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.”

Book Review: Extensible Processing from Accessioning to Backlogs

Book Club time! I’ve really enjoyed reading Daniel Santamaria’s new book, Extensible Processing for Archives and Special Collections. I asked for the chance to review Chapters 3, 4, and 5, because I thought that they would most directly relate to the accessioning and processing that I handle in my job. Since starting to read, however, I’ve found that Extensible Processing is much more holistic than its chapter headings imply — so, my first recommendation is to just read the whole thing. There are pieces of each chapter that I have found incredibly relevant to my work, beyond the three chapters designated for processing, backlogs, and accessioning.

I really like how Dan offers practical steps for establishing an extensible processing program. In Chapter 3, he explains how processing collections should be viewed as cyclical, rather than linear; he argues that collections and their descriptions should “always be seen as works in progress” (p. 29). His approach to processing always focuses on getting the material available quickly, with the caveat that more arrangement and description can always follow later, if use demands it. Chapter 4 is tailored to addressing backlogs, and encourages institutions to use collections assessments and surveys as a means of defining and prioritizing their backlog in a structured way. Chapter 5 takes the processing guidelines from Chapter 3 and applies them to accessioning, encouraging processing at accessioning. (Dan is not a fan of archives’ traditional approach of adding accessions to the backlog.)

Of the three chapters I am reviewing for this blog, I found Chapter 5, on accessioning, to be the most thought-provoking. We implemented processing at accessioning years ago at Duke, but we constantly acquire additions to collections and find ourselves pondering the most practical approach to integrating these new accessions with their existing collections. Dan advises adding accessions to the end of the collection, in their own series; this is certainly an approach I have used, but it has always felt like something temporary. Dan suggests that I just get used to this lack of closure. (I’m fine with that idea.) Another solution we sometimes use at Duke is to interfile smaller additions within the original collection, a tactic that Dan opposes because it can take a lot of time and upsets original order (p. 61-62). My view is that interfiling one or two folders can be much easier (and more practical, in the long term) than adding folders to a random box at the end of the collection. But, even when I disagree with the logistics of Dan’s approach, I agree with his overall argument: when adopting extensible processing, accessions are no different than any other archival collection — and therefore it should be the user’s needs that drive our processing energies.

Whenever I read something well-written with lots of practical tips, I end up excited about getting back to work and just fixing everything. I found Dan’s review and application of MPLP more practical, and less perplexing (see what I did there?) than a number of other approaches I’ve read or heard about in recent years. It helps to remind ourselves that collections can always be revisited later. I appreciate his flexible approach to processing, which constantly keeps the user’s needs at the forefront. He believes in collecting and then using data, which eliminates the guessing game we often play when trying to prioritize processing demands. Furthermore, he repeatedly references the importance of buy-in from other staff and the library administration, a topic he explores further in Chapter 8. “Oooh, my colleagues would not like this” was definitely something at the front of my mind as I read his guidelines emphasizing the intellectual, rather than physical, arrangement and description of materials. I look forward to applying his suggestions as we continue to refine our processing procedures at Duke.