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PACSCL Hidden Collections Processing Project » Training


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We’re back! Bootcamp, processing, and progress so far…

Friday, April 4th, 2014

New project team during minimal processing bootcamp at the University of Pennsylvania.

Hello again! Time has flown by, and we’re just getting the blog started again by recapping the current PACSCL/CLIR Hidden Collections Processing Project of 2013-2014. I assumed responsibilities of Project Manager in August 2013 and it’s been a whirlwind of activity from the very first day. I had to quickly assess and plan how we would minimally process 46 collections containing materials from the 18th to 21st centuries, all specifically related to Philadelphia history. Processing will require us to process at a rate of 4 hours per linear foot at 16 different repositories over the course of one year.  In addition to 12 veteran participating repositories, we welcome four new institutions to the project, including two non-PACSCL members. With this project, we hope to refine, confirm, and better establish guidelines for applying minimal processing to a wide range of collections and types of institutions and creating high-quality finding aids for our ever-expanding collaborative site.

Surveying at Germantown Historical Society.

Surveying at Germantown Historical Society.

As you may recall, this project builds upon the predecessor processing project lead by Holly Mengel and Courtney Smerz from 2009 to 2011. Having served as one of the processors on that project, I began my work as Project Manager already very familiar with the “PACSCL” methods and approaches established by the first team. My familiarity with these approaches, along with additional archives management experience, gave me a bit of a running start, but I immediately found that I have my work cut out for me. More about the challenges and lessons I’ve learned so far will be chronicled in later posts.

In August, I quickly got started by surveying the collections selected for the grant that had not been surveyed previously by the fabulous PACSCL Survey Initiative Project. I followed and expanded upon the guidelines already previously established in earlier projects to assess these new collections. In September and October, I was able to assemble a fabulous project team of six processors and one assistant, who all attended the bootcamp training week designed to establish a good overview of the PACSCL approaches to minimal processing and the Archivists’ Toolkit. After training, I assigned pairs of processors to our first three repositories (Temple University, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Union League of Philadelphia) to kick off the year’s-worth of processing work ahead of us.

First day of processing at Temple University.

First day of processing at Temple University.

Already with many challenges and successes along the way that will be detailed further in the coming weeks on the blog, we hit our six-month mark this week right on track! At our halfway point in the project come mid-April, we will have processed an approximate total of 762 linear feet for 22 collections in 9 repositories, at an average rate of 3.45 hours per linear foot. Please stay tuned as we continue to add more frequent updates about our progress, lessons learned, and interesting finds!

An Archival Quandary at PHS

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

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When Frank A. Brown (1876-1967) retired in 1949 following a four-decade career as a Presbyterian missionary to China, he didn’t just sit back and enjoy “those happy golden years.” Between 1949 and his death in 1967, Brown remained active in a number of ways: writing articles, letters to the editor, and books, including a biography of his late wife titled Charlotte Brown: A Mother in China; serving on boards and committees of both religious and secular organizations; and lecturing on his experiences in China.

Brown also stayed busy in his later years by selecting for and arranging his personal papers—a fact that became quite clear to me and my processing partner, Dan, as we began to survey the Brown papers at Presbyterian Historical Society. At least one box of the less-than-three box collection had been pristinely ordered by Brown, complete with descriptive folder titles like “Retirement Years” and “Carville Hospital Experience” (a particularly interesting file of materials—including press clippings from several newspapers—documenting Brown’s bout with leprosy in the 1950s and early 1960s).

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It struck me almost immediately that there might be some intellectual problems associated with this collection—a collection consciously selected and arranged for posterity by the creator of the papers. Could personal bias have entered into the collection, either consciously or unconsciously? Couldn’t the creator have left out certain materials—materials he didn’t want to bequeath to future generations, for instance, because they might make him “look bad”? Will researchers be misled by such a collection, if archivists don’t warn them of the potential problems? Will they be put off by such a “flawed” collection if the archivist discloses the problems? How can an archivist detail the intellectual limits of the collection without firing off wild and potentially baseless accusations about the motivation of the collection creator? What is the archivist’s responsibility to this kind of material?

Unfortunately, I don’t have any easy answers to these questions. In fact, my response is tempered by my dual identities: as archivist and as public historian. As an aspiring archivist (and current archival processor), I have the daunting responsibility of consciously, critically, and carefully cultivating and preserving one small corner of the intellectual heritage of our society—the responsibility, to put it another way, of cultivating a cultural memory. But as a public historian-in-training, I also have a responsibility to the public, which includes collection creators and their family members.

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I think, therefore, that we need to walk a fine line in these situations: being transparent and honest with potential researchers, and maintaining appropriate respect for the creator of the collection. We don’t want to obfuscate intellectual problems from our researchers, nor do we want to dissuade them from using a particular collection because of potential—and unavoidable—embedded bias. (After all, no collection is perfect—all are, in one way or another, shaped by imperfect humans.) And at the same time, we need to respect our collection creators and not hastily accuse them of attempting to white-wash their legacy. (We don’t want to get a reputation, after all.)

In the end, Dan and I added just a short blurb to our finding aid—enough to let future researchers know about the provenance so they can draw their own conclusions about the potential intellectual problems of the collection: “The series title ‘Life and Letters’ appears to have originated with Frank Brown, whom it seems originally arranged these records.” Hopefully, researchers will recognize that Brown’s legacy doesn’t just live in the papers and pictures arranged in the boxes; his legacy also lives in the arrangement itself.

For permission to use images of items from the Johnson papers, please contact the Presbyterian Historical Society.

Robert Pierre Johnson: Man of Mystery

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

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“This is ridiculous!” I cried, throwing my hands up in disgust.

From across the table, my processing partner, Brian, reluctantly looked up from his work.  “What’s ridiculous?”

“This guy,” I replied, shaking my head in frustration.  I was referring to the Reverend Robert Pierre Johnson, creator of the collection we were processing at the Presbyterian Historical Society.  Though it was a relatively small collection – less than three linear feet – I was experiencing some problems with it.

My archivist-angst was not directed at the collection itself.  Indeed, from an organizational perspective, it was a minimal processor’s dream.  Johnson’s correspondence, sermons, notebooks, and a few subject files came to us fairly well organized.  Nor did I have an issue with Johnson.  In fact, he seemed like a truly amazing person.  He lived from 1914 to 1974, and led an exceptional life.  He was a Presbyterian minister, and the first black man to be elected to the position of Executive Presbyter of New York City.  He held pastorates in both Pennsylvania and Washington D.C., and was a prominent religious authority in D.C. during the March on Washington and the passing of the Civil Rights Act.  In addition, Johnson had high-ranking positions on a number of national Presbyterian organizations.  Because of these positions, he was drawn into two notable incidents of the 1960s and 70s: James Forman and his Black Manifesto, which demanded financial reparations for African Americans from white churches, and the situation involving Angela Davis, a fugitive whose legal fees were paid for in part by a Presbyterian organization.

Wow! One thinks upon hearing this brief bio.  This guy was in it!  Golly, I bet he had a ton of stuff to say about all of this drama!

Except that he DIDN’T.  This is where my frustration with the collection lies.  For all of Johnson’s proximity to important historical events, as well as his own history-making role within the Presbyterian Church, he left us with little personal information.  We know almost nothing about how he felt regarding or reacted to these important incidents.  A quick scan of his correspondence reveals that he was an excellent pastor and a respected member of his organizations.  And yet, they reveal little of Johnson himself.  His folders on James Forman and Angela Davis are filled with third-party material – nothing that immediately reveals his active role within the events.

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Over the hours we processed, I grew increasingly frustrated with the collection and Johnson’s mysteriousness.  “Look!” I said to Brian at one point, waving a paper in the air.  “It’s a list of all the articles he had published in major news publications.”  I gestured to the folders piled between us.  “And none of it’s here!  We have all these letters and stuff, but I still feel like we know nothing about what he thought or what he believed in.”

“That’s true.”  Brian leaned forward and tapped on a book filled with Johnson’s sermons.  “But I think it’s all in here.”

Surprised, I stopped to consider Brian’s words.  It was certainly possible that Johnson’s personal beliefs could be found in the numerous books and folders containing his hand-written sermons.  Isn’t this something that a pastor, particularly one who seemed so dedicated to God, would do?  For example, Brian asserts that Johnson was a huge supporter of civil rights, almost from the beginning of his career.  His passion for equality was merely couched in the religious rhetoric he preached to his congregation.  This is apparently only one of many such examples.  Whether Johnson deliberately left so little of himself behind, or whether he had a personal preference to express himself predominately in sermons, we cannot know.

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This mysteriousness – and the answers that can be found in Johnson’s writings – tells us two things.  One, that perhaps this collection was not as good a minimal processing candidate as we originally thought.  Though it came to us fairly well organized, it would require more processing time to pull out the interesting facts that make it unique.  It also raises the interesting point that, perhaps Johnson’s papers don’t contain enough critical information to warrant a high research value.  I’m willing to bet that Johnson, with his birds-eye view on some fascinating moments in history, had plenty to say that he just didn’t tell us, and there is a good bet that it lurks within his collection.

For permission to use images of items from the Johnson papers, please contact the Presbyterian Historical Society.

Wives in the Samuel Hall Chester Papers, or: Who Is Mrs. S. H. Chester?

Friday, February 18th, 2011

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After a whirlwind week of “Archivist Boot Camp,” my processing partner Michael Gubicza and I just finished our first minimal processing project at the Presbyterian Historical Society. We were lucky to have a fascinating collection to start out on: the Samuel Hall Chester papers, 1873-1950. We hope you’ll keep an eye out for our finding aid, which will soon be posted to the PACSCL Finding Aids site. Dr. S. H. Chester, a Presbyterian minister, was the Executive Secretary of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church (United States) from 1893 to 1926—a delicate time for the Committee of Foreign Missions.

While Dr. Chester was on the Committee of Foreign Missions, the knowledge that missionaries were converting polygamous families to the Presbyterian faith was beginning to cause some consternation among Presbyterians in the United States. Some writings on the subject are included in the Samuel Hall Chester papers, although the extremely interesting documents are not very extensive. Dr. Chester, along with others, argued that missionaries should continue to welcome polygamous converts into the Presbyterian Church. In countries where plural wives were common, Dr. Chester pointed out, the Church’s insistence upon monogamy would result in additional wives and their children being abandoned by their husbands. Most likely they would be cast to the streets, and Dr. Chester was sympathetic to the plight of these pitiable women.

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As to Dr. Chester’s own marriage, he appears to have been a devoted husband. On the occasion of his 50th wedding anniversary, he compiled a massive scrapbook stuffed with cards and letters of congratulations from friends, the guest register from the anniversary party, and even dried flowers from the boutineer he wore to the party! But flipping through pages and pages of the scrapbook, Michael and I began notice that one important detail was missing: what was Dr. Chester’s wife’s name? Everywhere she was referred to as “Mrs. S. H. Chester,” or, in correspondence with the children, “Mother.” We began searching through the other materials, and were amazed that her Christian name seemed to be completely absent. No mention in the correspondence; no mention in Dr. Chester’s writings. In scrapbooks we found printed poems written by her, probably published in a newsletter or newspaper—even those were signed only “Mrs. S. H. Chester.” After much searching, we nearly despaired of ever finding out her real name.

Just before putting away the collection, however, we came across a photograph of Presbyterian Church (United States) delegates to the Universal Christian Congress in Panama, 1919. Only a few of those seated in the group portrait were identified, but luckily for us, one of them was Mrs. S. H. Chester. And next to her married name, to our great satisfaction, Michael and I found another name enclosed bashfully in parenthesis—“Mrs. S. H. Chester (Susan Willard).” Finally, we had an answer! Mrs. Chester’s name was Susan.

For permission to use images of items from the Chester papers, please contact the Presbyterian Historical Society.

Lacy LeGrand Little papers

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

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With the start of 2011, PACSCL has taken on a new group of processors to work in area repositories.  For our training project, our group (Garrett Boos, Bruce Nielson, and Sarah Newhouse) arrange a collection of photographs and papers belonging to Lacy LeGrand Little, a Presbyterian missionary to China in the early 20th century.  This collection is housed at the Presbyterian Historical Society, along with many other collections from missionaries serving during the same time period and in various countries.

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Most of the photographs are of unidentified groups and individuals, which presented some problems in arranging and using minimal processing (especially for those of us using minimal processing for the first time). We wanted to label folders with names when possible, so searching for names and dates became a process that took more time than we intended. We ended up dividing the photographs into formal and informal (posed portraits and snapshots), and within those categories, into photos of individuals, pairs, groups and locations.  Within those groups, we had categories of identified and unidentified photos.  As always, with minimal processing, time was our main concern, but we were also concerned with balancing our allotted time with the desire to create the most informative finding aid possible.

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Among the unidentified photos were several of a man whom we were pretty sure was Lacy Little, but lacking any identifying information, we hesitated to assign his name to those photos.  After we had processed the collection and created the finding aid, our project archivist, Courtney Smerz, mentioned that she had seen an identified photo of Lacy Little in another collection being processed during training.  Thus began a frantic, but brief hunt thorugh the collections we had pulled for processing, trying to find this labeled photograph that we knew was in a photo album or scrapbook with black pages. The photo was found, we identified our man, and everyone was happy.

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The primary value of this collection is in the snapshot it provides of life in the 1920s and 1930s China, especially the life of a tourist or missionary.  Many of the photos are of unidentified groups and views, including a series of photos of classes from the school run by the Jiangyin Mission.  Some of these, however, have a list of all the students on the back, but no additional information, such as year, instructor or location.  The most interesting photos were two long, rolled photographs of landscapes.  One was the view of a harbor, with small fishing boats mingling with imposing battleships.

This collection fits into a larger narrative and documentary history about American missionaries moving into the rest of the world, but it is surprisingly short on quantitative data and the details of a missionary’s life. The photographs, however, provide tiny windows into Little’s life and travels, giving us a sense of what was interesting to a missionary encountering China through Western eyes.

For permission to use images of items from the Little Papers, please contact the Presbyterian Historical Society.

Training Non-Archivists in the basics of surveying, minimal processing and the Archivists’ Toolkit

Friday, November 5th, 2010

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The Archives for Non-Archivists training session funded by CLIR and IMLS was a success! On October 28 and 29, 2010, Courtney and I trained ten librarians from the Council of Independent Colleges, all of whom have responsibilities for special collections within their libraries, but no formal training. Our trainees traveled to the Bryn Mawr College Special Collections for two days of training from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Tennesee, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, and Pittsburgh and Radnor, Pennsylvania.

Our goals included teaching our trainees to survey collections, create a processing plan, minimally process a collection, and create a finding aid in the Archivists’ Toolkit. It was a lot to accomplish in two days (and as usual, I am pretty sure that Courtney and I learned as much as the trainees), but they were troopers and they stuck with us through an intense “boot camp.” What was great was how excited they all were to learn! Courtney and I were equally excited to learn and were initially surprised to discover that their biggest concerns as non-trained archivists included destroying provenance and original order. I think they were empowered when they better understood the terminology and how to work with it practically.

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On the first day, we started with an overview of surveying, creating processing plans, and processing (focusing on minimal), and then moved on to hands-on practice. As always, it is the hands-on that makes all the theory click. Bryn Mawr College Special Collections provided us with four outstanding collections (and the use of their beautiful new facilities), which the trainees surveyed and processed over the two-day period. Courtney and I felt that the trainees were shorted time for surveying, but the processing seemed to be a bit more doable.

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On the second day, we started with a power point guide to the Archivists’ Toolkit. Pretty much immediately after absorbing the basics, our trainees started entering their collections into the database. This was exhilarating—everyone was so excited when they saw their work turn into a finding aid at the click of a button. The best response (ever!) to seeing a finding aid produced by AT was one trainee (who shall remain nameless) who said, “Wow, I feel like smoking a cigarette!” I LOVE IT!

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At the end of the second day, two teams had completely finished entering their finding aids into the Archivists’ Toolkit and had written their scope and content notes and abstracts. The other two teams were just minutes from being finished and Courtney and I will tidy up the loose ends (a benefit of having a local repository host the workshop).

We have encouraged the trainees to send us questions and we are really excited to see how they do implementing what they learned. We have already heard from one person who is installing the Archivists’ Toolkit on her library computers! We also asked the trainees to evaluate the workshop and their input has given Courtney and me a lot to think about as far as training non-archivists as well as our students.

Thanks to Lori Miller from CLIR who organized the workshop and accepted our application; Eric Pumroy, Lorett Treese, and Bryn Mawr College Special Collections staff who generously hosted the workshop and provided collections for practice; and all the trainees who are committed to providing access to their collections!

Keeping the minimal processing dialog going: The views of a student processor

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

(In response to:  Keeping the Minimal Processing Dialog going, by Courtney Smerz and Reflections on Training and the PACSCL/CLIR Project, by Jack McCarthy, CA, Archival Consultant.)

Mr. McCarthy’s concern over dealing with separated materials within the “More Product, Less Process” methodology is certainly valid. When faced with a folder containing seemingly unrelated or miscellaneous material, it is extremely difficult to know which course of action is appropriate.  As a processor in these situations, you must ask yourself “should these items be separated or maintained,” and as importantly, “how will slowing my pace here impact how I treat the rest of the collection?”

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The best approach to take really depends on the situation. For example one of our first collections, the Douglas and Dorothy Steere papers, included a box that has attained special status within our project; the “box of despair.” Inside the box was a mound of loose papers, with no apparent order.

Holly recommended that as a team we separate the materials within this box, grouping the material by general categories such as correspondence, notes, photographs, etc.  From there we were able to integrate that material into pre-existing series as we further processed the collection. This approach was necessary for the “box of despair” because if the box was left in its current state, it would never have been accessible to researchers. Additionally, original order in the Steere collection had been compromised throughout the years as a result of so many processors working on small parts of the collection. Therefore, in order to complete processing, we had to integrate boxes of separated material based on what we thought made appropriate intellectual sense. As a team we continued to use this approach when faced with similarly daunting piles of disorganized materials.

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In other instances, we have been advised by Holly and Courtney not to separate material from folders if it appears that original order would suffer as a result. Instead, they have recommended that we keep the folder in its current state and make a correlating “scope and content” note in the finding aid. In a recent collection, The Thornton Oakley collection of Howard Pyle and his Students, this approach was implemented. In one folder there were several magazine clippings that could have potentially been separated individually and placed elsewhere in the series. Yet because original order had been maintained throughout most of the collection, we decided to leave the folder in its current state and label it “Assorted Tearsheets collected by Thornton Oakley 1887-1911.” Within the finding aid we added a note stating, “this box contains tear sheets from Scribner’s, Harper’s, and The Literary Digest.” This maintains original order, while at the same time highlighting content that a researcher may find valuable.

The situational approach is our best hope for reconciling the dilemma of separated materials.  While it is difficult to ensure that every decision we make is correct, over time we are improving the methods used deal with “grey area” issues such as this one.

Keeping the minimal processing dialog going

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Jack McCarthy brings up some good points about the challenges of minimal processing.  And it’s so great to get some feedback from an experienced archivist!  However, his blog post has brought to my attention a new concern; that our boot camp does not clearly express a crucial aspect of our methodology – that our processing plans are designed to be a starting point.

In fact, Jack’s concern about destroying important original order is already on our radar, and we work very hard to ensure that poor (and irreversible) processing decisions are not made.  That is why we create processing plans for every collection and why we do not treat all collections the same.  Sometimes, as in the case of Jack’s collection, we do advise our processors to separate materials by genre, other times we absolutely do not.  It all depends on our impression of each collection, information found in the survey, the collection’s custodial history, what the repository archivist has to say, and our time frame.  All of these issues are taken into consideration before we finalize the processing plan. In many cases, we work with whatever order is apparent to avoid separating materials in that manner, often advising our processors to resist the urge to over-complicate matters by trying to impose some complicated, unnecessary arrangement.  Before any arrangement decisions are acted on, the processors are instructed to read the entire processing plan and review the physical collection to form their own opinions.

We know, while we get it right a lot of the time, we are not right 100% of the time, and our processors are encouraged to talk to each other, repository staff, and us about the collections if they disagree with our proposed plan and they do.  In Jack’s case, if memory serves, we discussed his concerns and, for one of the folders in question, I felt he was correct; the papers should stay together and in the end they did.  In the other instances, I felt it was not as much of a concern for a few reasons: 1) At the moment we discussed the issue, he and his partner had not been able to identify a common link between the materials in the folder, 2) I did not believe that a decision in either direction would negatively impact the use or value of the materials for this particular collection, and 3) Holly had already seen the collection, created the processing plan, looked at the papers again, and stood by her decision.  In the end, I believe Jack decided to leave some of the folders intact and I am OK with his decision to approach the collection in this different way.

The bottom line is that nothing about our project is set in stone – it cannot be.  That is what makes training for minimal processing so difficult and why we are constantly looking for ways to make our training (and methodology, for that matter) better and stronger.  We can not provide an example for every potential scenario.  Nor can we allow our students to ponder every decision they will be asked to make, although we have them working in teams so that they can discuss issues such as this.  Minimal processing is tricky, especially at two hours per linear foot, and we know it.  That is why we create the processing plans and why we encourage and rely on our processors to express their opinions when they feel our suggestions are wrong or will negatively affect the collection in some profound way. By having these conversations, we hope that the best possible approach to processing can be identified and implemented.

Jack’s observations and concerns underscore the importance of keeping the dialog going; sharing our thoughts and experiences, as we as a profession continue to test the limits, and pros and cons of minimal processing.  His comments will certainly be taken into consideration as we move forward in our project, creating processing plans, guiding our student teams, and in future “boot camps.”

Reflections on Training and the PACSCL/CLIR Project, by Jack McCarthy, CA, Archival Consultant

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

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I recently had the opportunity to participate in the PACSCL Hidden Collections project Archival Boot Camp, the training session for the student processing archivists that will be working on the next phase of the project. While not involved in the PACSCL project myself, I am developing a project with somewhat similar goals that focuses on the collections of small, primarily volunteer-run organizations such as local historical societies, small museums, and other collecting institutions. Since my project may involve training entry-level archivists in surveying and processing collections held by these small repositories, I wanted to observe the training sessions of the PACSCL project to see how it was done in that project.

Overall, I found the Boot Camp to be a well structured, well-presented session and an effective method for training young archivists in the minimal processing practices that they will be implementing in the PACSCL project. Project Manager Holly Mengel and Project Archivist Courtney Smerz did a good job of presenting the rationale and theory behind minimal processing, providing guidelines for the minimal processing practices that will be employed in the project, and supervising the hands-on sessions in which the participants had the opportunity put those guidelines into practice. I especially liked the fact that Holley and Courtney were more interested in determining what worked and what didn’t in their approach to minimal processing than in trying to “prove” that theirs was the best approach. As per one of the goals of the PACSCL project, they are seeking to develop a model for applying minimal processing techniques to different types of collections – not just the large late twentieth-century collections that minimal processing was initially developed to address – and so they want honest assessments of both the positive and negative aspects of the methodology they have developed for the project.

Which brings me to the one problem I had with that methodology: While I found the guidelines and minimal processing practices presented in the Boot Camp to be sound and workable for the most part, and while I believe that the project is achieving its goal of making previously hidden collections more accessible in a cost-effective manner, there is one specific practice that is part of the project’s processing approach that I was uncomfortable with from an archival standpoint. It involves separating materials into distinct series when it is not clear that they actually constitute separate series, specifically the practice of taking a file that consists of a mix of different types of materials lumped together and separating these materials out into discrete series, but – and this is the critical point – without the opportunity to examine the items sufficiently to determine how they relate to one another and if they really do constitute separate series. Essentially, I feel that this is asking the processor to make item-level decisions but in a minimal processing time frame, without having the time to work with the materials enough to make informed decisions.

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One of the key first steps in the processing procedure in which we were trained entails spreading a collection out and determining, fairly quickly, what series the materials should be divided into. Often, this is obvious – these diaries constitute one series, these photographs constitute another, etc. – but sometimes it is not so obvious and the decisions are more difficult. For the hands-on portion of the training, held at the Independence Seaport Museum, we broke into teams of two at one point and each team was given a small collection to process. My partner and I had the papers of George Sproule, a prominent figure in the Philadelphia maritime and shipping industry in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. We determined most of the series (diaries, scrapbooks, photo files) without much difficulty, but there was one group of materials consisting of several thick folders containing hundreds of different types of items – correspondence, reports and business records, clippings, writings and speeches, ephemera such as invitations and event programs, and other materials – all lumped together in no apparent order. Our instructions were to separate these materials out into different series by type – correspondence in one series, clippings in another, etc. As we started to do this, I began to get uncomfortable, realizing that I really couldn’t tell what belonged together and what did not, as there were several instances in which we ended up separating materials that actually related to each other: a piece of correspondence related to an event program, or a newspaper clipping related to a speech for which there was a copy in the file. These were just a couple of the inter-relationships we were able to discern in a quick review of the records; I am sure they were many more cases of related items that we didn’t catch. By separating these items from each other I felt that we were severing the ties between them and hampering future users’ ability to see the relationship between them. I didn’t think that we had enough time to make the kind of series determinations we were being asked to make, at least with this specific set of materials.

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In my opinion, when presented with such situations, it would be best to adopt a “first, do no harm” approach. Given the limited amount of time available in a minimal processing project, if there are materials about which there is some ambiguity as to their organization or interrelationships, it would be best to just leave them as is. I do not think that this approach would significantly inhibit access to a collection. A researcher using a collection would, I think, be well-served by having such materials left as they were, but with a series-level scope and content note in the finding aid providing the necessary descriptive detail about the contents of the series.

This one critique notwithstanding, I found the Boot Camp to be a very worthwhile experience and the overall approach to minimal processing employed in the project to be excellent. I think that the PACSCL Hidden Collections project is doing a great service to the archival community on several levels: the participating PACSCL repositories and their users are getting important but hidden collections arranged and described, a group of young archivists is getting excellent hands-on experience in archival processing, and the archival profession is getting a tested model for making collections available relatively quickly and cost-effectively.

Spring 2010 Boot Camp at Independence Seaport Museum

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

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Knowing that we will be losing 3 of 4 of our original student processors at the beginning of June, Courtney and I began planning for an almost entirely new team and revisited our training scheme armed with the knowledge and experience that comes from working with collections and our processors for eight months.  Needless to say, we approached this training session a little differently.

Courtney worked on our slide presentation, fine-tuning and further developing ideas and issues that we realized we had not covered fully enough in the first training session.  She also developed a training slide show on the Archivists’ Toolkit which I think will be useful not just to our student processors, but to the larger archival community.

One other thing we had decided immediately after the first training was that we really needed to find training collections that were small enough to complete in the two-days of hands-on training.  We asked Matt Herbison, Director of the  Independence Seaport Museum J. Welles Henderson Archives and Library, if he was willing to host the training, and he generously agreed and helped select collections for processing.  Our wish list for the collections included:  size (the collection needs to be small enough that a two person team can process the collection and enter the finding aid into the Archivists’ Toolkit in 2 days) and complexity (the collection needs to be complicated enough to serve as a real-life example of any collection that our processors may encounter in the next few months).  I made processing plans for six collections, all of which fulfilled our wish list.

Unknown size: small.

On May 18, we started our training at the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt – Dietrich Library Center in an electronic classroom and we covered the basics of the project as well as what minimal processing means for the project, and how to process collections for this project.  In the afternoon we addressed the Archivists’ Toolkit.  We hope that the classroom day provides a sound foundation for what our processors will need to know when they start working in repositories.

Unknown size: small.

So after spending a day talking ABOUT processing, we met on May 19 and 20 at the Independence Seaport Museum so that our processors could DO processing.  We started with the Marvin Rosefield Keck papers which we processed as a group.  This allowed our processors to really have a conversation about what was in the collection and how to move forward.  We followed the steps in our processing manual; we familiarized ourselves with the collection, we arranged the collection intellectually, we arranged the collection physically, and we talked about the description of the finding aid.

Unknown size: small.

After we finished the Keck papers, we divided our processors into teams of two and gave each team another collection.  Becky Koch and Jennifer Duli worked on the Independence Seaport Museum Collection on the New York Shipbuilding Corporation;  Megan Good and Megan Atkinson worked on the Pollack collection of Ocean Liner ephemera; Jack McCarthy, an archival consultant, and Leslie Willis, the archivist for the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University worked on the George F. Sproule papers; Matt Herbison worked on the Ward collection of New York Shipbuilding Corporation records; and Courtney worked on the Red D Line records.

Unknown size: small.

As soon as the physical processing was completed, our processors began working on entering the data into the Archivists’ Toolkit, gaining hands-on, real experience with the database.  When they were finished, they completed the worksheets we require at the end of the processing each collection.  As they finished their finding aids, Courtney and I tried to do quick proofs so that we could provide feedback.  All in all, we tried to make the training as similar to their future jobs as possible.

Unknown size: small.

Were we successful?  Well, Courtney and I felt that the training went really well and was much more successful than our first attempts.  And, we processed six collections in a day and a half, so a good bit of work was accomplished.  I think we will know for sure once our student processors start working and we can see what we need to do differently next time.

Thanks very much to Matt Herbison for hosting the Spring 2010 training session!