Core Competency D: Have expertise in the basic concepts and principles used to identify, evaluate, select, organize, maintain, and provide access to records of current and enduring value.
What do you understand this competency to mean?
Mastering a skill requires the comprehension of theoretical principles as well as the ability to engage a real-world project with the practical application of these theories. Processing an archival collection is putting theory into practice, employing one’s expertise in evaluating, organizing, maintaining, and providing access to records. Using skills that have been honed through extensive study and supervised application, an archivist must put their training, tempered by their judgment and instinct, into practice for the efficient processing of archival collections. Archival materials must be evaluated to determine their value, organized into an order to optimize preservation and usability, maintained to prevent deterioration and ensure lasting sustainability, and presented in a format that allows users to access materials quickly and efficiently.
The processing of archival materials requires close attention to several steps of the process. Records must first be evaluated for their values, and those records identified as possessing inherent enduring value worth preserving are selected to continue on in the process. Records that an archivist has determined to be of no intrinsic value must be de-accessioned in accordance with the facility’s procedures.
Selected records are then arranged in accordance with the best practices determined by the facility and archivist. When it is possible, the original order must be maintained, to preserve the original creation of the records and the narrative that may accompany that order when the records were created. When the original order does not benefit the records, then the archivist must determine the best order for the records – generally, chronologically or alphabetically by subject or author are the most straight-forward approaches to organizing records. Records must be arranged so that they are protected from damage. Folders must be acid-free and not over-stuffed; boxes must also be of archival quality and full but not over-stuffed: folders must not be packed into boxes, but if the box is not full, then a space-filler should be used to prevent folders from drooping and creasing.
During arrangement, preservation activities are generally employed at this time. This can include the removal of foreign objects, such as metal paperclips and staples, botanical samples, photographs, and other ephemera. Newspaper clippings should be removed and photocopied onto acid-free paper – some institutions choose to save the original clipping, in which case it should be placed between two pieces of acid-free paper to eliminate the risk of acid transfer from the clipping to an archival document. Photographs should be placed in protective sleeves.
The efficient processing of an archival collection should result in a collection that can be accessed easily and expediently by researchers. The creation of a finding aid upon the completion of the collection’s processing is the best way to provide efficient access to researchers, allowing them to locate materials pertinent to their course of research. This will, in turn, protect the collection – the less it is handled, the longer it will last, and when a finding aid is detailed enough to allow the expedient retrieval of the necessary materials then the unnecessary handling of the incorrect archival materials can be avoided.
Processing a collection requires the archivist to employ not only the best practices as determined for archivists and records, but also their best judgment. Archivists perform the same basic functions during the processing of a collection, but each must choose methods and practices that best suit the collection and their facility.
What course assignments or other work products are you submitting as evidence of your mastery of this competency? Which source or class is your evidence drawn from?
As evidence of my mastery of the art of processing archival materials, I am presenting finding aids created as the culmination of collections I’ve processed for the Maine Historical Society. Each finding aid demonstrates my ability to identify records of enduring value within a collection, evaluate the collection to determine the level of processing and preservation required, organize the materials into a coherent and usable order, maintain materials based on the type of item and their unique preservation needs, and provide access to these archival collections through the creation of a comprehensive finding aid that will assist in the use of the collection.
Why did you select these particular work products as evidence for your mastery of this competency? How do your selections show not simply learning but also application?
I have selected these works to demonstrate my ability to apply learned processing methods to the variety of processing projects with which I’ve been entrusted. In addition to processing the physical collections, I’ve written finding aids that are extensive in their biographical scope in order to create a story from the pieces of the collection, thus providing context to users who may review the collection. Each finding aid was carefully selected to demonstrate a specific skill used in its creation:
- The Doris Blackman Merriam Collection
I processed the Doris Blackman Merriam Collection for the Maine Historical Society as part of my Professional Projects course for San Jose State. The collection required extensive work at each step during processing – identification and evaluation, selection, arrangement, maintenance, and activities to ensure accessibility.
Working with this collection was a reminder of the responsibility of the archivist to the collection during its processing to organize, maintain, and provide access to the materials to the best of one’s ability. The collection included a variety of items – books, calendars, photographs, and ephemera – that required their own specific maintenance and cataloging. The entire collection was re-housed, transferred from cardboard cartons to archival-quality boxes. Photographs were placed in sleeves, letters were removed from their envelops and flattened, metal paperclips and staples were removed, newspaper clippings were photocopied and then filed into their own folder by date, and all other ephemera was ordered chronologically and distributed among acid-free folders with their corresponding day planners from which they’d been removed.
The final steps in the processing of the collection were the creation of the finding aid and the publishing of an article about the collection on Maine Historical Society’s blog. Both of these activities served to promote the accessibility of the collection to the historical society’s research library patrons. The finding aid was meticulously created to provide not only a box and folder list of the contents but also context for the collection with biographical and scope and content notes, and I believe it reflects my mastery of and expertise in the processing of archival collections.
2. The Elizabeth Heaphy Murray Collection
Comprised of the research materials compiled by a research historian at the request of a graduate student, the Elizabeth Heaphy Murray Collection was donated to the Maine Historical Society’s archive to add to the historic information available to future researchers. After evaluating the contents of the collection, maintaining the original order was deemed the best course of action. The collection materials include copies of book pages with references to Elizabeth Heaphy Murray, correspondence regarding various research enquiries, and reproductions of some of Elizabeth Heaphy Murray’s works.
An archivist is often faced with questions regarding what is best for the collection, and must be willing to approach each collection with both the confidence of previous experience and the flexibility to try new methods of processing. The nature of this collection required maintaining the original order of the materials rather than creating a new order, which is usually what I’ve been required to do for the collections I’ve processed. Processing this collection required me to set aside my previous conceptions of arrangement in order to act in the best interests of the collection.
What have you learned?
Processing is one of the most important activities conducted by an archivist. Accessioning, arranging, and caring for collections are the core purpose of having an archive in the first place, and the archivist’s responsibility to those records lies in their ability to effectively process archival collections and then make them available for public consumption. As stated in the Purpose of the Society of American Archivists’ Core Values State and Code of Ethics, “Archivists provide important benefits and services such as: identifying and preserving essential parts of the cultural heritage of society; organizing and maintaining the documentary record of institutions, groups, and individuals; assisting in the process of remembering the past through authentic and reliable primary sources; and serving a broad range of people who seek to locate and use valuable evidence and information” (SAA, 2011). Processing a collection is an indubitable preservation activity with major social and historical importance.
Processing is a unique archival experience that changes from collection to collection. A collection comprised solely of ledgers requires different resources and attentions than a collection comprised of photographs would. Resources are allocated depending on the type of materials of a collection, a finding aid may require more research for one collection than for the next, and more time may be required for the complete processing of a collection than others. Each collection requires the archivist to refer back to their training to determine the emphasis placed on specific steps in the practice of processing.
Processing is also unique in its ability to engage the archivist on several levels. Processing connects the archivist to the collection, to the past, and, in a larger context, to the profession itself. The preservation of archival materials can be translated to the preservation of our history, of ourselves, and only through the efficient and optimal processing of archival collections will these materials be safeguarded for future generations. It is the obligation of the archivist to strive for the mastery of these elements of processing in order to fulfill their responsibility to the archival materials.
On a higher strata of the human experience, processing allows an archivist to flex their muscles, demonstrating their ability to carry out their responsibilities to the collections in their care. Processing is the physical manifestation of the critical nature of archives – determining the enduring values of the records of a collection, arranging the materials, ensuring that all steps have been taken to ensure their preservation, and making them accessible to all those in search of knowledge. In the SAA’s Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics, it is written that “Since ancient times, archives have afforded a fundamental power to those who control them. In a democratic society such power should benefit all members of the community. The values shared and embraced by archivists enable them to meet these obligations and to provide vital services on behalf of all groups and individuals in society” (SAA, 2011). These obligations to society can be witnessed in the steps of processing procedures for archival collections, regardless of the individual archivist or nature of records center.
SAA core values statement and code of ethics. (2011). Society of American Archivists. Retrieved from http://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-core-values-statement-and-code-of-ethics.