Intellectual processing and trips to New York: An update

It’s been too long since I’ve updated this blog, so I figured it would be good to start writing again by filling you all in on what’s been going on with the processing of the collection. A lot of people I know have been asking me how the government shutdown affected me, if at all. The upside: because I’m an employee of the ACLS and not the Library of Congress, I was able to continue working through the shutdown. The downside: I was not able to come in to the Library to continue physically processing the collection. Luckily, I had almost completed the physical processing of Part II by the time the shutdown hit, so I hunkered down at home and started doing some intellectual processing – that is to say, I started working on editing the finding aids for the collection.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with archival terminology, a finding aid is a catalog entry for an archival collection. Because finding aids are meant to describe entire collections (which can range from one item to millions of items), they are usually much more detailed than any catalog entry you will find for a book. The amount of detail in a finding aid can vary widely between repositories and collections, but often included are:

  • the title, dates, creator(s), size, format(s), and language(s) of the collection
  • information about the origins of the collection and the history of its physical custody (what we call provenance)
  • notes about how the collection was processed
  • information about copyright, access, and restrictions
  • a biographical or organizational history of the creator(s)
  • a scope and content note, which gives a narrative description of what is included in the collection and highlights important aspects of it
  • an itemized list of what is in the collection – often broken down by folder, but sometimes by box (less detailed) or item (more detailed)

Just to recap some basic information: Right now, the ACLS collection has three parts (Part I, Part II, and Part III), which are roughly broken down chronologically (though there is quite a bit of overlap). Part I was already processed when Caroline, my predecessor, arrived. Caroline started the processing work for Part II, and I continued it when she passed the torch on to me. The last part of my work will include processing Part III  and working with the ACLS on how to organize and maintain the records currently being produced in order to transfer them to the Library of Congress in the future (this will be focused heavily on electronic [born digital] records).

While working from home, I wanted to go over the finding aid for Part I. One of my jobs is to edit and finalize this document, and to make sure that it fits well with the finding aids for Parts II and III:

Part I Finding Aid

I also started reworking the finding aid for Part II, which is being created via Excel. This is a fairly new approach to large organizational collections at the Library, and has only been used in one collection previously (you can view that finding aid here, if you’re interested in seeing it). The benefit of using a spreadsheet format is that researchers will be able to intellectually sort through the materials in any way that works best for them: instead of having a rigid document with everything in one specific order decided by the archivist, the document is fluid and changeable according to user needs. Here’s a very simple example – the normal breakdown of the ACLS finding aid will look something like this:

Unsorted spreadsheet

As you can see, the series are split up by the subseries, and then those subseries are broken down further by folder title (there’s one more level of detail in the finding aid for this collection, but let’s keep this simple for now). Let’s say that a researcher wanted to find all of the speeches and lectures by all ACLS Presidents, though – it would be much easier for that researcher if the finding aid were organized by folder title rather than subseries. With a spreadsheet, the researcher can make that happen through the sort function – in Excel, that’s the button that looks like this:

Sort function

Sorted spreadsheet

With a finding aid that has hundreds or thousands of lines, the option to sort the collection in different ways could make things much easier for a researcher.

I realized a few things while looking through the finding aids for Parts I and II. First, I will need to go through the materials in Part I and rework the finding aid so that it is more detailed and more well-matched with the descriptions for the other two parts of the collection. This will take time, but all of my supervisors agreed with me that it was worth the extra time and effort to have a more comprehensive document for researchers to use. Second, I will need to spend a lot of time editing the existing spreadsheet for Part II, which is what has been taking up the bulk of my time over the past month.

Because spreadsheets are (as I mentioned before) a fairly new way of describing collections here, we’re still trying to figure out the best way to approach them. Some of the questions I’ve been asking myself are relevant for any collection (how much detail should I include in the description?), while others are specific to the spreadsheet format (how should I break this down – one row per box? one row per folder?). Before I started editing it, most of the spreadsheet was broken down per box – that is to say, there was one row entered for every box. I realized a few weeks after starting this job that this would make it very difficult for researchers to sort the spreadsheet – for example, if one box has speeches, correspondence, and articles from Stanley Katz’s office, those three types of materials each need their own row on the spreadsheet. Some boxes have only correspondence in them, and only need to take up one row. Some have twelve different types of documents in them, and need twelve rows. Much of my time during and since the shutdown has been spent adding extra rows to the spreadsheet in order to separate materials in this way. Each time I break down one row (one box) into multiple rows (multiple types of documents in one box), I need to pull that box from the shelves and look through it to find the date range and number of folders for each row. So on the spreadsheet, the description goes from this:

Box level spreadsheet

To this:

Folder level spreadsheet

As you can imagine, this will make it much easier for researchers to use the spreadsheet for sorting, which is exactly why we’ve decided to use the spreadsheet format in the first place! With more than 900 boxes that were described in a “one box, one row” way, it’s taking a lot of time to do this. On the upside, I am learning what I need to do with Part III in order to make everything flow more smoothly, and hopefully researchers will find the collection much easier to use – in short, everyone wins.

In addition to spending time figuring out what to do with the finding aids, I took two trips to New York during the shutdown. The first trip was just for a day, which was enough for me to meet some ACLS employees (they are all wonderful!) and go over some major talking points regarding the collection. During this meeting, we talked about the finding aids for Parts I and II, went over some thoughts about future plans, and decided that I should return to New York the following week to do some initial weeding of the Part III materials. The boxes for Part III are still in the ACLS warehouse in New Jersey, but will be sent to the Library of Congress very soon. Some of these materials will not be included in the collection, however, and sending them to the Library only to send them back to New Jersey would be a hassle. I was able to separate the Part III inventory into three categories: 1) boxes to send to the Library of Congress, 2) boxes to keep in the New Jersey warehouse, and 3) boxes that would need to be looked at for further review. The third category included boxes with non-detailed descriptions as well as those that contained a mix of materials that should be sent to the Library and materials that should stay in New Jersey.

The Part III inventory originally included 401 transfiles (boxes which are approximately the size of filing cabinet drawers). Of these, we had 49 pulled out of storage for me to physically sort. It took me a few days to go through them (that’s a lot of material!), but was well worth the effort. I moved a lot of folders from one box to another, took a lot of notes, did a lot of relabeling, and ultimately ended up with 25 transfiles that would be sent to the Library and 24 that would not. Here are some photos documenting my sorting adventures:

The perils of leaving empty space in a box: folders fall over, papers slide out, things get jumbled.

The perils of leaving empty space in a box: folders fall over, papers slide out, things get jumbled.

To be sent to the Library of Congress – the yellow note on the right gives details about extra materials that I pulled from other boxes and put into this one.

To be sent to the Library of Congress – the yellow note on the right gives details about extra materials that I pulled from other boxes and put into this one.

The boxes I physically sorted through in the New Jersey warehouse – sometimes being an archivist means you get to partake in weightlifting activities.

The boxes I physically sorted through in the New Jersey warehouse – sometimes being an archivist means you get to partake in weightlifting activities.

At the end of my week in New York / New Jersey, I had decided along with ACLS staff that 265 transfiles should be sent to the Library to make up Part III of the collection while 136 should stay behind in the New Jersey warehouse. That’s some serious weeding!

So where are we now? I am continuing to edit the finding aid for Part II, and will be editing the finding aid for Part I after that’s completed. In addition to creating these finding aids in a spreadsheet format, I’ll be transferring them over to a standard word document for researchers who are more comfortable with that and also using Encoded Archival Description to make them easier to find through search engines like Google. The aim is to have Parts I and II completely finished and available to the public by the end of the calendar year. Exciting times ahead!

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