Archives Behind the Scenes: Processing

In this installment of Archives Behind the Scenes, we’ll talk about archival processing. Processing is a shorthand term for all of the steps archivists take to get a collection of archival materials ready for research use.

Archival processing activities typically fall under three broad categories: preservation, arrangement, and description. Different archives may take slightly different approaches to these activities, but most archivists follow best practices, guidelines and standards. These are established by professional organizations such as the Society of American Archivists or American Library Association’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, or by national and international standards-setting bodies such as the Library of Congress or the International Council on Archives.

Preservation

All materials decay and break down over time, and different materials break down at different rates and for different reasons. The goal of archival preservation is to extend the “lifespan” of materials in the archives so they can be used by researchers well into the future.

One of the best ways that archivists can extend this “lifespan” is by controlling the environment in which the materials are stored. Heat, humidity, climate fluctuations, and the presence of pollutants all have a damaging effect on archival materials. Archives often use specialized HVAC systems to keep the temperature and relative humidity (RH) within acceptable parameters for storing their collections. Because the majority of our holdings are paper-based, we aim to keep our climate around 70°F and between 30%-50% RH.

A large gray Leibert HVAC unit situated in the archival storage area
This Liebert heating and cooling system gives us precise control over the temperature and relative humidity of our archival storage areas.

In addition to systems that provide control over the climate, we also use a redundant climate data logger to record and analyze temperature and humidity in our storage area. This way, we can make adjustments as needed as the weather changes throughout the year. Sometimes even the simplest things, like keeping doors closed and lights off, can improve the conditions in the storage area.

A climate data logger and backup USB drive
This data logger lets us record and analyze the effects of climate in our storage areas on the collections.

On a smaller scale, we also use containers to hold archival materials that are less likely to cause damage over time. Containing archival materials in acid-free and lignin-free folders and boxes can help to extend their “lifespan.” Lignin is a naturally occurring chemical compound present in many plants. Paper that contains a high percentage of wood pulp also tends to contain a high amount of lignin – which decomposes at a much faster rate than the rest of the plant materials around it.

One great example of the damage caused by the presence of acid and lignin is in old newspapers. Newsprint typically has a very high lignin content, and is highly acidic. Over time, these aspects cause the paper to become extremely brittle. Once the paper has become brittle, there is nothing an archivist can do to reverse it.

A box contains a stack of yellowed and crumbling newspapers and scrapbook pages.
The years have not been kind to these 1940s newspapers and scrapbook pages. Due to their high acid and lignin content, newspapers decay much faster than some other kinds of paper.

In special situations, a conservator may be able to repair some kinds of damage or stabilize very valuable items. More often, when an archivist encounters brittle items that have especially high content value, he or she will use a photocopier to create a copy of the item on acid-free and lignin-free paper.

Other kinds of archival formats need even more attention. As media technology changes, formats become obsolete. Some items, like video and audio tapes, can’t be used in the archives unless there is a player available. As these kinds of media get older, archives run the risk of not being able to preserve and provide access to them due to their obsolescence.

Two U-Matic video cassettes and one small reel-to-reel audio tape
Media formats like these two U-Matic video cassette tapes and reel-to-reel audio tape are now obsolete.

In 2018, the Special Collections & University Archives undertook a major project to have its most at-risk obsolete audio and video media digitally reformatted. Over 150 videotapes, audiotapes, and films were digitized during this project, and now the digital files are securely stored. In addition to a networked storage space regularly backed up and maintained by the the university’s IT department, our digital files undergo a series of digital preservation activities and are redundantly backed up in a cloud-based data archive.

While all of these different preservation needs can be complex and sometimes conflicting, archivists do what they can with limited resources to extend the usefulness of their collections.

Arrangement

The next step archivists take when processing collections is arrangement. Arrangement refers to how the physical or digital materials are organized, and it is governed by two main principles: original order and respect des fonds.

The principle of respect des fonds, sometimes referred to as provenance, proposes that archives should group collections according to the organization, individual, or entity by which they were created of from which they were received.

One way this shapes up in Special Collections & University Archives is with the collections we have relating to the author Jim Harrison. In addition to the Jim Harrison Papers, we also have related collections of his biographer Robert DeMott, his sister Mary Harrison Dumsch, and his former sister-in-law Rebecca Newth Harrison. While materials in all four collections relate to Jim Harrison’s life and literary career, they are all grouped according to their fonds, or creator. Researchers interested in Harrison may need to look through all of the collections – and possibly collections at other archives – to get the full picture of Harrison’s life.

The principle of original order is the idea that if the creator of a set of records created and/or maintained them in a particular way, then that organization should be preserved regardless of how easy or difficult it might be to use. Historians and other researchers may be able to infer or make connections within or about the records or their creator due to the original order of the materials. Archivists should strive to preserve or even re-create original order if one is evident.

A binder full of 35mm photo negatives and contact sheets sits in front of a box full of binders
The photographer who created this collection was meticulous in how he organized his own negatives and contact sheets. As we process this collection, we will maintain this original order even though we may exchange the binders for archival containers.

However, not all collections have evidence of original order when they are evaluated by an archivist. In these cases, an archivist might decide to organize them in some logical manner to facilitate research use. Common arrangements include chronological order and alphabetical arrangements by names or topics.

Arrangements in archival collections can be simple or complex, depending on the size and nature of the collection. Archivists often group similar items together to create files, and group similar files together to create series. Once an archivist has completed the arrangement of a collection, he or she will then create a record that describes the collection.

Description

Archival descriptions can take several forms. Some archives use the same kinds of catalog records as with books to describe their archival collections. Some archives use more complex records, called Finding Aids, to describe the collection and its creator(s), and often to provide an inventory of the series and files that comprise it.

At Special Collections & University Archives, we use Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS), to guide our collection descriptions. We record our finding aids in a database called ArchivesSpace, which allows us to share the finding aid online in an easy to search format.

A screenshot of the GVSU Special Collections & University Archives finding aid database, ArchivesSpace
From the front page of our ArchivesSpace database, researchers can search through descriptions of hundreds of archival collections.

One of the most important aspects of archival description is providing context. Archival collections are often the product of the day-to-day life or business of a person or organization. It is important for researchers to know who created and maintained the materials, when and where this took place and under what circumstances, and how they came to be placed in the archives. In the same way that preserving original order within a collection can lead a researcher to inferences about a collection, so too can the context of a collection’s creation.

A screenshot of an archival finding aid in ArchivesSpace
In this snapshot of a finding aid in ArchivesSpace, we provide information about the collection as well as contextualizing information about its creator.

Archivists must do their own research in order to provide this context – often by referring to the collection materials themselves – but also by looking into other primary and secondary sources on the subject. However, archivists try to present only the facts of the matter within an archival finding aid, leaving interpretation and drawing of conclusions to historians and other researchers. While many archivists are experts in their own right on a variety of subjects, we also try to remain impartial when presenting a collection of materials to researchers.

Once the finding aid is published, the collection is open for research use. Boxes and folders are neatly labeled and shelved carefully in our storage area. Researchers can request materials in our reading room, or request remote reference assistance by phone or email.


In the next installment of Archives Behind the Scenes, we’ll discuss the development of our Digital Collections through digitization and collaborative partnerships. We’ll also touch back on some of the ins and outs of our digital preservation strategies.

Archives Behind the Scenes: Acquisitions

In a departure from our usual exhibit posts highlighting our exciting collections, this post will kick off a short series of “Behind the Scenes” discussions about what goes on in the Special Collections & University Archives at Grand Valley. In this post, we will discuss how we acquire collection materials, what they’re like when they get here, and what we do once we have them.

View of front entrance to Seidman House

Within Seidman House, we have one curator, two archivists, one archives assistant and a couple of student assistants who work to collect, organize, document, and preserve archival materials and rare books. We also have several distinct collecting areas. One, the Special Collections, contains materials collected for their historical value, their connection to regional history, or their connection to the research and teaching interests of the Grand Valley community. The other, University Archives, contains the records, photographs, publications, and media created by Grand Valley State that document the university’s history.

Acquisition

Materials that come into our collections are acquired through transfers, donations, and purchases.  Materials accepted into the collections are guided by a collection development policy.  This policy describes what kinds of materials are (and are not) collected by the Special Collections and University Archives. It details the types and formats of materials collected, as well as what kinds of contents, topics, geographical areas, and time periods we aim to collect.

Transfers

Transfers happen when a campus office, faculty member, administrator, or staff person officially deposits their inactive records to the University Archives. Transfers can happen at any time of year, but often occur during the spring and summer.

An archivist standing with a cart of record boxes in front of a trophy case
Archivist picking up a records transfer from the Intercollegiate Athletics Department

Not all records created at the university are archival. Some records have long-term value and are considered “permanent” records, but they are not archival because they remain in active use. Other kinds of records, such as student transcripts, may be permanent and have long-term value, but are protected by laws or policies that restrict access to them. Records such as these are usually maintained by the office that creates and manages them.

Other kinds of records, such as routine correspondence, invoices and receipts, and scrap notes with no context, have no long-term value. Even when these kinds of records are no longer in active use, they should not be transferred into the University Archives. Instead they can be shredded and disposed of.

The University Archivist often consults with offices before transfers to ensure that the records are archival, and that they have long-term value and are no longer in active use.

Examples of archival university records include reports, committee agendas and minutes, correspondence of high-ranking officials, official memorandums, course catalogs, official publications, budgets, and high-level planning documentation.

Donations and Purchases

When collecting archival materials and rare books for our Special Collections, we have a modest budget for purchasing materials, and we also accept donations. Collecting decisions made by the curator and archivists are guided by the collection development policy that defines the collecting strategies for the department.

When donations occur, a curator or archivist works closely with the donor to determine if the materials fit our collecting policy and to negotiate the terms of the gift. Donors who own copyrights to the materials can choose to transfer those rights to the university as well. Donors sign a Deed of Gift form that records the donation and details the terms. Once this has taken place, the materials become the property of the university.

Photo of a room full of bookcases packed with books, newspapers, magazines, index files, and other materials
Archivists sometimes visit the homes of donors to identify and sort out materials to acquire

When purchasing materials for the Special Collections, the curator reviews catalogs and websites of rare book and manuscript dealers, searches online auction sites like eBay.com, or works directly with the item’s owner to acquire materials that fit our collection development policy. The curator also often consults with archivists and faculty in various disciplines to find out if items available on the market might fill a particular gap or be of interest for classroom or research use.

Two advertising circulars from circa 1900. One advertises artificial eyes, the other advertises surgical and veterinary instruments
Purchased items, such as these advertising circulars for medical devices from the early 20th century, often come with detailed descriptions provided by their sellers

Next Steps

Once we have received the materials at Seidman House, they may be in any state of condition or arrangement. We are careful to look for certain kinds of problems, like evidence of mold or pests. If left unsolved, these problems can spread and damage other materials in the library. Once we determine that the materials are safe to take in, we accession them, or create an official record of what we acquired, where it came from, how much is there, and any special instructions or restrictions relating to the materials. We then label these new accessions and set them aside for cataloging and processing.

A small blue box is filled with bundles of letters tied with ribbons and stacks of black and white photographs
When new archival acquisitions are made, they’re evaluated by an archivist for their condition and contents. This collection will need to be processed before it is useful to researchers.

In the next “Behind the Scenes” installment, we’ll discuss archival processing, highlighting the steps an archivist takes to bring a new collection to life.