Processing Up

This post originally appeared on the PACSCL project blog.  

The Hebrew Sunday School Society (HSSS) collection at Temple University’s Special Collections Research Center contains roughly 35 linear feet of records that span two centuries (1802 to 2002) and document the history of the Society. HSSS was founded in 1838 by Rebecca Gratz (a Jewish philanthropist in Philadelphia and the basis for the character of Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe) with the intention that all Jewish children could attend classes regardless of financial standing or synagogue affiliation. The collection consists of administrative records, papers and programs from school teachings and functions, some very cool artifacts (e.g., lantern slides, a large hand bell used for fire drills, books and other items originally belonging to Rebecca Gratz), and many photographs.

In working with the collection, my processing partner (Annalise Berdini) and I came across a somewhat frustrating issue – that of attempting to minimally process a collection that had been previously processed to a much more detailed level. This collection, which consists of no less than 17 different accessions, had been processed by various people, and to varying levels. Additionally, a number of the more ‘eye-catching’ items had been used in an exhibit, so they had been somewhat separated from their contextual homes.

Hopping through the decades
Hopping through the decades

Many folders were found to contain just one document, or perhaps a few. Others had a slew of records stretching back many decades, but hopscotching through the years like a child at play. It’s not uncommon to find a date span such as “1877, 1882-1888, 1906, 1910-1913, 1930-1959, 1965-1985.”

Other folders seemed to be making a summary of the entire collection, with one or two examples of each type of document from each series we’d constructed, leaving us frequently asking, “How do I label this and where does this go?” (Personally, I’m planning to petition for the word hodgepodge to be added as acceptable terminology since miscellaneous is out of the question.) And then there were the occasional appearances of spotty preservation work (though I can’t be sure when that occurred).

Spotty preservation practices
Spotty preservation practices

The folder titles were sometimes helpful, but with any number of people having created the folders over those many many accessions, they were inconsistent. Some had specific titles (some VERY specific); some were quite vague (my favorite from the collection being “Miscellaneous, etc.”). Some had dates (often inaccurate); most did not. This all boiled down to a lot of folders being refoldered; all of which needed to be inspected for more accurate information; and this all slowed down the process considerably. One day, I spent close to five hours making my way through just one linear foot of folders.

The takeaway from the HSSS records is in highlighting the fact that MPLP (or maximal processing, really, which is closer to what we’re doing in this project) is not suited to every collection. This collection, though not done to our current standards, had been previously processed and some sort of inventory did exist. As such, it was most likely not the best choice for this processing project (though we all enjoyed the content of the collection quite a bit). If a collection has already gone past minimal processing, it’s rather difficult to back that process up.

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