Shades Of The Departed

March 21

A Monthly - Weekend With Shades - Column

I hate the word "archiving." I really do. Why? Well, because I may be the only archivist to feel this way, but I think it's misleading. I feel as if the "archiving" of things like email have made archive-related verbs into buzzwords that get a lot of use, distorting our understanding of what archives curated by librarians and archivists actually are and how they are created.

So this is why in my inaugural column for Weekend with Shades, I'd like to explain what it is I actually do as an archivist and librarian, because this can be unfamiliar to even the most highly educated, library-frequenting of us. Indeed, most people I know who aren't information professionals themselves (that is to say, librarians or archivists or records managers) have no idea what I do -- and that includes my boyfriend, my mom, my sister, my best friends and pretty much everyone else I know. I hope that my quick walk-through of basic archival activities will give you a better sense of how archivists and archives work and a better notion of the questions I can help you to answer.

I have worked with lots of different kinds of archival collections from contemporary business records to 18th century family papers, legal records to professional correspondence, big collections to small collections. Regardless of the variations among these collection types, the basic archival concepts you use in approaching them remain the same.

With any new archival collection that waltzes through the door, one of the first steps in beginning work is accessioning. Accessioning isn't something that applies only to archives, but also to all kinds of library collections, and is basically the formal addition of a new collection to your institution and the recording of the particulars about your acquisition of it. Many places assign accession numbers to items and collections as they roll in, which helps track things as they are cataloged and organized, since things like titles (unless we're talking about books!) can change. In my institution as in many others, we assign numbers based on acquisition year, such as MS.2008.003. Looking at that number I can see that that number denotes the 3rd manuscript or archive acquired in 2008.

An old manuscripts acquisition/accession card file at my library

The next step with a collection is generally appraisal (though depending on the circumstances of acquisition, this can happen before accessioning, too). Appraisal encompasses a range of activities, but is basically making decisions about the overall purpose and value of a collection, especially what items you want to keep, and what items you want to get of (or, deaccession). For example, in the voluminous papers of a law professor I once helped work on, it was clear that the collection's greatest enduring value lay in his correspondence, lectures, and articles -- not in the leftover unused Christmas cards or advertisements about travel packages to South America scattered throughout his files. Here, it was easy to make the choice to relegate such items to the circular file, though it is not always so simple. With family papers for instance (especially when they are your family's papers), it can be hard to determine where to draw the line: blank deposit slips and check registers, old birthday cards, family correspondence, insurance forms, report cards, grocery lists, address books, wedding invitations, newspaper clippings, or photographs where everyone's eyes are closed can be kept or chucked depending on how you choose to rationalize the ongoing value and purpose of the collection as a whole.

A processed collection housed in acid-free folders in an acid-free box

Once the appraisal and weeding process is through, the next step is the processing and arrangement of a collection. This encompasses things like placing items in acid-free folders and other archival housings, labeling and numbering folders and boxes, and deciding on collection's overall physical organization. A major concept in archives work is the preservation of original order, which dictates keeping papers and folders in the order in which they arrive at your door, because this is hopefully the order in which they were kept by their author or collector. Doing this means you are not just preserving the items themselves but the organizational thought process of the creator. Of course, this only works when there is an actual original order in place -- not when you just have a free-for-all of papers and pictures and things jumbled in a box, which I find happens to me quite a lot. Collections without a discernible original order are a different ball-game, one of the places where you get to exercise your archivist know-how to impose your own order, choosing whatever organizational scheme makes the most sense to you, whether that be something thematic, alphabetical, chronological or something else entirely.

The next step of my usual archival practice is the intellectual arrangement and description of a collection. Now, this is where I think things get a little confusing when I try explaining my job because the archives jargon interferes a bit. Description, in most cases, is basically the finding aid creation step, but the problem is that most people don't know what a finding aid actually is! A finding aid, quite simply, is a guide to the contents of a collection and usually contains relevant historical/biographical background information, narrative-style description of the objects in the collection, and other things like library subject headings, related collections and acquisition information in addition to the real heart of things - the container listing, which itemizes folder by folder (or box by box, or even item by item) the actual stuff in the collection.

Part of a completed finding aid

In creating a finding aid, the most important thing is creating something that the researcher will actually be able to use, because though the components of a finding aid sound relatively straightforward, it is actually really easy to over-complicate things and end up with a product that only makes sense to the creator. This where intellectual arrangement comes in. See, if you have a collection that's only one cubic foot box, a straightforward list of folders 1-25 with no kind of hierarchical structure is pretty easy to browse through. But what if you have a collection of 20 cubic foot boxes, or 75, or 500? That can get confusing pretty quickly. Organizing into series (such as "business records," "correspondence," and "legal files," for example) and further into subseries (like "outgoing correspondence" and "incoming correspondence") makes this list a lot more manageable by imposing a hierarchy over your list. Another way intellectual order can be helpful is when you have, let's say, folders of letters from Mrs. A to Mr. B in box 1 but also in boxes 23, 78, and 174. It might not be practical to place these folders physically together all in one box (because it might disrupt original order, and also because it would take way too much time to do) but intellectually arranging your finding aid into series by subject or correspondent or alphabetical order can allow you to list boxes 1, 23, 78 and 174 next to one another.

An example of using intellectual ordering to alphabetize correspondence files instead
of manually, physically placing files in alphabetical order

These days, the standard and ideal form of a finding aid is one delivered on the internet and encoded in an xml schema called EAD, or Encoded Archival Description. Like any xml document, EAD adds semantic tags that denote finding aid contents. For example, titleproper tags bracket finding aid titles and acqinfo tags bracket acquisition information. These tags make it easier to search finding aids for specific information, like persname (or personal name) for example, and also allow for different displays of your document. I'm no xml or EAD expert, so I won't go into details here, but there are many resources on the internet for learning more about how this works, if you're interested. The encoded finding aid placed on your institution's website (or elsewhere) is how users find out what it is you have and how they know what to ask for once they're there.

A section of an encoded finding aid

So, to sum up, all of these steps are reasons why I don't like the word archiving. It's only my personal opinion -- a search of professional archives listserves show that other archivists use it all the time -- but hopefully by showing you how many processes are involved, I've illustrated why I feel the way I do about it. I also hope my description has given you ideas for questions to which you'd like to know the answers! Please feel free to leave any and all questions in the comments below as I'll be taking my cues for future Saving Face articles from you. That said, you should also know that the tasks I've described above are only a segment of the work I do everyday. I went to a traditional library school like any public librarian and I work in a special collections library, where I spend a lot of my days cataloging individual manuscript items for the online library catalog in addition to processing collections of papers.

So if you have any more traditionally library oriented questions, send those my way too and I'll do my best to answer them!

Please add all questions to this post. Rebecca will be visiting often to collect them.


Blogger geneabloggers said...

Great article! A real education for me as to what happens when a collection is donated to an institution.

March 21, 2009 at 8:05 AM  
Blogger Sheri said...

Hello Rebecca, fM always finds the most interesting people to share with all of us mere mortals. I enjoyed your article and as soon as I have a good archival question I'll be back.

Jeez fM....another brain-ee-ack! Keep 'em coming, we all can use the education. Power is knowledge, I think. LOL

March 21, 2009 at 8:46 AM  
Blogger Janet Hovorka said...

Wonderful article. I would love to hear more detail--about materials, the deselection process, the organizing process--examples etc. Organizing all this information is so important in this day and age. I think all genealogists could use more help organizing. Thanks. Looking forward to more.

March 21, 2009 at 9:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Rebecca,

An excellent start to your column!

You struck a chord when you talked about "... rationalize the ongoing value and purpose of the collection ..."

I'm struggling with this concept as I continue to scan docs and notes in an effort to go paperless. Any pointers you have will be appreciated!

"Guided by the Ancestors"

March 21, 2009 at 12:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rebecca, welcome and thank you for a fascinating introduction to the archival process. I'm quickly becoming a fan of XML and this is yet another reason. We're all looking forward to learning more about the process and how we can put it to use in our own collections.

March 21, 2009 at 2:10 PM  
Blogger paperquilter said...

I enjoyed this article very much, and it got me thinking about the documents and items which I have gathered while doing genealogy. I don't mean printouts of census images, or bmd certificates etc.(I have them organized already), but things like the collection of letters my mother wrote home from college -- eventually sharing the exciting news of her engagement to my father -- or the gold watch given to my great-grandfather, or the collection of Christmas newsletters my parents sent out every year. Surely there is a way to organize, store and describe these, particularly so those who come after me realize their genealogical value. What do you advise for home use?

March 21, 2009 at 5:25 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

Thanks everyone! I'm so glad you already have so many great questions and topics to discuss. I wish I could answer them all right now -- but be assured I'm saving them all for future articles (though I wish I could answer them all right now!)

March 23, 2009 at 9:43 AM  
Anonymous Denise Levenick, The Family Curator said...

Thanks for the helpful overview Rebecca. I join the chorus crying "hooray, help is on the way" for our treasures. I am looking forward the the Q and A.

March 26, 2009 at 9:00 PM  
Blogger Apple said...

Thanks, Rebecca, this tells me a lot about what happened to my family's collections after they were donated. The finding aid for the Carlisle Family papers is not nearly as detailed as what you describe. For example there are dozens of letters written by Sarah Ann Camfield but nowhere in the finding aid is her name (or many others) listed. How is the decision made about what to include? I know my family culled some papers from the collection before it was donated, now you have me wondering what went into the circular file at the Bentley and what unlisted treasures might be hiding at WMU!

March 28, 2009 at 6:24 AM  

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