BY REBECCA FENNING
A Monthly - Weekend With Shades - Column
There is a tiny kernel of truth in that final scene from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, when we see a box holding the Ark of the Covenant put on a shelf in a warehouse full of thousands and thousands of like boxes. In much the same way, all archives and libraries have hidden collections like this, though perhaps not so vast and not so concealed. But they are there.
Many of these collections are often things sitting in the backlogs of institutions. These materials purchased by or given to a library, but not yet cataloged or described in any way, can number in the hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of volumes and boxes, waiting for catalogers and archivists to get to them. Other hidden collections are described somewhere, but insufficiently, while still others are described cursorily in physical card catalogs and paper finding aids that are only accessible to those who know to look for them.
At my library, for example, the manuscript collections are largely described only through a physical card catalog located in our lobby. Further, the information on these cards can be pretty crummy, lacking things like subject cross-references and sometimes containing nothing beyond title and page count. Unless you knew about our library and our collecting scope (mostly 17th and 18th century British stuff) and knew we might have something you were looking for (an 18th century handwritten cookery book, perhaps), it would be extremely difficult to be able to find this very well hidden material. Other items in our backlog have never been cataloged at all and have been waiting on a shelf since their acquisition and are truly almost impossible to find unless I tell you that they are there.
These sorts of hidden and hard-to-access collections are a problem that the archives and library community is trying to address in a variety of ways. Understanding some of the issues and actions behind revealing hidden collections will help to make you, as potential users of these collections, more savvy about how to find information them and what the information you are looking at really means.
One of the most revolutionary ideas in the struggle to reveal hidden collections in the archives world was the development of the concept “More Product, Less Process." This new way of looking at archival processing (usually just referred to as MPLP) promotes the idea of getting a greater volume of material described by doing less detailed, item level work (Basically, describing things at a higher collection-wide level instead of describing or looking through them at the folder or item or page level).
This turns a lot of archival notions on their head, but has been adopted by a lot of places with great success. See, though an MPLP project does give you potentially less detailed information, fewer names, and less meticulously sorted collections, MPLP projects also get more information about more backlog collections out there to the user.
That might not sound great, but consider that at many institutions, unprocessed and undescribed collections sitting in the backlog are usually off-limits to researchers for various security and privacy concerns. Also consider that traditional item- or folder-level processing can take a long time – it once took me about 8 months to finish a more traditional finding aid for a large collection! MPLP helps archivists and users by getting more things described in less time, which means backlogs can be eliminated more quickly and finding aids and boxes put in front of researchers in a more timely manner. And that sounds pretty good.
Though an MPLP finding aid will probably give you a lot less information about the items in a collection than a more traditional and detailed folder or item level description might, the theory is that the researcher doesn’t necessarily mind looking through boxes that might be messy when they know they are looking for something they want. The fact of access to previously hidden collections and resources balances out the inconvenience of not knowing exactly what is contained in each folder, because yes, it might be nice to know if what you are looking for is there, but having access to something that might have taken years or decades for an archivist to get to if she were using traditional processing methods is even nicer!
This isn’t a comprehensive look at the idea of hidden collections or the archival processing techniques aimed at conquering them, but hopefully it gives you a little bit of an idea of what goes on in the uncatalogued basement storage vaults of archives the world over. Perhaps it gives you more reason to inquire at archives and libraries whether or not they have material you don’t see listed on their website or their publications! It might be just sitting there, waiting for an archivist to work on it, or for someone to check a physical card catalog for it. Resources like Archive Finder or the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) can help you to find institutions like mine that might have those hidden treasures you are looking for.
And remember, I am always here to answer any questions that might turn up in that search!
Photograph Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Copyright © Rebecca Fenning
Copyright © Rebecca Fenning