Friday, November 16, 2007

Sweating the small stuff

In my pre-PACSCL life, my archives career focused heavily on institutional records -- in particular, processing medium to large collections of institutional records. I processed the records of university presidents, museum administrators, heads of non-profit organizations, school deans, and (in some of the most dreary processing of my career), administrative records of the financial aid office. It wasn't uncommon to be processing 100+ foot collections several times a year, and to view nearly anything under five feet as a lower priority since it could be tackled "anytime."

Moving to PACSCL and the unprocessed and underprocessed collections of the 22 institutions participating in this project, I've come to a major shift in my assumptions about what's a significant enough body of material to survey. When I visit institutions, it often turns out that they have a rather good handle on their larger collections - it's the small stuff that's giving them fits.

A lot of what we've surveyed is small, by pretty much any definition. Of the 1,078 collections surveyed as of today, 717 are under 5 feet -- and a staggering 400 of those are under 1 foot. And surveying really does seem to be beneficial for these types of materials.

This is because there are two main aims for the surveying. One is to assist with
internal control and prioritization of collections, both within and across institutions. The other is to improve intellectual access to collections. When we survey small collections, the benefit is largely in the second category. The survey record provides a collection-level description that can be used to create a MARC record, an EAD finding aid, or even a simple printout to put in a binder. The distance from our survey collection-level description to the description for a "fully processed" version of these collections tends to be much shorter than for larger collections (in fact, some participants tell us they consider our survey records for these types of collections pretty much final).

It seems there's a growing recognition of the benefits of applying archival standards and methods to processing and cataloging small collections. One sign of this is a new workshop offered by the Society of American Archivists titled "Applying DACS to Single-Item Manuscript Cataloging." I like to think we're a little ahead of the curve on this one!

I was also struck by a post on the Archives and Archivists listserv yesterday about the Alaska and Polar Regions Collections at the University of Alaska Fairbanks designating a "processing day" where all of the staff will work on their backlog of small collections; the idea is that everyone will set aside everything else they're doing and just get through as much as they can. I love this idea - we set aside special days for moves and cleaning out offices, why not do it for increasing access to our collections?

1 comment:

Christine said...

I'm posting this on behalf of Andrew, who was our invaluable host and guide during our time at the Chemical Heritage Foundation last year:

Small collections have the same advantage over larger collections that a short story has over a novel. They tend to be tightly focused and "about" a single thing. Often the collection can be an afterthought—someone's notes on bird-watching—or a gaudy survivor—payroll books from the 1890s from a company that died in 1929.

Of course larger collections can contain pleasant surprises as well. I'm currently processing the papers of Walter Slavin, an American expert on Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy, and I've discovered that they contain a solid cubic foot of material by and about the more famous Russian expert Boris L'vov. The material isn't just business either. The two men were friends as well as colleagues, so you come away with a nice feel for each man's personality. Such are the joys of archival processing!

Andrew Mangravite
Chemical Heritage Foundation