As I mentioned last week, we project archivists are doing a whole lot of “processing” – a word that refers generally to a method of organizing and handling records. Archivists are familiar with its collections-centric meaning, but it doesn’t mean much to people who don’t interact frequently with archival materials. So, to answer that age-old question posed in Office Space, what would we say we do here?
In general, archives’ use of the term processing covers the following steps:
1. Arrangement: Tidy and organize collections. Fact of life: in order to find something, we have to know where it is. To this end, we organize papers – just like students might have a notebook for each class, or a Google calendar for class assignments and one for sports and social events, we try to divine an order in someone’s desk folders or calendars or letters over the years. We have to write good titles too, that convey a folder’s contents – even when they seem a bit random. When possible, archivists respect des fonds as the French say, meaning ensures that a collection reflects the creator’s use and organization of the items. If that creator purposefully put a bunch of things together, our job is to describe the things with a title (“Military science memorandums”) and leave it for the researchers to debate the contents.
2. Preservation: Ensure materials are clean and protected. Unlike library books, which can generally be replaced if they are lost or otherwise harmed, our collections are unique or very rare. Letters typically only have one copy; Terry Anderson annotated a draft of his book, and other drafts will contain different marginalia, for example. So archivists must care for paper physically to enable a long life – just like we take vitamins every day or try to eat more fruits and vegetables. Paper’s version of “vitamins” includes being stored in acid-free paper, folders, boxes, and cartons. Photographs are more fragile and popular items, so photos are put into enclosures that are made of clear materials without harmful chemicals. You would be surprised at the destruction caused by a paper clip, a few staples, or a rubber band, especially as they rust and melt over time. We remove these to prevent future issues, but if the item(s) have been exposed to mold or need a lot of help, our Preservation department comes to the rescue.
3. Access and Use: Catalog and promote the collections. Archivists don’t have an easy job (I may be biased) but one of the hardest things we do, in my view, is make sure that people can search for and find materials in our holdings. Just like people need to be able to find books on shelves, articles in databases and the digital repository, images on our Flickr site, we need to make sure people can find items and collections. But every book has just one title and an array of headings. On the other hand, by nature, the materials that individuals gather over their lifetime are much less focused than a book. It would take an incomprehensible amount of time to detail every single item in our collections, so instead we create finding aids that inventory the folders, write biographical and historical notes that detail a person or office’s interests and record holdings,
In order to make sure that users can “see” (via the catalog or other virtual tools, since our shelves are not open to cruising around sections) what’s available, we do a few things:
- Create finding aids and put them online. This inventories all those folders that we put titles on during arrangement. Finding aids provide context for the collection through a biography of the person or history of an organization, an overview of what is present (or not present) in the records, and a listing of the folder titles. This way, visitors can skim a finding aid and see present – or not present – sort of like a book’s table of contents or index.
- Create searchable catalog records. Just like you can search for circulating books through the Library website, you can search for special collections as well. These link to the finding aid, as well
- Write blogs. Finding aids stick to the facts, and frequently collections cannot be digitized – again, the time and file space required is not practical. So these posts allow us to showcase images, provide more context, and wax whimsically about our favorite parts of a collection. Since they’re online also, people can use Google to come across the collections at ISU – library catalogs, not so much.
- Display exhibits. On the fourth floor of Parks, inside and outside of our reading room, we have exhibit cases that allow us to highlight collections. Currently, the cases are dedicated to the papers of Congressman Edward Mezvinsky and contain photos and sports memorabilia from his youth in Ames and artifacts from his political career. Exhibits may also be virtual – Collections Archivist Laura Sullivan’s online exhibit in honor of Homecoming’s 100th anniversary in 2012 gives a comprehensive view of Cyclone pride that is accessible to alumni near and far.
Whew! So that is what archivists do when they process, in brief. Every researcher who uses materials from Special Collections, at Iowa State or in any repository, has seen processing’s results up close. Archivists do plenty other tasks: materials have to come from somewhere, groups pay us visits, classes come learn how we can improve their work, we have a web presence to maintain, policies are always changing and developing, etc. Melissa Mannon maintains a long list of the variety of tasks that archivists accomplish using a Pinterest board, What does an archivist do? amongst other archives-centric boards. Maybe I should start one for processing archivists…