Archival Principles: Organization

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block OArchivists are responsible for both physical and intellectual control over the collections in their repository.  Physical control is established with a good inventory system for tracking where collections are housed and through the physical arrangement of the materials.  Intellectual control is asserted through the conceptualization of how best to organize the materials based on their development and use and also through the description process.  Archival processing = arrangement + description.

Arrangement usually creates levels to organize the materials, often drilling down into series, files, and items.  As the materials are perused for this purpose, the archivist also engages in a process known as weeding, which entails removing duplicates as well as out-of-scope materials.  Often times, the donor agreement specifies what should happen to such materials that will not be retained permanently at the archive.

Description is intended to explain the content, structure, and context of the archival collection.  The primary output of this work is known as the finding aid.  Finding aids can take the form of online catalogs, inventories, indexes, and general holdings guides.  Finding aids often include not only information about archival processing but also the acquisition of the materials, the media on which they are recorded, and the size of the collection.

Standards are key to archival processing, especially description.  Archivists worldwide adhere to standards for the structure of archival finding aids for numerous reasons:

  • efficiency
  • increased findability of materials by users
  • easier collaboration among repositories

Standards for archival description have existed since the late 19th century, but the advent of the World Wide Web has encouraged their adoption because it facilitates the accumulation of information about archival materials into federated databases that are easily searched by researchers, who are spared the tedium and time investment of searching each repository individually for relevant materials.  Some repositories have come together to create consortia for this purpose, such as the Online Archive of California and Archives West, rather than have the findability of their collections depend solely on the algorithms of Internet search engines.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the principle of context and suggested context can be used to help patrons understand the documents they research.  Archivists record much of this information during the process of arranging and describing an archival collection.  Interestingly, this information is possibly reflected in different parts of the finding aid for an archival collection.  According to Describing Archives: A Content Standard, the administrative or biographical history element “describes the relationship of creators to archival materials by providing information about the context in which those materials were created.”  The scope and content element is intended to help users evaluate the relevance of materials for their research and includes information such as how the materials were generated, forms of the records, dates and places, subject matter, etc.


Archival Principles: Preservation

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block PThe SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines preservation in these ways:

1. The professional discipline of protecting materials by minimizing chemical and physical deterioration and damage to minimize the loss of information and to extend the life of cultural property.

2. The act of keeping from harm, injury, decay, or destruction, especially through noninvasive treatment.

The notes go on to suggest preservation might be considered distinct from conservation or might be considered a subdiscipline of conservation.  In her book Archives: Principles and Practices, Laura Millar takes a slightly different approach.  She cast preservation as a more passive activity, encompassing such things as maintaining appropriate environmental conditions, while conservation is a more active process of protecting materials through physical and chemical treatments.  In their book Understanding Archives & Manuscripts, James O’Toole and Richard Cox see preservation as more of an intervention by the archivist to arrest or prevent degradation of the records.  While the common notion of preservation work calls to mind paper records, O’Toole and Cox acknowledge that digital records also necessitate preservation — and, in fact, the archivist ideally will have a voice in the creation of the systems that will maintain these digital records, so as to ensure they can be appropriately retained.

The element of preservation that I appreciate is the necessarily long-term view it requires.  The assessment of potential risks to the records and the application of appropriate strategies to mitigate those risks are done with an eye towards preserving those records that have enduring value for their creators and for researchers.  Come back in a few weeks to see more about how records are accessed.

Archival Principles: Context

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block CLast week, I began reflecting on some key archival principles.  Having already considered appraisal, now I turn to context.  (If you’ve visited here before, you’ll recognize that context is an important concept for me — check the category on the right for other related posts.)

The SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines context in two ways:

1. The organizational, functional, and operational circumstances surrounding materials’ creation, receipt, storage, or use, and its relationship to other materials.

2. The circumstances that a user may bring to a document that influences that user’s understanding of the document.

The note accompanying these definitions explains that context, along with content and structure, is one of the fundamental aspects of a record.  My own professional context is that I’m currently working in records management, so it makes sense context is on my brain.  The first of these definitions lends itself to connecting with another archival concept, that of original order.  In the best of all possible worlds, archivists commit themselves to preserving the original order of documents, with this notion that the organization provided by the records’ creator helps to provide some relevant context for them.  Of course, occasionally, documents are transferred to a repository absent of any discernible order or disheveled from a crisis or a move, so this is not always possible.

In my opinion, the second definition is too narrow.  It reflects the postmodernist notion of reader-response theory, acknowledging that the experiences, biases, and expectations of archival users can impact how they understand a document.  But I think the very context of a document’s creation — when, by and for whom, why, where — also bears on the interpretation of that document.  For more on this, come back in a few weeks to learn about Organization.

Archival Principles: Appraisal

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It’s been a little while since I gave up my weekly posting schedule on this blog, but with this being a season for discipline, I’ve determined it’s a good time for me to try to put into layman’s terms the principles of archival work.

archival principles blocksThere could be debate about what deserves to be in this list, but these are the concepts that will undergird my six-week arc.

block AIn the SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology, the first two definitions for appraisal have the most relevance for my discussion:

1. The process of identifying materials offered to an archives that have sufficient value to be accessioned.

2. The process of determining the length of time records should be retained, based on legal requirements and on their current and potential usefulness.

The former definition applies more to special collections, while the latter shapes the records retention and disposition schedules common in government or corporate settings that identify those records with enduring value that deserve to be preserved in an archive.  In both cases, appraisal decisions should be made in light of the repository’s collection policy, which should define the scope and focus of collecting priorities.

While archival repositories generally shy away from monetary appraisal of collections, there is no doubt still a type of valuation that occurs in the appraisals conducted at archives.  This makes many nervous — fearing that “right” documents may be overlooked while the “wrong” ones are preserved — and so they cling to the 1930s notion that the integrity, authenticity, and impartiality of records can only be guaranteed when there is no intervention by an archivist in a selection process.

Yet even with the resulting discomfort, many archivists recognize this all-encompassing approach to archival collections is impossible in face of the quantity of modern documentation.  Although it remains to be seen whether born-digital records will turn all of this on its head, for the time being, the reigning post-World War Two archival idea is that records collected by an archives should be those with long-term reference and research value.  While reference value tends to correspond to the primary value of the records, research value can generate wildly tangential secondary values for records.  Just think, for example, of how the meticulous records maintained by German soldiers at World War Two concentration camps have been used to prove charges of genocide.

Needless to say, secondary research values can be difficult to predict and are prone to fluctuations based on current methodologies and topics of interest.  To prevent being whipped about changing priorities, archives must have clear collection policies that can inform these appraisal decisions.  Whether it’s the appraisal conducted by a special collections repository that is offered a collection or the up-front appraisal incorporated into a retention and disposition schedule, they can both be sheltered from criticism by the existence of a clear collection policy.

Appraisal is an archival principle that should be embraced, not avoided.  Good reasoned decisions must be made by professionals in order to avoid the accumulation of disjointed and haphazard collections of materials that will not be intellectually accessible to researchers nor necessary for the records creators.  While errors in judgment may occur from time to time, archivists should not be frozen into inaction out of fear of not identifying the greatest-letter-of-all-time.  Come back in future weeks to see how other archival principles can help to inform these appraisal decisions.

The meaning of success

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“In most things success depends on knowing how long it takes to succeed.”

— Charles de Montesquieu, Pensées et fragments inédits

The end of a calendar year provides a good opportunity to reflect upon success.  This is sometimes easier for individuals, who can establish goals by which to measure the success of a year.  I have long been fascinated by workplace politics and whether individuals are evaluated holistically according to a standard or whether they are compared to their colleagues.

I personally find the former better, perhaps due to my years of employing the practice of holistic grading of essays; however, I find it an unusual approach outside the educational realm.  I liken it to coaches who can be disappointed with their teams after a victory because their players haven’t played to the standard expected of the team – despite being able to defeat the lesser competition of the day.  Yet this concept of holding individuals to an established standard rather than accepting the lowest common denominator seems too complicated for most to practice.

Archives are another issue when it comes to evaluation.  The University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and the University of Toronto had a joint grant-funded project to develop archival metrics.  They developed toolkits so repositories can perform evaluations and share their results so they can be used for comparison with other repositories and in order to help develop best practices.  They include toolkits to gather feedback from on-site researchers and website users about facilities, services, finding aids, and websites.  They have also tailored evaluation tools for student researchers who participate in archival orientation sessions or class activities as well as for instructors who use archival services.  While most of these toolkits are aimed at university archives and special collections, there is a survey designed to measure the economic impact of government archives.  There is also a toolkit that depends on the use of focus groups to gather feedback.

This grant was funded for 2009-2010, but what’s not obvious from the website is whether the goal of having these toolkits be used to help shape best practices ever came to fruition.  While there are numerous publications listed on the website, they seem to be from grant investigators rather than from repositories who employed the toolkits.  Perhaps there’s more work to be done to determine the best ways to evaluate the success of archives.

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Archival weeding

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As I’ve commented before, most people don’t understand the term archival, so it stands to reason they also have no knowledge of the archival practice of weeding.  Looking up this term in the SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology results in five related terms.  There are two terms that are applied at the item-level:

  • weeding: The process of identifying and removing unwanted materials from a larger body of materials
  • culling: The process of pulling and disposing of unwanted materials

Although the definitions vary little, three additional terms indicate removal of materials at the folder level or higher:

  • purging: The process of pulling and disposing of unwanted materials
  • stripping: The process of pulling and disposing of unwanted materials in a series
  • screening: The process of reviewing materials in a collection for classified, confidential, or private information that should be restricted

I think many donor agreements have language that indicates what should happen with any items that are weeded from a donation.  But I wonder about the understanding of records creators who transfer records to the archives according to a retention and disposition schedule rather than by donor agreement.  None of the five terms listed above includes any citations in the SAA Glossary, so I’m left to believe this topic is not frequently addressed in the archival literature.  Perhaps I can dig into some processing manuals on another day to discover if there is any required or recommended communication when this sort of weeding occurs.

Jesse Helms’ 1972 concession speech

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A few weeks ago, news spread that an aide for Jesse Helms’ first campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina kept a copy of the concession speech that was written before the election returns came in.  Last year, he donated it to the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, North Carolina, and the Center released it to commemorate the 45th anniversary of Helms’ election.  Both speeches can be viewed online.

Archivists involved in appraisal can lose sleep worrying about what might have been overlooked or was never deemed important enough to darken the doors of a repository.  Frank Boles provided some relevant commentary in his book Selecting and Appraising Archives and Manuscripts:

“Two final points about selection should be kept in mind.  First, archivists should be bold when selecting records for the archives.  Timidity and caution will quickly fill the archives’ shelves.  The desire never to be caught in a mistake must be weighed against the absolute reality that only so many things can be held in the archives.  Second, archivists should not lose sleep over the results of their boldness” (119-20).

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