Archives crash course for a (future) librarian
July 27, 2011 2:21 PM   Subscribe

Do you have any tips for a librarian-in-training (not archivist-in-training) on how to best approach organizing and cataloging personal archives, without the guidance of an archivist?

I'm a library science student (focusing on preservation), and I'm about to embark upon what amounts to an unofficial internship that involves organizing and cataloging a backlog of files relating to a supreme court case, in conjunction with a forthcoming book publication. The eventual goal of the project (which I think is probably well beyond my involvement in it) is to have these files up online.

I have no archival training whatsoever, and although I've started doing some reading on the field, most of what I've found so far is geared toward larger collections (i.e., institutional archives, rather than a single, specific collection) and doesn't really offer practical advice. There isn't an archivist on the project, and even though I won't be working alone, the others will be looking to me for advice. I'd really like to be able to offer them something valuable, rather than just my sweet photocopying skills.

Essentially, I'm looking for a basic direction/approach for dealing with this material. I know that a fair bit of that will come from examining the collection, but I suspect that there are questions I should be asking the creator of the files that might help with that—and, frankly, it'd be nice to not feel like I'm walking into this completely blind. So, do my fellow information scientists have any advice as to where to begin? What are the major mistakes I should avoid? What are some of the best practices that I should keep in mind? I'm particularly interested in hearing from librarians who have had to learn on the job as I'm about to and from archivists who might be willing to offer a crash course in the form of a paragraph or two.

Thanks, as always, for your tips!
posted by divisjm to Grab Bag (6 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I am an archivist by training. A number of archives also have "processing manuals" that can give you some good pointers about how to approach specific issues (just do an Internet search for "archives processing" or "archival processing"

I guess I would want to know a bit more about what the materials are. How many boxes? Are you working for an individual or an organization? How involved is the creator still in the collection? What types of documents and supplementary materials?

Some basic advice/things to remember
* Archivists think in "groups." I see the word "cataloging" and get a little nervous. Most archival collections are not cataloged to the item level, but like items are often described in groupings, since with a large collection, it would not be feasible to document every single little thing

* Take advantage of the computer. I love using spreadsheets for processing. I like to go through the folders/boxes and summarize/document the types of things in each container. Things like dates, types of documents, topics to a certain extent. I find that this makes it easier for me to asses a larger arrangement. You can do all your rearranging/moving via computer to plan how you might do it physically

* You mentioned that you're focusing on preservation, but I might caution against carrying out too much preservation work on this collection, especially if it is a fairly good condition 20th century one. All those things you hear about (removing staples, etc.) are not really necessary in the scheme of things.

I could go on and on and on, but I'd want to know more about what you're dealing with first.
posted by zsenya at 5:18 PM on July 27, 2011

Thanks for the tips. I, too, would like to know more about the collection, but honestly I have no way of finding out anything about it until I'm there. My contact hasn't seen the materials either, and we have a meeting set up with the creator of the files next week. It's entirely possible that if I had more information about the collection, I might not have bothered asking this question here.

I'm not surprised by what you've said about cataloging. This is just how the project was described to me, and I assume it's because of the relationship of these files to the book and eventual digitization. (I also wouldn't be surprised if part of the aim was to aid in the writing of the book.) The creator of the files is apparently a bit disorganized, so I expect everything to be a bit of a mess. I'm not expecting a huge collection, but again, I suppose I can't be sure.

Also, I should clarify—I have no intention of focusing on preservation here. I love what I'm studying, but that information was meant more as background on my area of expertise than anything else. If I were focusing my studies on cataloging, for instance, I might also feel a bit less lost.
posted by divisjm at 6:05 PM on July 27, 2011

Here's a list of resources you can probably check out from the library; it's from the Society of American Archivists, who also have a mailing list where you can search or post this question.

I second zsenya's advice about using the computer to describe and organize documents, sort of as a "dry run," and to start from a high level or arrangement and description, increasing in granularity as time and space allow. For example, I was trained to go through each box of file folders in multiple "sweeps", recording data at a more detailed level through each sweep. If time had run short, I'd still have processed the entire collection at a bare-minimum level of description after the 1st or 2nd sweep, which could still be useful to future researchers.

But yeah - it's hard to say any more without knowing more about the specific collection. Best of luck!
posted by estherbester at 8:58 PM on July 27, 2011

Thanks all for the archival tips. I am neither an archivist or librarian by training but seem to be running into archival issues at work a lot these days. It's interesting how an archivist's perspective differs from that of a librarian's. I'll definitely have a look at those resources estherbester mentions.
posted by Numenius at 10:22 PM on July 27, 2011

Also, it might help to browse through some collections that have been described on series and container levels.
The Online Archive of California has many interesting collections. You might browse through and look for a collection of papers from individuals or organizations similar to your project.

For instance, looking at the "Finding Aid for the Hugh R. Manes papers, 1940-2009" shows you how this group of documents was organized:

Container List
--Case Files [40 hits]
--Personal and Political Activities
--Unpublished and Published Writing, Speaking, and Teaching Materials

Each of the Case Files is further described by box and folders.

This might get you a general framework to think about as you start exploring these items.

I hope this info is helpful!
posted by calgirl at 10:42 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I figured this one was a bit of a long shot, but it's nice to have a few places to start. Thanks, everyone!
posted by divisjm at 5:07 AM on July 28, 2011

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