This post is about two important elements of archival practice: trying things and writing them down
Writing things down is, unsurprisingly, an important part of archival work. The one thing all archives have in common is that no two are alike: archives collect unique materials, and every archive has its own set of collecting, preservation, and access concerns and priorities, which they address from within a broadly uniform theoretical framework. What that means is that, while we use certain tools (both intellectual and technological) and follow certain professional standards and practices, how we enact and apply them varies from place to place. And what that means is that trying things and writing them down is a crucial part of working in an archive, and that’s true whether it’s a community archive preserving the history of a local theater, a university or government archive collecting public records, or a corporate archive maintaining design and manufacturing specifications.
One example of trying things and writing them down as archival practice here at SCUA is how we catalog artifacts. To keep track of these three-dimensional objects (we have a lot of buttons), we use a software called Past Perfect, which was developed for use in museums. It lets us create records for artifacts, attach pictures, track where they are in our storage (or on display in an exhibit, out for preservation, etc), and export inventories– like the searchable PDF catalog on our website. There’s a manual for the software which details how to input information, how to save records, etc– basic software functions– but what it doesn’t, and can’t, tell us is how we want to use the software. Since Past Perfect was designed to support a broad range of institutions, it has a lot more options and features than we even need, and the interface can be pretty overwhelming, which was only part of the problem. The issue we found was that not enough of the artifacts in our collection had records, and the records were inconsistent, mostly because the existing instructions for cataloging artifacts weren’t very thorough and there wasn’t a clear workflow to follow.
How do we decide which fields are important for our artifacts, what kind of language to use in the descriptions, and what the standard cataloging procedure should be? That’s where trying things comes in. In order to develop a SCUA-specific manual for creating artifact records with Past Perfect, we had to take a look at what kind of records had been made before, what kind of artifacts we had, and what we thought was important to capture: most of all, though, we had to try cataloging artifacts. Every time we made a decision– enter the date of creation like this, use this term first to describe this kind of object– we wrote it down. Every time we took an action, we wrote it down. Eventually, we had a list of steps and directions for using Past Perfect to create the kind of records we want to have for the kind of objects SCUA holds. And then the testing began… There’s a manual now, with screenshots, that lays out the process so that anyone can do it and get the expected result.
This came up as a part of a larger project reviewing how we handle artifacts. Examining the artifact catalog, it became obvious that the existing procedures hadn’t been working and we needed a new approach. This is fairly common in an archive: a task becomes a bottleneck, or a procedure hasn’t been kept up to date, and creates a problem that needs to be solved inside the archive’s existing systems. Changing our approach is often a lot easier than acquiring (and training on, and migrating information to) a new tool for doing it. In this case, we already had Past Perfect, and Past Perfect was designed for the job, it just wasn’t being used consistently and to its potential. Fully documenting the workflow, the expected outcome, and our decision-making process in a manual solved the problem (not enough artifacts had records, and the records weren’t consistent) and also created a means to update that manual as needed.
We tried some things, and once we had tried enough things, we wrote them down, and now there’s a resource that anyone in the department, from a student worker to the next University Archivist, can pick up and use– or change, if it needs to be changed.
All this contributes to the life of the archive, both in shaping how materials are handled and made available, and becoming a record of how the people who work here do their work, what they’re passionate about, what they’ve changed and why. It’s the sort of work that supports all the rest of the work we do, not just now but for years to come. Which, given that our job is to preserve, make available, and store materials in the holdings for future generations, is sort of important.