Records Management for Discards

Maybe this is a familiar problem for some other archivists. You have a collection that you’ve just finished processing — maybe it’s a new acquisition, or maybe it’s been sitting around for awhile — and you have some boxes of weeded papers leftover, waiting to be discarded. But for some reason — a reason usually falling outside of your job purview — you are not able to discard them. Maybe the gift agreement insists that all discards be returned to the donor, and you can’t track down the donor without inviting another accession, and you just don’t have time or space for that right now. Maybe your library is about to renovate and move, and your curators are preoccupied with trying to install 10 exhibitions simultaneously. Maybe the acquisition was a high-value gift, for which the donor took a generous tax deduction, and your library is legally obligated to keep all parts of the gift for at least three years. Maybe your donor has vanished, the gift agreement is non-existent, or the discards are actually supposed to go to another institution and that institution isn’t ready to pay for them. The reasons don’t matter, really. You have boxes of archival material and you need to track them, but they aren’t a part of your archival collection any more. How do you manage these materials until the glorious day when you are actually able to discard them?

We’ve struggled with this at Duke for a long time, but it became a more pressing issue during our recent renovation and relocation. Boxes of discards couldn’t just sit in the stacks in a corner anymore; we had to send them to offsite storage, which meant they needed to be barcoded and tracked through our online catalog. We ended up attaching them to the collection record, which was not ideal. Because the rest of the collection was processed and available, we could not suppress the discard items from the public view of the catalog. (Discards Box 1 is not a pretty thing for our patrons to see.) Plus, it was too easy to attach them to the collection and then forget about the boxes, since they were out of sight in offsite storage. There was no easy way to regularly collect all the discard items for curators to review from across all our collections. It was messy and hard to use, and the items were never going to actually be discarded! This was no good.

I ended up making a Discards 2015 Collection, which is suppressed in the catalog and therefore not discoverable by patrons. All materials identified for discard in 2015 will be attached to this record. I also made an internal resource record in Archivists’ Toolkit (soon to be migrated to ArchivesSpace) that has a series for each collection with discards we are tracking for the year. It is linked to the AT accession records, if possible. In the resource record’s series descriptions, I record the details about the discards: what is being discarded, who processed it, who reviewed it, why we haven’t been able to discard it immediately, and when we expect to be able to discard the material (if known). The Discard Collection’s boxes are numbered, barcoded, and sent to offsite storage completely separated from their original collection — as it should be. No co-mingling, physically or intellectually! Plus, all our discards are tracked together, so from now on, I can remind our curators and other relevant parties at regular intervals about the boxes sitting offsite that need to be returned, shredded, sold, or whatever.

I’d love to hear other approaches to discards — this is a new strategy for us, so maybe I’ve missed something obvious that your institution has already solved. Let me know in the comments. Happy weeding, everyone!

Rehousing is Not Processing

This post has been stewing around since last July, but builds nicely on our Extensible Processing book reviews and Maureen’s post on containers.

In supervising processing projects I’ve come across some wacky decisions made over the years. While I’ve started projects from the beginning, a large portion of projects I’ve supervised have been already in progress, started under someone else (or multiple others).

One reoccurring issue I’ve noticed is how often people say processing when they mean something else or they mean a very small part of processing. Rehousing is a common culprit, but other activities fall into this too. Here’s two examples of “processing projects” that mostly aren’t at all:

1. Collection was processed in the 1970s. A paper finding exists with notes, series descriptions, and a folder (or item) level container list. Materials are in acidic boxes and acidic folders, but labeled. Actions taken during the project: Rehoused all materials into acid-free folders and acid-free boxes, including creating additional, smaller folders. Changed the series arrangement and physically re-arranged materials. Excel container list was created by retyping (retyping!) the content of the paper finding aid  and adding in the newly created folders for conversion to EAD.

So many times I came across similar ongoing processing projects with a justification that the materials needed better housing. Often, other tasks got tacked on such as redoing the series outline (even if there were no additional materials to add and no evidence that the current series outline had issues.)

2. Preliminary inventory in Word exists at the folder level using creator created titles for a large volume of organizational records. Finding aid existed with summary notes and linked out to a PDF of the preliminary inventory. Actions taken during project:

  • Collection was rehoused into acid-free folders, staples removed, some preservation photocopying done, oversize materials removed and rehoused separately (separation sheets completed)
  • Materials were reviewed on an item level and marked as restricted. Some redaction might have happened. Sometimes the restricted materials were removed to a new folder with the same title and marked as restricted (using separation sheets in the original folder). Sometimes the restricted materials were left in place and the whole folder was labeled restricted.
  • Excel container list was created by retyping (retyping!) the exact information on the folder (aka the exact information already in the preliminary Word list) as materials were re-foldered. Largely, the creator titles were kept with some additions. Dates for folders were added or edited. Excel list will be converted to EAD.
  • Folders were physically grouped by letter of alphabet based on the folder title. Ex: All the folders starting with “A” are physically together in “A” boxes, but not in actual alphabetical order yet. (Currently, those folders are being arranged in alphabetical order in acid-free boxes. Look for an update on how long/how expensive just this one phase takes!)

Both of these examples were large projects that occurred over many years (often with pauses due to turn over and lack of resources). Looking back, what value did we add? The collections are in more stable housing than before and in one case we know more about restricted material. But, otherwise, what have we gained for our users that we didn’t already have?

Essentially, these were called processing projects but are really rehousing and restriction review projects. Not projects to create access to materials or bring intellectual or physical order to the materials. After all, they both already had a documented intellectual and physical order that should have been described in our finding aid notes (at whatever level.)

What we should do instead:

  • Put resources towards creating access to materials over rehousing materials.
  • Develop a baseline housing standard that you can live with. It might be that all materials are in acid-free boxes. Or maybe it’s just that your boxes aren’t falling apart.
  • Get over the idea that all collections need to be physically arranged and re-housed during processing (or re-processing). Rehousing a collection into acid-free folders and/or acid-free boxes is not the main goal processing. The task does not create access to collections or describe the materials. It’s housekeeping. It’s not necessary to include in a processing project.
  • Specifically state what rehousing tasks will occur in the processing plan and at what level. Justify spending processing resources on this. Don’t include it just because you’re used to including this task during processing.
  • Prioritize materials, at a repository level, that risk severe damage or information loss due to current housing based on importance. Develop a specific budget/set of resources for this type of work. Tap into the resources of your preservation/conservation department when available.

When facing resistance to not including rehousing in a processing project numbers are your friend. “Do we want to rehouse this collection that’s already pretty stable or do we want to take those resources and create access to more collections?” is often too abstract for people. Attaching actual costs to rehousing work (labor AND supplies) can help to push people resistant or nervous about dropping rehousing to focus on activities that create access. Treating rehousing work as separate from processing can also help to decouple the idea that your intellectual and physical order must always match.

Figuring Out What Has Been Done: Duplicated Notes (And Documenting My Failed Attempt…)

What was the problem?

This time, I’m trying to track down see/see-also notes that, because of a problem in the original EAD 1.0 -> EAD 2002 transform, were duplicated to parent components. A lot of really good clean-up work was done with these — we want to know what’s left.

How did I figure this out?

I haven’t. This has totally failed and I could use some help.

I had a lot of thoughts initially about how to pull this off, and I was mostly concerned about how oXygen would be able to handle any solution I came up with. Happily, my colleague Mark introduced me to BaseX, which is an xml database and xQuery processor. It’s awesome, and has been able to handle everything I’ve thrown at it thus far.

When it came down to it, I realized that I just wanted to find the note, then find a note in the parent component, and figure out if they were the same. I toyed with the idea of making a hash of each of these and comparing them, but it turned out that BaseX was able (I think) to handle the content of the note itself.

The xQuery is here, and the meaty bits are below.

declare variable $COLLECTION as document-node()* := db:open('MSSAAtExport');

for $note in $COLLECTION//ead:ead//ead:note//text()
let $doc := base-uri($note),
$parent-note := $note/parent::ead:c/parent::ead:c/ead:note[1]//text()

Basically, I’ve put all of my EAD in a database in BaseX called “MSSAAtExport” (which is the best thing I could have done — it made everything fast and awesome). Then, I declared my main variable, $note (any <note> element, anywhere, although strictly speaking I’m only interested in notes in the <dsc>). I declared $doc as the file I’m in.

Finally, (and here’s where I’m pretty sure my mistake is, so PLEASE CHECK), I created another variable for the note that might have been duplicated. Because that’s the problem, right? There are notes in components that were duplicated in parent components. So, $parent-note starts at $note, then goes up to its own <c>, then goes up to the parent <c>, and then goes down to the parent <note>. For both the $note and $parent-note, I was hoping to simplify things by just comparing the text of the element, and not everything else.

Finally, I have the return statement.

return
<dupes>
<doc>{$doc}</doc>
<results>{if ($note eq $parent-note)
 then "same"
 else "different"
 }</results>
</dupes>

So, it came back with no matches. This is great, right? It means that there are no notes that were duplicated at the parent! Hooray!!!!

BUT, before congratulating myself too much, I decided to test it by inserting a note in the parent component of a component with a note, and checking to see if they came back the same. No dice. They came back as different, which means that there’s something wrong with this query.

The appeal

If you’re so inclined, please check my work and let me know where I messed up. Alternately, let me know if you have thoughts on a better/easier way to do this. Until then, I’ll keep chipping away at other reports in my list.