This is the second post within the University Archives Series. These posts will be somewhat irregular and depend mostly on my progress with this project.
How the project began:
Last summer after working as the Interim Research Services Coordinator and planning our first open house, I had realized that something really needed to be done to allow patrons easier access to our University Archives materials. We have about 148 collections and only 26 finding aids with varying levels of description. While not all of the 148 collections are high priority for processing many, such as the University and Student Publications, get pulled often by researchers and would likely get far more usage if there were at least collection level finding aids. I began an inventory of what collections we had, how many boxes were in each collection (processed and unprocessed), and created a list of processing priorities based on my knowledge on what patrons have used or could use and what collections had preservation needs (damaged boxes, loose pictures and other mixed materials, etc.). Not only were there not any finding aids for most of these collections, they were also hard to find. We had moved all of out collections in January 2016 from C-Wing of Fenwick Library to the new addition, which had more space, better climate conditions, an instruction room, and better processing areas for staff.
Our stacks were somewhat cramped before and our growing collections left us unable to create a well organized area that was easy for staff to retrieve materials. We had spent months before the move labeling all of the materials so they would be easier to manage after the move. We were very fortunate in that nothing really went wrong, as there were plenty of opportunities. However, when later pulling materials, we had discovered that many boxes were out of order, misshelved, and slightly damaged. It was likely the combination of our cramped space before the move, previous processing faults, and moving/labeling miscommunication or mistakes.
Planning and Moving:
The first step in a long term project like this was to get an initial inventory and see exactly what we had. This seems like it would be more time consuming but it saves us time in the long run if we can prevent simple mistakes from happening. Almost all of the collections were out of collection order and some were out of box order. I printed out a list of all the collections I found on Archivists Toolkit (AT) and wrote down how many boxes or linear feet each collection had in the accession record and compared that to the collection record since materials from certain collections came in at different times and therefore have multiple accession records. I then looked at the collections in our stacks and wrote on the side of each row exactly which collections the row held. This made it easier when I was moving the boxes so that I could get them somewhat organized on other shelves before moving them back in the correct order. Moving each box took months. From about October until February, I had spent hours off and on in the stacks moving boxes from the original shelving just to move them all back in correct order. During this time I took notes for any collections that I thought should be placed on a processing priority list, anything that did not seem to belong with any other collections, and materials that had no information on them at all.
Preparing for the Unexpected:
When I started this project, I knew it would take a long time. As much as I tried to nail down a timeline and as much planning as I did before moving the boxes, I still expected some things to go wrong. I knew other things would come up that would require my attention.
What I did not account for was human error and that best practices change over time and people in charge of these collections come and go. While we have only been a university for a short amount of time (about 45 years), a lot has changed since we first began collecting materials. Although there is not official documentation of changes to our practices, I have been told that we used to place materials together by office from the early 1980’s until about 2008 when we developed a standard practice of creating collection, box and folder numbers. As a result, many older collections are not numbered or indicate an office or collection number. Additionally, the information from Archivists Toolkit only really involved collections after 2008 when we began using that program. I found quite a few boxes in our stacks that can not be found in AT and do not seem to belong with any other collection. Other boxes have generic numbers on them indicating that boxes coming in were just given a number in order. Some of these were not completely integrated into collections after 2008, though many were. It would have been a tremendous task for someone to have gone back through all of the collections and reprocessed them using what is now a standard practice for us. Past archivists and staff cannot be blamed for this, but it now makes this project way more complicated than I had expected. Knowing that I will be able to make these collections less messy and more accessible to Research Services staff for our patrons is the biggest reward. Having spent this much time already with these materials, I have seen all the potential they could have for researchers in the future and I am glad to be able to contribute to this project. The initial timeline was set to end this August. As always, other projects came up. I have been the Processing Coordinator since January but a few months ago, I was also given the task of coordinating social media, which has taken up more of my time. I am also working to complete the Broadside scans, which is another project that had many unexpected challenges, required far more hours of staff time than planned, and contained far more images than originally estimated. These other projects have pushed the University Archives project back and now I am hoping to complete Broadside soon and move on to the next steps of the University Archives project so I can get closer to finishing by the end of fall semester.
Special Collections Research Center, go to our website and browse the finding aids by subject or title. You may also e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have questions. Appointments are not necessary to request and view collections.