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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.