A Case for Processing Proposals

It seems to me that processing proposals are the homework assignments of the archival processing world. We know we should do them, but sometimes we skip them. Sometimes we opt to have an informal meeting and vaguely talk about our plans rather than formalize them in a written document. Sometimes we look at a box of jumbled papers and think, well, by the time I write down what I’m going to do, I could be halfway done sorting this. So, I get it. In my experience, though, the act of writing a processing proposal is a useful exercise that forces you to think through your project. Even though I occasionally skip them too, I’ve never regretted writing a processing proposal. Whether you end up following it or not (more on that below), writing a proposal breaks down the act of processing into digestible components. It is a super valuable resource for your manager and other project stakeholders, which in turn makes your life a bit easier. And finally, it is important for institutional memory — just in case you happen to leave your job before the project is finished.

What should be included in a processing proposal?

  1. Basic information about the collection: Title, creator, dates, extent, formats present, languages present
  2. Collection provenance: Where did it come from? When? Who’s the collector and why did they acquire it?
  3. Collection condition and preservation concerns: Did it come from a moldy basement? Is it in beautiful file folders and perfectly arranged already? (Hopefully some version of the latter.) More specifically: Is there acidic paper? Rolled items? Photographs or negatives? Scrapbooks? Nitrate, glass negatives, or other highly fragile materials? Oversize materials or objects? Audiovisual materials? Electronic records?
  4. Collection “significance,” or some estimation of its research potential and value. This is a squishy value judgment, but I think it’s useful. Here’s why: we want to devote our energy and resources to processing collections at the appropriate level, and to providing a reasonable (but not excessive) amount of description. If you are working on a collection that you and the curator expect will be barely used, then you can probably process at a less-detailed level, which moves the collection through Technical Services much more quickly. By recording your reasoning here, you offer justification for your subsequent proposed rehousing, arrangement, and description scheme. It gives the other stakeholders an opportunity to respond to your judgment. Whether they agree or not, it is better to come together on these issues ahead of the processing itself.
  5. Restrictions. Always better to think about restricted material up front. Most of the time this field will relate to donor-specified or repository-instituted restrictions, but it could also stem from anticipated access issues. Plus, you can build on the “significance” field if you believe that the material is so valuable or vulnerable that it should require special housing or access policies.
  6. Accessions included: If you’re going to process a collection, best to make sure you have all the pieces. (Or at least acknowledge there are others besides what you will be processing.)
  7. Current arrangement and description. Has your repository owned this collection for generations? Oh dear, what did your forefathers do? Or, maybe it was recently acquired from the professor’s office. Oh dear, what did that sweet professor do?
  8. Additions expected? Use this proposal to have a conversation with your curator about their plans for this collection. If there are going to be annual additions, adjust your plans accordingly.
  9. Proposed arrangement: List proposed series and subseries, with title, brief description, size, date range, and anticipated processing level. This is where you can share alternative approaches to different arrangement schemes, if there are any — it would subsequently be discussed with the relevant stakeholders connected with this collection. It is also where you should describe any rehousing, reformatting, or disk imaging you will do as part of processing.
  10. Staff assigned, estimated time processing, special equipment, patron access during processing. Are you able to stop everything and help a patron who might show up and ask to see your collection? (Would it be possible to find what they wanted mid-processing?) If it’s not going to be feasible, it’s better to lay those ground rules in the proposal.
  11. Cost: I have found estimating processing costs to be challenging but ultimately worthwhile. Even if your repository is flush with cash, estimating anticipated supplies and staff time is putting a concrete value on Technical Services work, which translates well to both stakeholders and potential donors outside the department. It is especially important if you know there are reformatting, custom housing, or other “unusual” costs that will add to your project’s expenses. Round up.

What’s Next?

The proposal should be a collaborative document. It is most useful when all the relevant stakeholders have had a chance to weigh in and inform themselves about each of the issues it addresses — whether it be the proposed level of arrangement, anticipated timeline, or expected costs. Odds are the first draft of the proposal is not the “final” draft. It will be edited and tweaked, so mentally brace yourself for feedback. It is better to have that feedback before you begin the project! And it could be that the act of writing the proposal leads to further exploration about the issues surrounding a particular collection, which may mean a reevaluation of its feasibility or priority ranking in the processing queue. Again, that is a good thing. That means you have developed a useful, worthwhile proposal that allows you and your colleagues to thoughtfully allocate the resources you have available.

Save your proposal as a useful reference. As you begin processing the collection, revisit it to keep yourself (and your student employees) on point about the specific pieces you included regarding arrangement and description. It should be seen as a guide, however; if you realize during processing that your proposed arrangement is ridiculous (for whatever reason), consult with the relevant parties and update your proposal. I have also found that having some sort of evaluation or recap, amended to the end of the proposal, is a really useful practice for evaluating on how the project went. This can be collaborative or not; I tend to just reflect on what I actually did as opposed to what I had initially estimated. Lessons learned, etc. And again, I’m always trying to adjust the estimated processing costs to reflect reality. This is a moving target, of course, and changes with each collection. Every collection is different! But that’s what makes processing so fun.

Let me know in the comments if you have found other useful fields to include in your processing proposals. I’d love to hear what other people are doing.

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7 thoughts on “A Case for Processing Proposals

  1. I really love the way you emphasize that processing is always an activity with stakeholders, something I think it’s easy to forget when we’re working on “our” collections, particularly in smaller institutions. It’s a great perspective to bring to all archival work!

  2. Gosh I love this. I also tend to ask questions that are somewhere between provenance and collection history and research value — which events/people/ideas do these records provide documentation of? Maybe another way to talk about this would be to include questions in the processing plan about evidential value, artifactual value, and symbolic value. Unfortunately, it’s pretty common for really interesting people to have extremely non-meaningful records, and it would be great to capture that at the time of processing to help make appraisal decisions.

  3. Hi Meghan,
    We also try to lay out an actual work plan with different steps listed – helps when we have to navigate space concerns, figure out what student can do what work at what time, etc. It really helps us when we have lots of different projects going on at the same time. You can see our processing plan template here:

    https://wiki.harvard.edu/confluence/display/Proceed/Processing+plan+template

    At the Schlesinger, there’s not a ton of communication between the (one) curator and the (many) archivists, so assessing the research value is often a tricky thing for processors to do. We’re working on ways to get that curatorial insight captured (in AT/ASpace) so we can use it when working on our plans.

    • Thanks for sharing your template, Jenny! The many archivists/one curator issue is interesting. I have many curators and only one of me. Either way, tracking decisions is very helpful.

  4. I love this– I think that the processing plan is hugely undervalued as both a planning document and as a way to (at least attempt to) be more transparent about why we make the decisions that we do and how those decisions shape and impact the collection.

    At Emory we actually have two different workplan templates that we use– one more detailed one that allows us to capture processing decisions at a pretty granular level and that includes more project planning info such as estimated timelines, and then one that is pared down for the smaller collections and things that we process while accessioning. Having the less labor and time-intensive option available lets us still capture our decisions and document our processes while lowering the pain threshold of actually creating that documentation.

    • I love the idea of a mini-proposal designed for small projects and baseline processing. Right now we try and track some of that info in our ASpace accession records. I’m not super thrilled about how we’re doing it though so I’m looking to make some changes. More on that in a couple of days when I am supposed to write about accessioning! :-/

  5. Pingback: What We Talk About When We (Don’t) Talk About Accessioning | Chaos —> Order

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