Processing Levels: The Hows and Whys

It’s no surprise to anyone who has been reading this blog that I am a firm believer in building a processing program that relies heavily on minimal processing techniques, including developing a program that applies different levels of processing to collections, or parts of collections.   Describing our collections is one of the most important things that we as archivists do, and also one of the most time-consuming and expensive. We want to make sure that our time and intellectual capital is being well spent, and I firmly believe that the thoughtful, intentional application of processing levels is a really important way to ensure that.  This leads to more accessible collections, encourages collection-level thinking and analysis, and opens up archivists’ time to work on big, strategic projects.

Standards like DACS encourage this kind of collection-level thinking and support different levels of arrangement and description, but there’s not a lot of advice out there about how and when to apply each of these levels (though the University of California’s Efficient Processing Guidelines, as always, does a great job of this). How do we decide if a collection is a good candidate to describe at the collection level versus the file level?  And what principles guide these decisions?  Here I’ll give you some thoughts into the principles I’ve used to build a levels-based processing program, and then some criteria I use when making decisions about an individual collection.

Thinking Programatically

Put Your Thinking Cap On:

Start by analyzing the records (their content and context) at a high level. What does the collection as a whole tell us? What are the major pieces of the collection and how do they relate to each other? Why does that matter? How can be best expose all of this to researchers? I’m not gonna lie- this is hard. This is way harder than making a container list. However, it brings a lot more value to the table. Archivists are trained to understand the ways that records are created; and to assess their potential value as evidence, information, and/or as symbols. Often by doing this higher level intellectual work at the outset we can create very robust and meaningful description that exposes how the parts of the whole of the collection come together and how they function without doing a significant amount of work in the collection.

Define Terms and Build Consensus:

Be clear about what you mean by a level of processing. It is critical that all stakeholders—archivists, curators, research services staff, donors—are all on the same page about what it means for a collection to be arranged and described at a certain level. This means defining and documenting these terms and circulating them widely throughout the organization. It also means being clear about amount of both time and money required to arrange and describe collections to different levels.

It’s also very important to involve institutional stakeholders in your decision making process. Assessing stakeholder needs and managing expectations from the outset helps to ensure that processing projects go smoothly and end with happy stakeholders. In my institution this generally means that the archivists work with with curators to make sure that we understand the value and needs of the collection, that they understand what I mean by a certain level of description, and that I can clearly communicate how more detailed processing of one collection impacts the time and resources available to address other projects that individual has a stake in.

Always Look For the Golden Minimum:

I always approach assigning processing levels by determining what the goals for a collection are (determined in conjunction with stakeholders!) are and what path provides the lowest set of barriers to getting there.  Greene and Meissner call this sweet spot where you meet your stated needs with the lowest investment of time and resources the golden minimum and this should be the goal of all processing projects.

Processing is Iterative:

This is huge for me. I go back and tweak description ALL THE TIME. Sometimes I’ve straight up misjudged what amount of description was necessary to facilitate discovery, sometimes research interests and needs change and the old levels of arrangement or description didn’t cut it anymore. Your needs change and evolve, the researchers needs change and evolve over time, the institutional context changes, sometimes you realize that something, for whatever reason just isn’t working. You always have the option to go back into a collection and do more. You never, however, have the ability to recapture the time that you spent on a collection up front, so be thoughtful about how you apply that time to best meet the needs of the institution, the researchers, you and your colleagues, and the collection itself.

Arrangement and Description are Not the Same Thing:

And don’t need to happen at the same level nor happen at the same level across all parts of a collection. A collection can be arranged at the series level and described at the file level. Or completely unarranged but described at the series level. By breaking apart these two aspects of processing we have more flexibility in how we approach and make available collections, and we can be more efficient and effective in managing each individual collection and serving our users.

Discovery and Access are Key:

At the end of the day, the main things to keep in mind when determining the most appropriate processing level are discovery and access. The main goal of any processing project is to give users enough information in our description to both identify the material they are most interested in, and to be able to put their hands on it. How much description is necessary to find relevant material in a collection? What do you need to know to successfully retrieve that relevant box?

Making Decisions at the Collection Level

Now that we know why we’re doing this, and what principles are guiding the application of processing levels, here are some criteria that I use to determine what the most appropriate levels of arrangement and description for a collection are:

  • Research Value and Use: If a collection has a high research value and you anticipate heavy and sustained use, it may well be worthwhile to invest additional time and resources into it in at the outset. This is especially true if the collection is not well ordered or is difficult to access.
  • Institutional Priorities: While I tend to default towards more minimal processing most of the time, there are plenty of internal factors that may encourage me to apply more detailed levels of processing. A flagship collection in an area where we are trying to build collections, if material from a collection is going to be featured in an exhibition, how much staff time needs to be devoted to other projects, how administrators allocate resources—all of these may affect processing decisions.
  • Restrictions: If a collection has significant access or use restrictions, or if there is a high likelihood that there are materials in the collection that would fall under legal protections such as FERPA or HIPAA (especially if these items are scattered throughout the collection) you will need to arrange the collection at a more granular level to ensure that you are doing your due diligence to meet your legal obligations.
  • Material Type and Original (Dis)Order:   The nature of a collection and the state in which a repository receives it will also, to some extent, determine the amount of archival intervention that it needs to be usable. If a collection arrives foldered, but entirely without a discernable order, it may require at least a series level sorting to enable a researcher to navigate the collection and locate material of interest. This also means that a collection that arrives unfoldered or without any organization will require more granular processing in order to be able to provide meaningful access. If the material is pretty uniform a collection level description will probably suffice. In general, the greater the diversity of the collection the more description is required to render the collection intelligible.
  • Size: I try not to make too many blanket decisions based solely on the size of a collection, but it can be a factor in determining processing levels. A collection that is only one box will not need a tremendous amount of description beyond the collection level because a researcher will only need to request one box to see the entirety of material available—tons of additional description is not going to aid in locating material. Conversely, a collection where one series spans hundreds of boxes will need additional file level description so that a user can isolate and access the part of that series that he or she needs.

These are some of the things that I take into consideration in my role as a manager at an academic special collection library. Other types of repositories and institutional contexts may well have other needs and different criteria. Feel free to add or expand in the comments!

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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.

Book Review: Extensible Processing. But What About…

Chapter 9 addresses questions and concerns raised about extensible processing. Dan provides responses based on archival theory, practices, projects, and goals to a wide range of topics, details how extensible processing can actually help solve the issues raised, and calls for more critical analysis (and actual change) of other archival functions. There are gem quotes/talking points in every section (I resisted listing them all!) that show why objections aren’t reasons to not pursue extensible processing. He reiterates the strengths of extensible processing and its flexible nature to accommodate many situations. Dan offers data points to gather to make decisions about additional description work for selected materials, which may also help to address some of the issues raised.

As someone who has worked at two institutions building extensible processing programs, I have heard every single one of the arguments presented in this chapter against changing how we provide access to materials (sometimes all of them in the same meeting!) To me, lots of the arguments against extensible processing techniques really come down to two fundamental experiences or beliefs:

We care about creating access to select collections, want to do it in the same ways as before, and think we can’t really do anything about the backlog without a major influx of resources (which we won’t ever have.) OR We care about creating access to the most amount of collections possible, realize our methods have created a backlog, and are willing to try different approaches to eliminate the backlog.

Why do so many people still fall into the first category? We have it in our power to change our practices to create basic access to all our holdings. Why wouldn’t you get behind that idea?

Because you want control? Because you want your boxes to look pretty? Because you want your folders in a very specific order? Because you’re nervous about changing your daily tasks? Because you’re worried that a step/detail for one collection/series/folder/item won’t get done as it has before? Because you’re scared to make harder decisions and think more broadly?

Dan continually shows in this chapter (and the whole book) that extensible processing offers a way out. Even if you don’t happen to like the details, it gets you much closer to your goal of providing access to all your collections. A good extensible processing program will push for systemic decisions and changes in other areas. It also means being able to talk about our work differently. Consider that a common thread among the objections (regardless of the topic/specifics) is intimately tied to the archivists’ identify and professional status. Dan’s last two paragraphs are so well said:

Rather than damaging the profession, extensible processing practices have the potential to enhance the profession’s standing with researchers, donors, and resource allocators. Gains in intellectual control of collection materials, the rates at which newly donated material is made available, and the removal of barriers to access can all be used to demonstrate the value of extensible processing and of archivists themselves. Archivists should strive to stress these aspects of their work, rather than the traditional housekeeping of physical processing, boxing, and labeling.

If archivists are not refoldering, wedding, arranging, or describing the same way every time, what is left to do? Making difficult decisions and looking at the big picture, including when to stop and move on to the next collection. Looking at complex collections and recognizing the patterns and relationships between and within them. Making the high-level arrangement and appraisal decisions. Responding to users by basing processing priorities and decisions about levels of processing on information about what collections are used the most. Solving problems and being creative in finding ways to provide access to collections. All of these are incredibly valuable, and highly valued, skills for archivists who will lead the way in delivering archival material to users. [1]

I think this chapter is a must read for everyone at institutions with backlogs. It will provide those advocating for extensible processing with additional talking points and evidence. For those who may be resisting extensible processing techniques, chances are that the chapter has covered your concern and could lead to productive conversations and shared understandings with your colleagues.


[1] Santamaria, Daniel A. Extensible Processing for Archives and Special Collections: Reducing Processing Backlogs. Chicago: ALA Neal-Schuman, 2015, 139-140.

 

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.

Book Review: Extensible Processing. Why Extensible Processing is Essential

This week, our core group of editors will review Extensible Processing for Archives and Special Collections: Reducing Processing Backlogs by Daniel A. Santamaria.


Many successful archival repositories have, for a very long time, operated in ways to make sure that their practices scale to their collections sizes, staffing resources, and user needs. But it seems that it’s only been in the last ten years, since the publication of Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner’s “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing” and the associated cascade of conference presentations, case studies, and affiliated articles, that processing procedures as a whole have moved toward something that we can talk about, think critically about, and ultimately re-examine the purpose of.

This book provides the first comprehensive framework that I’ve seen about how to run a repository based on extensible processing principles — principles that are firmly rooted in deeply-held archival values and the logical extension of Greene and Meissner’s argument that every procedure in a library needs to be held to the scrutiny of materials’ availability for use. And, since this blog is largely about repository-wide projects (and shifting our thinking toward taking care of everything in our care instead of thinking about processing project after processing project), it seems like an excellent fit for our interests and audience.

Chapter one starts with a sobering analysis of the backlog problem. In short, backlogs are growing, staffing is flat, collecting continues, the records we collect as evidence of our creators’ lives and work are more voluminous than ever, and few of us are doing anything differently to help address the fact that patrons can’t see our collections. He pulls what I found to be a shocking statistic — according to an OCLC research survey of special collections libraries in late 2010, internet-accessible finding aids only exist for 44% of collections [1], despite the fact that it seemed like one couldn’t throw a rock at a conference between 2005-2010 without hitting someone having a discussion about Greene and Meissner’s article.

So, there’s obviously a problem. Despite MPLP’s very good advice that we need to be willing to look at our work differently if we want to overcome the problem of scale, it’s simply not happening in too many repositories. And here, I think, is where this book makes an important intervention in the archival literature.  Santamaria provides reasoned, step-by-step advice toward building a program where patrons are better served, donors’ expectations are met, and staff aren’t constantly trying to climb out from a hole of tasks yet to be performed with no relief in sight.

Given the choice, it’s a lot more professionally satisfying to work in a place that doesn’t accept the inevitability of backlogs. I worked for Dan at Princeton from the beginning of 2011 through 2013. If you’re wondering what it’s like to work at a place with a true philosophy of access first, and where one examines, each time, what processing means for that collection (and in the context of the other work that needs to be done) and why you’re doing it that way — well, it’s a lot of fun. I had come in at a particularly exciting time — because of the smart decisions that Dan and other archivists at Mudd had made in years previous, the backlog was dead. We were able to work on projects (like the Princeton Finding Aids site), that relied on creative engagement with our description, our materials, and our users. I believe that this kind of project was only possible because Dan had already built a culture of intellectual engagement with our work, where each member of the team understood our mission and the purposes of archival description.

For anyone overwhelmed by her repository, things can be different. But relief can only come if you’re willing to take a hard look at why you do what you do. More than that, you might have to spend more time managing and planning (and less time treading water, hoping that change will come externally). Chapter two provides six principles for an extensible processing program.

  1. Create a baseline level of access to all collections material
  2. Create standardized, structured description
  3. Manage archival materials in the aggregate
  4. “Do no harm”: limit physical handling and processing
  5. Iterate: conduct further processing in a systematic but flexible way
  6. Manage processing holistically

I believe that what separates professional archivists from interested enthusiasts is a commitment to managing our time in ways that our best for researchers and collections. This book makes a compelling case for a deliberate approach, which requires that archivists make prudent decisions and hard choices every day.

Throughout this book… emphasis is placed on decision-making, prioritization, and adherence to archival principles and standards — concepts that apply to archivists at many levels and in every kind of organization. [2]

I’m convinced that we all have the capability to approach our work this way — but that 44% number doesn’t lie. We need to treat the problem of backlogs like the crisis it is. I look forward to Meghan’s review tomorrow, which will cover chapters 3-5 and discuss concrete steps any archivist can take to effectively manage processing and kill the backlog.


[1]  Santamaria 2, quoting Dooley, Jackie and Katherine Luce. “Taking Our Pulse: The OCLC Research Survey of Special Collections and Archives.” OCLC Research, 2010. It’s interesting that according to the survey, 74% of collections would have online finding aids if analog copies were converted and made available online.

[2] Santamaria, Daniel A. Extensible Processing for Archives and Special Collections: Reducing Processing Backlogs. Chicago: ALA Neal-Schuman, 2015, X