On Chronological Order

I’m just going to put this out into the world, but in a place I can easily find it again. Dating archival material can get rather specific. Frequently, materials are then filed in chronological order and those specific and extensive dates can get a bit tricky to organize. So, with former colleagues from PACSCL (h/t to Annalise Berdini, among others), we’ve come up with this example list of what order these things go in, from most specific (or first) to least specific (or last). I find that I refer to it quite frequently when doing physical arrangement. Perhaps one day it will become ingrained in me and I can stop checking this list, but until that day comes, and perhaps as a small benefit to other archives processors out there, the list is as follows:

1931 January 1
1931 January
1931
circa 1931
1931, 1945
1931, 1945-1946
1931, undated
1931-1932
undated

One can then use this established sequence for further expansion. For example, something like “circa 1931, 1945” would go after  “1931, 1945”  and so on. I still sometimes have my qualms about the position of entries with circa dates, but I think this list is accurate and helpful. So, that’s it. Go put things in order!

From Student to Professional

This post originally appeared on the SAA Students and New Archives Professionals Roundtable Blog in their “Transitions” series, “which highlights the experiences of recent graduates and early career archivists.”

I graduated from the MSLIS program at Drexel University, with a concentration in Archives, in December of 2013. About 6 months later, I found myself gainfully employed (although temporarily) as a Project Archivist with the National Park Service in Anchorage, Alaska. My move from student to new professional, while rife with the standard issues we all face, was also compounded with issues of moving roughly 4,000 miles away from almost everyone I know and all the support structures I had built for myself over the years. Luckily, the education and preparatory experience I had in Philadelphia gave me a solid foundation to succeed in this new adventure.

I came to the archives field late in life. In my “youth,” I earned degrees in music performance and spent much of my 20s and early 30s working as a freelance cellist in various locales. As I begin to question the future and what I could see myself happily doing for the rest of my life, but in a more stable environment, I began to look at Library Science as a perfect option.

Fast forwarding to about three months before graduation, I had just begun work as an Archives Processor with the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) Hidden Collections project. This was the perfect environment to learn real-world processing skills and put all the theoretical knowledge I had learned at school to work. In this collaborative environment, working with other students near graduation and under the direction of a remarkable supervisor and mentor, we all gained skills that will serve us well throughout our professional careers. Taking that position was a leap for me. I left a full-time job with great benefits for a part-time job with none in the hopes that it would help pave the road for a career in my new profession. It turned out to be one of the best choices in my life. If you are a student currently, I urge you to seek out situations where you can work with people that will teach and challenge you wherever possible. Attaining the degree alone is not enough.

Thanks in large part to the work with PACSCL, I was hired for my position in Alaska. This was another huge leap that I felt I had to take. It was a great position that would give me further experience in the field and it was a bit of an adventure. As a musician and a rather independent person, I’d become somewhat of a gypsy – moving from place to place and never really feeling like staying put, so I thought, “What the [heck],” and said yes.

My position in Anchorage is basically a processing archivist. I’m working through all the records (close to 200 linear feet) of the largest national park in America. I’m using the principles of minimal[i] and maximal[ii] processing to streamline the way the park service here has traditionally cared for its paper records. Thanks to these more efficient processing ideals, I’ve been able to process all of the park’s records rather than roughly half of them, as was originally proposed. Additionally, I’ve also gotten to do some accessioning, budgeting, forecasting, and reference work while here. Working as somewhat of a “lone arranger” has also allowed me to take more responsibility for arrangement and description decisions, given me more project management experience, and increased the trust I have in my own instincts. So, all-in-all, the experience I’ve gained has been wonderful.

There are, of course, some downsides. Though I work with others in the Cultural Resources department, I am the only archivist on staff here. My supervisor is very knowledgeable and helpful, but for certain issues of processing and preservation, I generally find myself turning to colleagues from Philadelphia and beyond. By maintaining those relationships, which are now a comfortable blend of professional and personal, I can reach out for advice and also to share interesting and humorous finds.

Another downside I’ve noticed stems from the temporary nature of my position. Knowing that my time here is limited has created certain social restraints. It’s difficult to invest too much in a place when you know from the start that you won’t be around all that long. This has lead to some isolation, both socially and professionally. I’ve also come to see that these project positions aren’t just hard on the archivist; they’re hard on the institution too. After working through 200 feet of documents, I feel I’m just getting a somewhat-solid grasp on the inner workings of the National Park Service. And with each state or region and each park having its own unique issues, moving on to the next collection would only add to my understanding. However, I’m not going to be adding on; I’m going to be moving on. I’ll move on to a new position with new issues and, when funding becomes available, the park service will have to find another archivist for their next project who will have to go through all of this learning and adjustment again. This story could go similarly for any institution. I understand the financial reasons behind the system we’ve created here – project funding, grants, etc. – however, I think the drawbacks from that system may be pricier than it seems at first glance. But I digress.

A poster[iii] I saw at the 2014 SAA meeting showed that it generally takes 6 to 12 months for people to assimilate into a new location and I can attest that it has taken me about 6 months to start feeling like I have a small support base of friends here, and soon I’ll be moving on. While the work I’ve done here has been fulfilling, and I’ve seen some amazing things in Alaska, I am now of the mindset that my next position needs to be permanent, or at least in a place where I plan on spending a significant portion of the rest of my life. Everyone handles these changes differently, and Alaska is obviously more remote than most temporary positions will take you, but keep this idea in mind as you look for your first professional position and be honest about how you’ll deal with feeling isolated for an extended period of time. For me, I think my gypsy days are numbered.

Be that as it may, the training I received from Drexel has served me well. I have a strong foundation of theories and principles on which to grow, I know where to look for further information on topics that arise, and I have a broad base of knowledge concerning general library and information system topics that support further growth in the field. However, and not to discount anything taught in library science programs (even with the issues we know they all have), the training I received through internships and entry-level positions during and just after graduate school, have given me the most help for transitioning into a professional role. That training and experience, coupled with the professional contacts and connections I’ve made, is more far-reaching than anything I learned in a classroom. My advice to all students and new professionals is to make and cultivate professional connections in your own life and to take calculated risks when they arise.

 

[i] Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing,” The American Archivist 68, no. 2 (2005): 208-263.

[ii] Robert Cox, “Maximal Processing, or, Archivist on a Pale Horse,” Journal of Archival Organization 8, no. 2 (2010): 134-148.

[iii] Wendy Cole, Steven Wade, Karen Dafoe, and Victoria Hess (Louisiana State University SAA Student Chapter), “Leaving Home: Taking a Job Outside Your Comfort Zone” (poster at the Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists, Washington, DC, August 10-16, 2014).

 

Processing After PACSCL

So, here I am in Anchorage, Alaska. It’s been roughly three months since I arrived and I’m slowly settling in. While my social life has all but disappeared here, my work life has been moving along at speeds apparently unanticipated. When I accepted the position, the plan was to process about 500 linear feet of records pertaining to the nation’s largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. When I arrived, I was shown about 100 feet of records to process, with the rest of the collection remaining in the park’s archives at a far off location (deemed unnecessary for this current project due to having been previously processed). Having now physically processed all of the boxes, removing unnecessarily duplicated documents, bulky binders and spiral bindings, and excessive amounts of empty space, I’m left with just over 76 linear feet of records. 500 feet down to 76 is amazingly reductive. And I still have (a proposed) 9 months left here.

Luckily, a plan was put in place in anticipation of this. After initially surveying the collection in early June, I spoke to my supervisor and let her know that at the speed I’ve been trained to process (4 hours per linear foot, thank you very much PACSCL), it should take only about 3 to 4 months to complete the records on the shelves. Even factoring in the government’s love of meetings, I’ve managed to remain under 3 hours per foot, so far (granted, I still need to do some writing and data entry, but the rough stuff is done). She decided that we would head back to the park (next week!) and get the rest of their records so that I can incorporate those into the new collection arrangement and make one, hopefully coherent, collection of all of the park’s records. Due to the Park Service’s penchant for item level cataloging, we’re not exactly sure how much is left – somewhere between 100 and 200 linear feet. And, there is another project in the works after that (depending on funding and my availability).

The point here is – plan ahead. Especially if you come from a fast-paced, minimal processing background, the archival world you are entering will more than likely expect you to move slower than you do. Former PACSCL project processors have found this to be overwhelmingly the case. Keep your supervisor informed. Don’t try to hide the fact that you are efficient and skilled. Work together to plan ahead. You’ll avoid sitting around with little to do, your employer will (I hope) be happy to get more accomplished than s/he had anticipated, and you may also prove that you are worth keeping on for a longer period than originally planned.

Reprocessing: The Trials and Tribulations of Previously Processed Collections

from the poster presented at the Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting, August 2014, Washington, D.C.

by Annalise Berdini, Steven Duckworth, Jessica Hoffman, Alina Josan, Amanda Mita, & Evan Peugh; Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL)

OVERVIEW:

PACSCL’s current project, “Uncovering Philadelphia’s Past: A Regional Solution to Revealing Hidden Collections,” will process 46 high research value collections, totaling 1,539 linear feet, from 16 Philadelphia-area institutions that document life in the region. Since the start of processing in October 2013, the team has completed 31 collections at 13 repositories, totaling over 1,225 linear feet. Plans have evolved over the course of the project due to previous processing in many collections. As the processing teams tackled the collections, the solutions devised for the various challenges they encountered developed into a helpful body of information regarding minimal processing. Future archivists and collaborators can use this knowledge to choose appropriate collections for minimal processing projects, and be prepared to handle unexpected challenges as they arise.

NOTED ISSUES:

  • Novice Archivists: Volunteers and novice archivists, while well meaning, can make simple mistakes that lead to larger problems.
    • Learn about the previous processors; their background and level of knowledge with the materials. Having a better idea of their relationship to the collection helps guide decisions in the new iteration of processing.
    • “Miscellaneous.” It is a very popular word, even with seasoned archivists. Attempts should be made to more accurately describe the contents of a folder, such as “Assorted records” or “Correspondence, assorted,” followed by examples of record types or 1 to 3 names of individuals represented.
  • Losing Original Order: Processors with good intentions can disrupt original order through poor arrangement, item-level processing, and removing items for exhibits or other purposes.
    • Use what original order remains to influence arrangement in a way that might bring separated records back together.
    • Lone items may require more detailed description to provide links back to other documents.
    • Be aware of handwriting: Previous folder titling can serve as a clue for separated items and original order.
  • Item-Level Description: Item-level description can render the collection’s original order impossible to discern and greatly diminish access.
    • Gain a broad perspective of the collection in order to determine the most intelligible arrangement of materials with an awareness of grouping like with like.
    • For item-level reference materials, such as newspaper and magazine clippings, merge materials into larger subject files and include a rough date span.
    • Be cautious when merging other records, such as correspondence. Arrange materials into a loose chronological order and include in the folder title the names of recurring correspondents, if possible.
    • Make sure to account for the new arrangement in one’s arrangement note. Reuniting item-level materials and describing those materials to the new level of arrangement will greatly enhance access to the collection.
  • Legacy Finding Aids: It can be difficult to tell how accurate an existing finding aid is, and the decisions made on how much of it to preserve can be complicated.
    • Again, knowledge of the previous processors’ education and history with the collection will prove helpful.
    • Consider the fate of the legacy finding aid. If the collection will be entirely reprocessed, is anything in the legacy finding aid worth keeping? Should the old and new simply be linked or should parts of the old finding aid be incorporated into the new one?
    • Proofread! Anything retained from a legacy finding aid should be proofread very carefully.
    • Keep ideas of continuity in mind while creating new folder titles and dates.
    • Format can be a problem. Will the format (e.g., hardcopy only) prove problematic for import? Scanning and OCR can be a time-consuming process.
  • Collection Size and Type: Size and type of collection can have a drastic impact on processing speeds.
    • If possible, choose larger collections to economize on time and money. Multiple smaller collections require more effort than one larger one.
    • Institutional records average a faster processing speed than family or personal papers. Keep this in mind when choosing which collections to process.

 OVERALL RECOMMENDATIONS

  • Work closely with current staff; understand the history of the collection and the desired shape of its future.
  • Learn about previous processors to understand their training, background, and history with the records.
  • Edit and expand upon non-descriptive terms (e.g., miscellaneous) when possible. More detailed descriptions can assist in linking separated records back together.
  • Merge clippings and reference files together when feasible.
  • Make note of reprocessing decisions in the finding aid.
  • Proofread any reused documents or folder titles, keeping ideas of consistency in mind.
  • Be mindful of donor relationships in discussing past problems, especially in any public forum, such as a project blog.
  • Plan carefully from the outset. If possible, choose collections that best fit the project goals.
  • Remain flexible and be prepared to compromise.

FILES

"Reprocessing" poster for Society of American Archivists 2014 Annual Meeting
Poster for Society of American Archivists 2014 Annual Meeting
Processing speed by collection size graph
Average processing speed by collection size
Processing speed by collection type graph
Average processing speed by collection type

Learn more about the project at clir.pacscl.org/blog.

On Collaboration

This post originally appeared on the PACSCL project blog.

The PACSCL Hidden Collections project involves a great deal of collaboration. We work with a processing partner each day. We exchange ideas and stories with the other processing teams. And we work with our project manager and the archivists and other staff at whichever repository we’re currently located. And lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this (mainly due to the work environment where I’m was processing).

I am, quite frankly, frequently surprised at how much I enjoy all of this collaboration. For many years now, my ‘job’ hasn’t been something I truly enjoy. And due to that, I’d forgotten how that feels and had fallen into the stereotypical thought pattern of disliking ‘teamwork’ or group projects. Both of these terms had come to be associated with projects I never had much interest in or working with people I didn’t really connect with. Having been with PACSCL for 6 months now and ruminating on this idea of collaboration – and how I don’t hate it – it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t used to think negatively of teamwork.

I have been a musician (a cellist) for almost 25 years. And one of the things I most love playing is chamber music. Though I never thought about it in this way before, being in a chamber group is an ultimate form of collaboration. Musicians know there is never one right answer – though there can often be wrong answers – and we work together to bring about the best final outcome. We combine our knowledge of our instruments, the composer, music and world history, and performance practice, as well as newer techniques and ideas, to make an amazing moment with every piece.

With archives, it seems much the same. We take our knowledge of archival theory and practice, our experience with research and patrons, and filter in new ideas as they come into play, and create access to collections in the most logical and constructive way we can. The dynamics of this project are especially beneficial to the collaborative practice. Students and recent graduates are processing under the direction of more experienced archivists in an environment that encourages us to speak out and exchange ideas, both with our peers and our mentors. So, though playing cello is no longer the central focus of my daily life, I’m very excited to have returned to a profession that can offer that same sense of community, joy, and accomplishment.

Minimal Deaccessioning

This post originally appeared on the PACSCL project blog.

The parameters of our Hidden Collections project generally preclude any deaccessioning efforts from being part of the process. We’re tasked with moving at a relatively swift pace – roughly twice the speed of “traditional” archival processing – and this doesn’t leave a lot of time to go through and check to see if some items could or should be removed from the collections. Additionally, being archival interlopers, fairly unfamiliar with the collections and procedures of our temporary homes, leads us to err on the side of caution and leave the task of deaccessioning for another time and, usually, another archivist. However, I’ve found that from time to time, some deaccessioning can take place with relatively no additional time taken for the process.

Obvious duplicates
Obvious duplicates

A prime example of this came in the past couple of weeks with our collection at the Drexel University College of Medicine (DUCOM) Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections. At DUCOM, we are processing about 250 feet of materials in the Academic Affairs records group of Hahnemann University. This group is made up of many smaller collections of papers from administrators and faculty, as well as broader collections from academic units, assorted publications, and more. While processing each of these collections, we often noted files that we knew we had seen before and were obviously duplications, but due to time constraints and issues of provenance, we let this fact bother us momentarily and then moved on. But when it came to the series of publications, the rules changed a bit.

Deaccessioned publications
Deaccessioned publications

As the materials in the series came from a variety of smaller collections of publications, the aim was to file them all together, leaving issues of provenance out of the picture. And, as we decided to file them chronologically within four subseries, picking out the duplicates became quite simple during the final process of arranging and boxing. As can be seen in the accompanying pictures, duplicated publications were blatantly obvious. After a quick glance through each set of duplicates, three copies of each were retained, consisting of the versions in the best condition or any annotated copies. The excess duplicates were removed from the collection and given to the main archivists who will decide upon their ultimate fate. Though it may not seem like much in a collection of roughly 250 feet, we were able to remove over a foot of redundant material in this manner without slowing down our process. We consider this a win-win situation and recommend using this idea of minimal deaccessioning when possible with future collections.

Saint Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church records

This post originally appeared on the PACSCL project blog.

The records of St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church of Philadelphia, one of the collections held at Temple University’s Special Collections Research Center, sheds light on a unique aspect of Philadelphia history. The church was started in 1886 when African American Catholics in the region grew tired of the discrimination they faced at Catholic Churches of the day (if they were allowed in at all). Members of three parishes united together to form the Peter Claver Union with the goal of creating a “Church for Colored Catholics” in Philadelphia.

In 1889, they were officially recognized by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and in 1892, they moved into their new home at 12th and Lombard Streets (a former Presbyterian church). The church continued to function for almost a century until the Archdiocese suppressed the church in 1985, stating that due to the changing racial climate, a dedicated church for African Americans was no longer needed, thus removing their parish status, as well as all of their records. At this point, the church continued to function as a community, but could not offer most religious sacraments and services.

In processing the records of this collection, one obvious drawback is the lack of most records from before 1985 (outside of the school records). Rather than finding records focused mainly on the administration and rituals of a church, this collection’s focus is found in the community outcry over the suppression of the parish, clippings and other subject files covering the African American community at the time, the church community’s struggle to remain vibrant in a neighborhood that had lost its African American majority, and many issues of racism (real or perceived) within the Catholic Church as a whole.

From a processing perspective, this was my favorite collection from our time at Temple and that comes from it not having been previously processed. It was quite rewarding to take a box full of papers and create a logical order to the contents, rather than just relabeling folders or trying to figure out why someone had deemed certain records appropriate to folder together.  This collection, though smaller than our previous ones, offered a chance to do some actual MPLP processing (a goal of this project), as well as learn more about Philadelphia history. And while I’ll not comment on my personal views of the acts of the Catholic Church regarding St. Peter Claver’s, it is quite eye opening to read about this time in Catholic history.

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.

One collection down

As a member of the PACSCL/CLIR Hidden Collections Processing Project, completing work on our first collection was one of the more satisfying moments of my budding archival career. My previous archival experience was limited to coursework, cataloging the audio collection at the Drexel University Audio Archives, and processing some very small collections at the John J. Wilcox, Jr. LGBT Archives (I believe the largest collection was 1 linear foot). So processing the 45 linear feet of the Abraham L. Freedman Papers at Temple University’s Special Collections Research Center, including creating a full finding aid and folder list (currently pending review), felt like a major accomplishment. While not without its bumps and somewhat minor annoyances, it’s been a true pleasure to finally be working with archival collections and putting this new degree into practice. We’ve since moved on to a newer, and slightly smaller, collection, but I finally got around to making the silly gif you see below (depicting the collection’s transformation) and felt it was time to get this blog rolling! Hopefully more posts will follow.

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