A Questionable Process

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.”[1] 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.[2] 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!

paper clips

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.”[3] 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!

archives box

[1] The Glossary of Archival Records and Terminology, s.v. “processing,” accessed January 23, 2016, http://www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/p/processing.

[2] Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing,” American Archivist 68, no.2 (2005): 208-263.

[3] Kathleen Roe, Arranging & Describing Archives & Manuscripts (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2005), 67.


Making the Mosaic

One of the main reasons why I’ve been able to expand my knowledge and understanding of archives over the past year is because of my 2015-2017 Association of Research Libraries/Society of American Archivists Mosaic Fellowship. This unique fellowship strives to increase diversity in the field of librarianship and archives. It provides recipients with graduate school tuition, a paid internship, conference money, it also pays for recipients to attend the annual Association of Research Libraries (ARL) Leadership Symposium. This year, the Symposium took place from January 7-10 in Boston, MA. Aside from being totally terrified of northern winter weather (y’all know I’m a southern gal), I was very eager to see what the Symposium had in store. I will not even attempt to discuss everything we talked about during our three-day conference, but I would like to highlight one specific concept that propelled each and every conversation we had. That concept is diversity.

Although the conference mostly focused on diversity in libraries, we also touched on diversity in archives. Some of you may wonder, what does diversity in archives even mean? Well, you can look at it from many different angles. Cultural diversity exists in archival collections; for example, think about the community archives of an ethnic group (http://www.flatrockarchives.com/) or perhaps a collection of recorded oral histories from immigrant families (http://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/oral-histories). Social diversity exists in archival collections; consider archival institutions that solely focus on documenting women’s history (https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library) or LGBTQ history (http://www.clga.ca/). Political diversity exists in archival collections; take for example the existence of presidential libraries and archives like the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta (http://www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov/). Even beyond the archival content itself, diversity in archives may also refer to patrons as well as archivists. This type of diversity is just as important. It requires all of us—students, historians, government officials, archivists, librarians, donors, and others—to acknowledge our own cultural and social backgrounds and to be aware of the perspectives and/or biases we may hold because of these backgrounds.

We’ve established that diversity is important. However, it’s one thing to say it, another thing to live it. I had a few discussions with some participants at the ARL Symposium about how diversity is treated within library/archives education. While I listened to a few of my colleagues lament over the lack of diversity courses within their graduate programs, all of the sudden I realized that my graduate program suffers from the same sickness! Don’t get me wrong; I love my archival studies program to pieces (and you should too! Check it out at http://www.clayton.edu/mas), but it currently doesn’t offer a course dedicated to diversity within the archival profession. The Master of Archival Studies program at the University of British Columbia does not seem to have a diversity course either (http://slais.ubc.ca/programs/courses/course-list/). The same thing goes for Drexel University’s Post-Master’s Archival Studies Specialist degree (http://online.drexel.edu/online-degrees/information-sciences-degrees/spec-as/index.aspx#curriculum). New York University’s master’s degree in history with an archival concentration does not have a specific diversity course either (http://history.as.nyu.edu/object/history.gradprog.archivespublichistory). At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, I did notice an offering for a library science course in community archives (LIS590CA), but the course catalog currently lacks a description for the course (http://www.lis.illinois.edu/academics/courses/catalog#500level).

Obviously, this is neither a comprehensive list of library science/archival studies programs nor a comprehensive list of course offerings. I do think these examples demonstrate a wide-scale absence of diversity courses in library and archival education programs. To be fair, I would imagine that most library science programs and archival studies programs discuss diversity issues as a part of other courses. In my program, we discussed diversity particularly in the appraisal course. This is a great start, but I truly feel that offering a course solely dedicated to diversity issues in the archival profession would not only enhance archival education but would also provide a safe space for the necessary and sometimes controversial discussions that come up as we discuss ways to document our increasingly diverse society. I know I’m not alone when I say this. According to the Society of American Archivists Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies, core archival knowledge “should incorporate an international and multicultural perspective.”[1] Likewise, archival education should include courses focusing on knowledge of the profession such as “records and cultural memory” as well as contextual knowledge such as “social and cultural systems.”[2]  As we can see, diversity is not just a side piece in the world of archival education. It’s completely crucial to the continuation and success of our profession.

Did you take a diversity course as a part of your archival degree program or library science program? If so, how was it? Did you find the course eye-opening?



[1] “Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies,” Society of American Archivists, accessed January 12, 2016, http://www2.archivists.org/gpas.

[2] Ibid.