Items, boxes, pallets (oh my!): Physically controlling ACLS’ records

There are two main aspects to my work: intellectual and physical. Done correctly, archival work is messy. At least for the duration of the process of preparing materials for use by a myriad public. Once those materials are available, collections are polished, clean and easy to navigate–or at least that’s the goal! At the start of any project, the intellectual demands and the physical landscape overlap a bit. For example, in order to understand the “enduring value” of the materials in the collection (that’s an archival commandment, by the way), I first need to understand the structure, history and actors that make up the organization. Only then can I make decisions about the collection before me and how it represents its creator (ACLS).

This post is about the physical work of the collection. The next post will offer insight into the intellectual process.

The Library of Congress measures its collections by number of items. For those of you unfamiliar with the world of archives, trust me when I tell you this is a unique strategy.  Most repositories use metrics of linear feet and some in cubic feet (for repositories, most measurements are first, to understand the physical scope of the collection, but a close second is to determine the amount of space it will take up in storage. Like in most places, space is at a premium!) You can read about the origins of the Library and their early collections here. Hint: the Library collected monographs first, which are always counted as items. Decades later, when manuscripts came into the fold, the Library didn’t change their units of measurement.

For the ACLS collection, this means that it too is measured by the number of items contained in the collection. Part II houses approximately 500,000 items. I say “approximately” because I am still in the early stage of the project and I haven’t looked through every box to determine its size and capacity. Right now, it’s an estimation. These items are housed in hundreds of boxes that are housed in pallets, shrink-wrapped and stored in the Library’s off-site storage facility, a climate-controlled, secure space where unprocessed materials live until they are ready to be handled by an archivist or preservation expert. Here, here, here and here are a few examples of other organizational records of varying size housed at the Library. As you can see, the size of ACLS’s Part II collection falls somewhere on the higher end in terms of size.

One of my first tasks upon starting this position was to take an inventory of the materials found in the boxes (of varying size) to provide what I like to call an “aerial perspective” on the collection. I divided materials into categories based on ACLS’s own structure and organization (more on that in the next post) and made notations regarding the content of the boxes on each pallet. After that, I began requesting pallets to my work area (which offers comfortable, but limited space) based on the content I am targeting for that period. This part is all very low-tech especially with exclusively paper records!

All the materials you see in the photos above are re-housed in Hollinger boxes, small, acid-free containers that snugly fit folders in which documents are stored. I retain all the information offered by the boxes ranging from container lists (very helpful!) to scribbled idiosyncratic notations (such as “Barbara’s Bottom Shelf”–see above). Archivists call this information metadata, “data about data,” and it’s immensely helpful when processing any collection (see photo below). During this process, my inventory becomes more refined and larger until I can track every single box that is part of the collection. Needless to say, it’s a complex spreadsheet!

Original box label, 2013

Original box label, 2013

ACLS has a long history and, as a result, generated a large number of records. The physical control over the materials at a pallet, box and item level is a crucial step in ensuring that the final product is clearly identified, expresses the “original order” (another one of those archival commandments) of ACLS’s organizational methods, and can be easily used by researchers.

Physically evaluating the materials informs the intellectual arrangement, which is especially important when pursuing a minimal processing archival technique. Stay tuned for more on that topic in the next post!

2 thoughts on “Items, boxes, pallets (oh my!): Physically controlling ACLS’ records

  1. Pingback: Minimally processing to the max: The intellectual arrangement of ACLS’ records | Documenting the Humanities

  2. Pingback: What I’m reading this week | Documenting the Humanities

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