NHPRC Update: Getting Started

As you may have read in Laura’s previous post, Special Collections and University Archives was lucky to receive a grant from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration’s National Historical Publications & Records Commission (NHPRC). The grant funds a two year project to move our finding aids into a new archives management system – a specialized database for descriptive information about our archival collections. In our case, we are using the CuadraSTAR Knowledge Center for Archives (SKCA).

This system will allow for better access to the collections for researchers, through improved searching capabilities through our website, as well as through converting our finding aids into EAD (Encoded Archival Description) format, an XML standard which will let us share our collections more widely. We will also be able to collect all of the information about each archival collection in one place, connecting accession reports to the finding aid to conservation assessments. Later on in the project we will also be improving the subject headings attached to each finding aid, and linking items in our digital collections directly to the archival collections that they came from. The new system will go live November 1, 2018, and we look forward to sharing more as the project continues.

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Old School: The bookshelves with binders of printed finding aids in our reading room.

I recently moved to Ames from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I have found that moving to a new state has served as a useful analogy for this project. However, rather than moving boxes, we are moving descriptive metadata, which is much more exciting! In my own move, I had about a month in which I needed to create a plan, execute the logistics of how this was going to happen (by which I mean make dozens of phone calls), and then finally, pack.

Although I will fully admit that my own move was in reality less organized than I am portraying here and my packing was motivated by more than one trip to get ice cream, the steps have been relatively the same with the finding aid migration. First, working off of the grant requirements and timeline, I made a schedule with start dates and deadlines. This also included prioritizing which finding aids would be completed first.

Second, the logistics of how the information is going to go from its current state – a word document with structured tables – into the database entry form needed to be determined. Rather than phone calls to the utility company, I created a manual for the student assistant that would be working on the project, as well as a system for assigning and tracking where collections are in the process. I worked with the other archivists to determine possible problems that some of the finding aids might pose, due to content or formatting, and started resolving those issues.

Third, is the figurative packing and just getting the work done. Since the beginning of July, a student assistant and I have been doing the manual labor of entering the finding aids into the database. There are a lot of different approaches to this process depending on the particular system that is being used and the existing format of the finding aids, but the combination of SKCA and our Word document tables means that there is no way around copying and pasting a lot of the information. A major upside of this is that I get to read almost all of the finding aids. I have learned a lot more about rural life and agriculture than I ever expected, which I have really enjoyed (check out the Iowa Cow War of 1931).

At this point we are almost four months in, and have been entering finding aids for about three of them. Two key points have stuck with me:

-Deadlines are helpful, but so are start dates. Pick a go date, and stick with it.
The logistics can be easy to get carried away with, and one thing that I am really glad about looking back is that the student assistant starting on July 5th provided a hard date that the preliminary planning and preparation needed to be done. While certainly some of the more complicated things were not finished by that date, the things he needed to know to get started were. While functionally this was a deadline for me, thinking of it as a start date for one phase of the project was more motivating.

-Plan for getting behind, but also getting ahead.
The timeline for the project was based on educated guesses about how long it would take to move an individual finding aid, and in hindsight the amount that was planned for was overly generous (by several months, oops!). While it is always good to not be behind, getting ahead comes with its own need for contingencies. Luckily with the workflow tracking that was in place, I was able to communicate the progress that had been made to others involved so that there were no surprises, and adjust the schedule to fit the new realistic timeframe. There were also smaller tasks that could be moved from elsewhere in the schedule to allow for more flexibility between the larger tasks.

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This project has been generously funded by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).