in Brazil

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

While prepping for processing at Presbyterian Historical Society (PHS) back in March 2010, I remember feeling just a little jealous of the processors who would actually get to process all of the super cool collections there!  So you can imagine how I jumped at the chance to process a collection at PHS when our processing schedule changed at the last minute.  I could not wait to get my hands on some papers!

Taking on the Philip Sheeder Landes papers, I got to travel to mid-twentieth century Brazil and learn about Presbyterian mission work in an otherwise Catholic dominated mission environment.  Landes was born in Brazil and spent most of his life there, and helped to build a Presbyterian community across the entire country — which is no small feat, in case you didn’t realize, Brazil is gigantic!  In addition to evangelizing, the mission (there were actually 3 or 4 related Presbyterian missions strategically placed in Brazil) brought literacy and other education, including a farm school, to people throughout the remote areas of Brazil.

The Landes and other missionary papers we processed at PHS taught me a lot.  For one thing, the missionaries we got to know truly embraced their adopted countries as their own, whether they were stationed in Brazil, China, Korea or the Belgian Congo.  They devoted their whole lives to their work and chose to raise their families in these countries.  Though there were undoubtedly negative consequences of missionary work and perhaps some ethnocentric motivation, I found that the missionaries we met were well-intentioned people, who provided very valuable services to the communities in which they lived.

While I was excited to process the Landes papers and learn more about Landes’ work in Brazil, I was frustrated to find out that approximately half of the collection is in Portuguese, a language that I am not familiar with!  I didn’t get to learn as much about the Brazil mission as I would have liked, but I was surprised to see that even with the language barrier, I was able to quickly provide much needed order to a collection that was in complete disarray when I found it.  Now it is ready for use, and I expect that a researcher, especially someone with knowledge of the Portuguese language, would certainly be satisfied with what it has to offer.

Former dancers (subject specialists) process the Pennsylvania Ballet records

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Unknown size: small.

One of the first discussions my processing partner, Christiana, and I had was about our secret past as ballet dancers. This didn’t have much bearing on the first two collections we processed (the papers of the Safe Energy Communication Council and Health/PAC), but our third was the Pennsylvania Ballet records at Temple University Special Collections. Our knowledge of ballets, costumes, performances, and famous dancers would obviously have some effect on how we processed this collection, but we weren’t sure whether our subject knowledge would help or hinder our attempt to process at 2 hours per linear foot. This collection had a lot of photographic materials, and a not insignificant amount of those were unidentified or “miscellaneous.” Would we be so bogged down in trying to assign ballets to unidentified performance photographs that our processing speed suffered? Or would our knowledge of costumes and sets enable us to blithely sort miscellaneous photographs into piles of  Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Giselle, and so on?

Unknown size: small.

Subject knowledge is a clear advantage when doing traditional processing. Knowing something about your collection before you start can save you research hours and make both arrangement and description easier. In the case of minimal processing, however, subject knowledge can only do so much good. There are some strict time limits on processing speed and everything must be considered in terms of trade offs: you can spend more time researching if you process a little quicker. If you leave those “general” or “miscellaneous” folders as they are, then you can do something more elaborate with the next series. Taking the time to utilize subject knowledge must be considered in the same way, which means there is a tipping point when doing so is no longer worth the time.

Unknown size: small.

For example, in the Pennsylvania Ballet Collection there were times when we could have given titles or added description to previously untitled photographs and folders. We tried only to do this only when it would be quick and not break our stride. So if we looked through a folder of publicity photographs from, say, Sleeping Beauty, and found that unlabeled photographs from Giselle were included, it only took seconds to add the second ballet to the folder title. However, there were more situations in which we could have used our subject knowledge but chose not to, because we simply didn’t have the time. At the bottom of one box we found a thick layer of loose and unlabeled photographs of dancers, performances, and fundraising events. It would have been fairly easy to sort out all of the Nutcracker photographs. Or any photographs of a famous dancer. Or photographs we could date to a specific span of years when a certain dancer was in the company. But we couldn’t, because while this would have been easier for us than for processors without subject knowledge, it still would have taken an awful lot of time (which of course we didn’t have). So we decided to place these photographs in the dreaded “miscellaneous” folders and move on, doing the same with a box of loose slides. We also didn’t touch any chunky folders already labeled “miscellaneous,” “general,” or other vague terms that didn’t tell you much about content. (Folders with only one or two items in them, though? Those got re-titled.) If we had taken the time to identify every single one of those unlabeled items, then we would have had to skimp on arrangement and description elsewhere, which was not an option.

Unknown size: small.

In the discussion of minimal processing using archivists with subject knowledge, it’s also worth  discussing how much this can help researchers. In the above Sleeping Beauty and Giselle example, our addition would only help someone who was looking for photographs of Giselle productions by the Pennsylvania Ballet (so, probably not the vast majority of people who will access this collection). The place where subject knowledge was most needed was in the un-arranged jumble of photographs and slides, but these are also the parts the collection that would have taken the most time to deal with and were therefore unlikely to be touched during any minimal processing project.

To sum up, subject knowledge helps in traditional processing and certainly didn’t hurt us here; but it didn’t greatly improve the quality of the description and arrangement we were able to do, nor did it save us much time. Because we were practicing minimal processing, we didn’t have the luxury of using our subject knowledge to its full extent. Having knowledge about the material in your collection before you begin can help you, but the rewards are small given that you might not be able to apply it without devoting more time than you can spare.