Ever wonder what goes on behind the scenes in Special Collections? Well, follow me into the Processing Room for a peak at our collections as we preserve, organize, and describe them for researchers – I mean, really, who doesn’t love a backstage pass?
Well, friends, here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for! No we haven’t finished with the J. Hillis Miller Papers yet, but I’m finally going to make good on my promise to explain more about processing! If you need a refresher on pre-processing go back and reading my first entry on accessioning and value scores. I’ll wait.
All done with review? Are you ready for the next unit, class? I certainly am!
Once the archivist has surveyed, scored, numbered, and shelved the new collection, she will start transforming her survey notes into what is called a processing plan. You can’t bake a cake without a recipe, you don’t know the way to San Jose without a map, and you can’t process an archival collection without a plan. The processing plan asks the archivist to answer a lot of questions about the collection on which she’ll be working. Asking concrete questions such as “what kind of supplies will you need,” “how long the project is likely to take,” and “how much work do you intend to do on this collection,” are probably all pretty self-evident first steps on this journey to organizational nirvana. But, the big archival questions like “is there any existing meaningful order to this collection? If not, how will you organize it?” might give the most enthusiastic archival amateur pause.
Indeed, having a clear idea of how the creator of the collection originally organized (or didn’t organize as the case may be) the materials that have found their way into your processing room is actually a pretty important part of any processing project. All archivists attempt, as best they can, to maintain the original order of collections. Original order can tell researchers a lot about how the person or organization they’re studying worked or functioned. We also, however, want to make collections as understandable as possible for researchers. Often, personal papers are extremely disorderly. People are messy. Life is messy. In cases where there is no discernible rhyme or reason to the order in which a collection turns up, the archivist may have to impose what is called an artificial arrangement to make the papers usable. Either way, be it totally original order, completely artificial, or something in between, arrangement is one of the key parts of processing collections.
Another, even more important, aspect of archival processing is description. For archivists, writing description is a little bit like the more familiar library practice of cataloging. This is where we tell researchers just what is in those 50 or so record cartons waiting for them in our stacks. As I intimated in my post on accessioning and value scores, archival description can be broad or get very granular depending on the research value and condition of the collection as determined by the archivist. If a collection is extremely valuable – and also, preferably, small – an archivist might describe a collection at what is called the item level. Say you have a collection that is made up of just five letters by George Washington to Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War. Each letter would probably be given its own title – maybe something like “Washington, George (1732-1799) to United States. Continental Congress, 1774 July 2.” This kind of description is done very rarely as it is extremely time consuming, and collections don’t normally warrant that level of detail. Usually, archivists are faced with a collection that includes seven record center boxes of chronologically organized annual reports, and while we could go through and label each one individually, it is much more efficient to simply call all the reports “annual reports, 1978-1990.” We still give a researchers an exact idea of what is in the collection without listing every item.
Of course, there are other kinds of description that archivists include in their guides to collections, called finding aids, to help researchers find what they’re looking for. We include brief biographies or historical narratives to contextualize collections, full summaries of the contents of collections, information on acquisition, processing, and any other information we feel will help the researcher understand and best use the materials to which we provide access.
There is also a technical side to all of this business that includes entering all description into collection management software, generating special encoded versions of our guides to collections so that they are fully searchable on the web, uploading those guides to the Online Archive of California, and in some cases digitizing items so that researchers can access materials online.
As a processing archivist, I aim to provide researchers with the most accessible and accurate information on our collections, and as you can see, there is a lot that happens to archival collections between donation and research. It’s a pretty long, and sometimes arduous, journey, but almost always an exciting one.
I hope you enjoyed this little crash course on archival practice from accession to processing. As always, if you have any questions don’t hesitate to reach out in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.