What We Talk About When We (Don’t) Talk About Accessioning

Last week Meghan did a wonderful job explaining the benefits of formal processing plans. I’d like to back up a bit and talk about one of the sources of information an archivist turns to in developing a processing plan: the accession record. Actually, accessioning more generally. As a profession, we don’t chatter all that much about accessioning, which is a shame as it sets the tone for our stewardship of the materials in our care. It is the process by which we lay the foundation upon which all subsequent steps rely. Done well, it provides access to materials as soon as possible, allows for arrangement and further descriptive work to be built upon initial efforts, and limits the loss of knowledge about the materials so that we are not dependent upon some Proustian reverie to discern basic information like who sent us a collection and when. Done poorly, or not done at all, it is the root of all problems that linger and haunt future archivists. Dramatic, no?

Gandalf discovering the complex custodial history for the One Ring in the Minas Tirith archives, which has rather lax reading room rules.

Definitions for accessioning are ambiguous and don’t provide much in the way of guidance for carrying out the function in practical terms. To some it simply refers to the action whereby records are transferred and no more. If it were a verb form in this line of thinking, it would be the simple past, static at a specific moment in time (please be patient while you await my forthcoming Buzzfeed quiz “Which archival function are you based on your zodiac sign’s favorite grammatical tense?”). Instead of viewing accessioning as synonymous with transfer, let’s think of it as a process by which we examine, stabilize, and document what we know about materials upon their arrival. To continue with a labored analogy, the progressive rather than the simple verb aspect.

So why is accessioning so important, and what should we aim to accomplish through it?

  • To establish physical custody and baseline levels of control that make it possible to track the materials’ location(s), assess and address immediate preservation concerns, and identify less urgent needs to be remediated in the future. In the past month alone I’ve dealt with mold, book lice, and broken glass in recent accessions, not to mention, slumping, crowding, and crushed boxes. Sometimes archives are gross. In thinking about the descriptive record, this part of the process gives us information on Extent and Processing Information.
  • To establish legal custody by assessing and documenting any restrictions on access and communicate intellectual property status. Descriptive elements related to this include Conditions Governing Access and Conditions Governing Use.
  • To establish intellectual control by identifying and documenting provenance, extant original order, as well as information about the content and context of the materials themselves. Relevant descriptive elements include Title, Date, Scope and Contents, and Immediate Source of Acquisition, amongst others.
  • To maintain a clear record of intervention with collection material, including appraisal, arrangement, descriptive, and preservation decisions and actions. Notes include Appraisal, Accruals, Destruction, and Processing Information.

We may not always know the same pieces of information for each accession, but we surely know more than what most collections management systems require in order to create a valid accession record (ArchivesSpace, for example, only requires an identifier and a date). The notes mentioned above come close to the requirements for DACS single-level description, and while most people use DACS in the service of creating access tools like finding aids, the standard is intended to be output-neutral. We can use it as a helpful guidepost for capturing and creating description in the accessioning process.

Let’s not stop there. Accessioning is an exemplar of the power of archival description, and how we can leverage that to provide access to some materials without performing arrangement. This follows the ethos of “Accessioning as Processing,” although in my opinion that phrase as a shorthand has recently become somewhat muddled with the idea of processing at the same time as accessioning. Instead, it’s a robust, access-driven approach that produces description sufficient in creating a baseline for access in some collections. During accessioning we are often able to get enough of a sense of a collection to create quality description rich in meaningful keywords that provides a reasonable range of materials for researchers. Machines can perform some of the basic types of arrangement like alphabetizing and chronological sorting, especially when we create clean metadata. It’s not boutique processing, and may often require further iterations in arrangement and description, but it allows for access sooner rather than later, and that’s at the crux of the public records tradition. And even if accessioning does not produce a public access tool – as this may not be appropriate in all cases – it should make it so that the next archivist who comes to the collection, whether for public services or arrangement and description, feels confident that she has all of the information about the materials that she needs. To close on a corny note, you can’t spell accessioning without “access.”

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5 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We (Don’t) Talk About Accessioning

  1. Good post. I am dealing with the legacy of bad accessioning practices where I work. It really does make our job harder. My philosophy is to do my job well enough that if I were to get hit by a bus tomorrow, anyone coming in behind me could easily find and understand every collection whether it is processed or not. Right now there are quite a few collections where we are struggling to even find out if it was donated or deposited, if we have copyright, etc. At least we have good practices in place now and are working on filling in the gaps on the old accessions.

  2. As an old hand, now retired, I could not agree more about the value of accessioning procedures as the first, and often crucial, step in processing. I was head of a small shop, so I did virtually all the acquisitions and worked closely with my long-term associate who did most of the processing. For the most part, we already knew what kinds of documentation we’d hope to find in a collection from the time I tried to acquire it. That expectation was based on a good idea of the extent and significance of the prospective donor’s activity. If we guessed right, a first look could make the collection available very quickly, assuming that no drastic sorting or weeding was required. We even assigned codes to indicate the level of processing performed vs. the level that might be desired –the first f being an expanded accession record. (I guess we were engaged in MPLP before our time–I’m talking early 70s up into the early 90s.)

    With the advent of all the systems now in use, I have the impression that archivists have traded such a simple path to making collections available for integrated accessioning control systems that do wonders, but result in bigger backlogs and an unfortunate binary approach to the final goal of access.

    As a girl, I learned from my ballet teacher that the “right way is the easy way”– that undue effort does not result in an improved outcome. Later I learned from Ernst Poster and other founders of the archival profession that with so much to be done to secure the records of our American culture and make them available, the old term “archival economy” was just the ticket.

  3. “Proustian reveries are not a collection management tool!” is my new battle cry

    • “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. I suddenly remembered that I had promised the donor that we would not only process the collection within a year, but that we would also create a misguided digital exhibit…”

  4. While already working as a processing archivist, I took some classes in a museum studies program, and a class for Registrars that looked in minute detail at what accessioning should mean in the museum world was enormously helpful to me in thinking about how accessioning should function in archives – which is to say, the same way and just as you’ve outlined here. I think it is or was unfortunately common in many places to pay little attention to accessioning and its deep importance for our stewardship of the materials over time, so it is great to see this topic championed here.

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