Anyone who has ever taken courses in archival studies or has spent any time working in an archives has surely learned a thing or two about processing. Processing refers to the “arrangement, description, and housing of archival materials for storage and use by patrons.” Basically, it is the “get down and dirty” work of being an archivist—bringing order to materials, rehousing, reboxing, removing rusty staples, creating finding aids, etc. Processing is one of the most important steps toward making archives available to the public for research. As to be expected, archivists go back and forth debating best practices for processing. Some archivists ascribe to very traditional views that insist on removing every staple and every paper clip from all documents, refoldering all items using archival folders, and then describing collections at the item level. Other archivists fully embrace Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner’s revolutionary concept of “More Product, Less Process,” affectionately known as MPLP. MPLP encourages archivists to focus on processing in a way that will provide users with faster access to collections instead of focusing on removing every staple, ordering every document chronologically, or transferring all materials to acid-free folders. Other archivists (I’d say the majority) are somewhere in between.
Many times, processing standards are unique to different institutions. For instance, in the Archives Research Center at the Robert W. Woodruff Library, Atlanta University Center (where I intern), each archivist is required to write a processing plan before embarking on a new collection. Our processing plans are always evolving, of course, but they help us to think about the kinds of series that may exist in the collection and how we plan to budget our time while processing. Another processing practice we abide by involves getting rid of newspaper clippings (well, most of them anyway). It may sound like heresy for an archivist to throw things like newspapers away, but remember … newspapers are extremely acidic and will inevitably deteriorate much faster than regular paper. Placing them in close contact with other documents may put the entire collection at risk of premature deterioration. Hence, during processing, we make preservation copies of the articles using acid-free paper, and then we deaccession the newspapers themselves. *Disclaimer: this doesn’t occur in all cases; we keep high-value newspapers and house them appropriately.* Lastly, another interesting preservation practice at the Woodruff Library is our use of legal-size folders only. We never use letter-size folders. Don’t ask me why, but that’s just how it is!
As you can see, archival processing is anything but a simple process. It is affected by money, time, staff members, user and donor requests, management demands, and institutional policies. It can be the most tedious activity in the world and the most exciting activity at the same time. My appreciation for processing has grown tremendously over the past year, mainly because that is what I’ve been doing at my internship. My main job is to process the Bernard W. Bell collection, which contains forty-two linear feet of documents along with a few floppy disks, and cassette tapes. The collection also contains more than one thousand books from Dr. Bell’s personal library. Processing the Bell collection is monumental for me because it is the first time I’ve processed a full collection on my own. Of course, I have lots of support from my co-workers and supervisors who graciously answer all my questions and provide me with advice, but it is still a big deal for me.
The more I process, the more I realize how much the phrase “it depends” is fitting for archival work. There are always exceptions to the rule, and sometimes, we just have to use common sense if we’re going to get the job done. I’d like to be transparent for a minute and lay out some issues I’ve run into while processing the Bell collection. I’ll tell you how I managed these issues, but feel free to speak your mind about how you might have dealt with the situation.
- Bell is an African American literary scholar and former professor; hence, his collection is FILLED with documents containing staples and paper clips. Early on, I tried to be the perfect archivist and remove each stable and paper clip. I quickly realized I wouldn’t have a prayer of processing the collection by May if I continued in this way. I decided to practice MPLP with the staples and paper clips and only remove the ones that are causing preservation issues.
- I am processing one series at a time. I was very pleased to finish the “Writings” series last semester because it contained an enormous amount of manuscript drafts. Last week, I was inventorying a box of books, and lo and behold, I found a surprise in the box—more manuscripts! I started getting anxious because I wasn’t sure how I was going to interfile these manuscripts into boxes filled with already refoldered manuscript drafts. However, as Kathleen Roe states, “the act of arranging and describing records is not a simple linear process.” My co-workers reminded me that the manuscripts I refoldered last semester are not resting in their final boxes yet, so I don’t need to worry about interfiling. I decided to simply refolder the newly found manuscripts, and I will make a note to interfile them at the end when I am putting everything into the final boxes.
- Dr. Bell was a professor, so inevitably he graded things—lots of things! However, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects student grades, and leaving them in the collection would be a violation of privacy. The same goes for health records, which are protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). I’ve come across some HIPPA violations in Dr. Bell’s collection, particularly when students needed to correspond with him about medical issues affecting their academic performance. In order to deal with these issues, I created two folders—a RESTRICTIONS folder and a SHRED folder. Once I finish processing, I will work with my supervisors to review the contents of both folders so we can act accordingly. We will create memos detailing exactly which records are restricted and for how long. We will also discuss which ones we need to shred.
These are just a few of the many processing adventures I’ve experienced thus far. I haven’t started the description portion of the Bell collection yet, so I bet I’ll have even more scenarios when that happens. Who else has “processing issues” they’d like to share? Any and all advice, questions, and concerns are welcome!
 The Glossary of Archival Records and Terminology, s.v. “processing,” accessed January 23, 2016, http://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/p/processing.
 Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing,” American Archivist 68, no.2 (2005): 208-263.
 Kathleen Roe, Arranging & Describing Archives & Manuscripts (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2005), 67.