Monday, October 6, 2008

Processing: Behind the Scenes (Part I)

Processing* is the term archivists* use for arranging and describing a collection*. It can be a very long or very short process depending on the size and scope of the collection. Currently, the Butler Center has three staff members devoted to processing (and a manuscripts coordinator who wishes he still had the time to process).

The first step in processing is getting the collection. Usually this involves a donor approaching us interested in donation or Butler Center staff soliciting a donation from a likely donor. (A third way—purchasing through dealers and places like eBay—is less common for the large full scale collections I am talking about now.) With the new collection coming in, we must get the proper forms signed and then assign an acquisition/accession number. Most archives and museums follow a similar procedure. Here at the Butler Center, our collections are numbered MSS Year-Collection; for example, MSS 01-01 would indicate the first collection donated in 2001. With a number assigned, the collection is moved to our storage (and into archival boxes if necessary) until processing.

The wait in processing depends on a number of factors including the availability of staff and supply resources, the research possibilities of the collection, the storage space available, and the relation to the mission of the Butler Center.

When collections arrive at the Butler Center, they tend to be fairly messy. Typically these boxes have been stored in an attic or basement with little to no arrangement (or sometimes, an arrangement known only to the now-deceased donor and a riddle to the rest of us). When a staff member starts to process a collection, we will do a quick look through the boxes to see what might need to be done. This is what we are normally greeted by:

On a larger collection, we might look through all of the boxes and put together a preliminary or box inventory*. Depending on the complexity of the collection, we could do a quick listing of items in a box (for example: Box 1 contains correspondence; maps; political memorabilia) or a more detailed listing of box or folder contents (for example: Box 1 contains correspondence from John Doe to Jane Doe, 1910-1918; memorabilia from the 1912 Democratic National Convention. Folder 1 contains one world map circa 1920 showing travels of John Doe). Doing an inventory like this is good for a couple of reasons—1) it helps you know what you have and what kind of arrangement you might need to impose on the collection 2) it allows you to easily find items before the collection is processed and the finding aid* created 3) it cuts down on the time spent staring into the boxes wondering what to do next. However helpful an inventory like this can be, it is often more time effective on a smaller collection to just jump right in and start arranging.

Okay, so the collection has been donated. A number has been assigned and inventory completed if necessary. The collection has bided its time in storage and is finally ready to be processed. Staff has inspected the boxes to make a game plan for what to do next. So, what happens?

To be continued next Monday. .

Important archival terms. Yes, there will be a test.
Processing: n. ~ 1. The arrangement, description, and housing of archival materials for storage and use by patrons. – 2. The steps taken to make the latent image on exposed photographic or microfilm materials visible; see archival processing.
*Archivist: n. ~ 1. An individual responsible for appraising, acquiring, arranging, describing, preserving, and providing access to records of enduring value, according to the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control to protect the materials’ authenticity and context. – 2. An individual with responsibility for management and oversight of an archival repository or of records of enduring value.
Collection: n. ~ 1. A group of materials with some unifying characteristic. – 2. Materials assembled by a person, organization, or repository from a variety of sources; an artificial collection.
Preliminary Inventory: n. ~ A listing of the contents and condition of a collection made before processing.
Finding Aid: n. ~ 1. A tool that facilitates discovery of information within a collection of records. – 2. A description of records that gives the repository physical and intellectual control over the materials and that assists users to gain access to and understand the materials.

Contributed by Stephanie Bayless, Manuscripts Department.


  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP