Collections Assessment

Over the past two years (starting before I was hired) UMD has been conducting a “partial” collections assessment to determine the correct shelf location, descriptive state and products, and intellectual value of our archival collections. I use “partial” not because the project isn’t large or complicated, but because we started with collections that were listed in the Beast. I know we’re missing collections. I have heard people talk about them, but found no other information about them. But, this collections assessment is a great first step that will (hopefully for a majority of our collections) really paint a picture on where we stand and what our priorities are.

Our assessment consisted of three major parts.

Shelf Read. There had not been a comprehensive shelf read of archival collections since the materials moved into this building in the early 2000s. When work started on the other portions of the assessment it was quickly determined that shelf reading would be essential. We also made our shelf numbering system consistent on each floor (some floors numbered their shelves differently!) The shelf read also included a large amount of triage accessioning. Over 600 collections weren’t entered into the Beast at all. 200 of these had accession numbers and were entered without a problem. At least another 200 of these didn’t even have accession numbers (we searched control files high and lo for evidence). The remaining contained lots of other various problems such as “duplicate” entries that partially matched other records or dealing with boxes that had a name on them, but no accession number, so there was lots of comparing and reconciling work.

Descriptive State. Using some outputs from the Beast we identified the descriptive products available for each collection at the accession level. Since we rarely recorded (or updated) some of this information in the Beast, much of this work involved manually checking/looking for the products (I would do this process very differently now!) Initially “yes” or “no” values were used for some fields, but shortly into the process we added more information to help plan future work. Due to the lack of documentation, sometimes our answers are really guesses.

Product Value
Inventory yes, no, Word, Excel, PDF, Beast, database, paper
Abstract in ArchivesUM yes, no, collection level (When can’t tell if accession is included)
Finding Aid yes, no, Word, Excel, PDF, Beast, database, paper
Finding Aid in ArchivesUM yes, no, collection level (When can’t tell if accession is included)
Type of Finding Aid minimal, full [We dropped this one over time as we had no shared understanding of what was “full”, so what was marked as “minimal” to one person looked “full” to someone else.
MARC record yes, no

Intellectual Value. Based on other institution’s examples (specifically Columbia) we adopted our own ranking system to designate a collection’s value. Curators assigned numbers from 1-5 (5 being the best) at the collection level (all accessions for a collection will receive the same ranking) for both the intellectual/research value as well as a local value. The local value score helped account for issues such as exhibits, political importance, institutional value, donor stewardship, and other similar factors. We provided curators with brief descriptions of each ranking as well as questions to ask about the collections to help assign a value. Value can also be changed in the future based on changing priorities or new information.

Lessons learned about how we manage our data (some of this should be obvious!):

  • Shelf maintenance is extremely important. This function needs to be managed and documented in a common way instead of allowing multiple individuals to make different (often conflicting) decisions on these issues. (We don’t currently do this!)
  • We need to review our accessioning process. Lots of information (and collections) fell through the gaps. (This is in process.)
  • Have a standard location on your server for any inventories or finding aids. (We don’t currently do this! We do have some common places to find these files, but still very decentralized.)
  • Use a file naming convention for inventories, finding aids, and drafts. Also, please, please, please include the accession number or collection identifier in said file name. (We don’t currently do this! We have some good file naming for particular areas or from when particular people were on staff, but not consistent.)

In future posts I will discuss how we plan to use this data for project prioritization and planning, bringing it into ArchivesSpace, and adding rankings into our accessioning process.

As a plug, you should read the article, “Tackling the Backlog: Conducting a Collections Assessment on a Shoestring,” by colleagues Joanne Archer and Caitlin Wells in Management: Innovative Practices for Archives and Special Collections edited by Kate Theimer coming out this month.


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