Questions in the Process: Finding Order

This post is one in a series about the Lavinia Scott papers processing being completed by Assistant Processing Archivist Meghan Glasbrenner.

Beginning the processing of a wholly unprocessed collection is always an interesting mix of daunting and exciting, and for anyone familiar with archival practices (or avid readers of Vault217), as Buchanan Project archivist Rebecca Thayer noted in a previous post, the first step often involves the concept of original order. So, in a perfect world my first step into processing the Lavinia Scott papers would have involved just that: grouping the materials based on the original order established by the creator (aka Lavinia Scott). Unfortunately, to accommodate various custodians of the collection and physical movements over the years, much of Lavinia’s original order has been dismantled, leaving only a handful of folders with clear designations for grouping.

An example of what a typical box in the collection looks like pre-processing

So, what does an archivist do in the absence of original order? How do you create order out of disorder? Or, to be more precise, how do you create archival order? By its origins, the concept of original order presumes use case, having been born out of organization of institutional records, so archival order works based on this guidance. Starting first with series designations based on my initial survey of the collection, I was able to identify some immediately obvious groupings, those whose use case, medium, or nature is distinct and easy to understand. These include Correspondence, Newspapers/Periodicals, Photographs, Audiovisual, and Artifacts. The rest present more of a challenge. Not only does the collection span a large number of years (ca. 1860s-1990s) over approximately 15 linear feet, but it also consists of mixed materials and content, covering both Lavinia’s personal and professional life, including her missionary work as an educator in South Africa, her active presence as a speaker and conference attendee, and her continued involvement with the United Church of Christ well into her retirement years.

Division of these materials into series level groupings required more analysis of both the scope of the collection and Lavinia’s life and I ultimately determined that they fall into two broad groups based on their previous use, content, and/or form: Professional Activities & Personal Materials. However, these more abstract categories make the division into folder level groupings a bit trickier. Keeping my goal in creating that next-best-thing to original order (archival order), my processing through this portion of the collection has focused on identifying logical, rather than thematic groupings. Let’s take Inanda Seminary as an example.

Given the length of Lavinia’s time as principal (1936-1969) at the school, the collection understandably contains quite a lot of materials related to her work with Inanda Seminary. In the absence of original order, one possibility is to group these materials by year. On the one hand, this would recreate, as much as possible, the literal original order of their creation and use. However, on the other hand, it would make discovery of these materials potentially difficult for future users by obscuring the types and content this portion of the collection contains for anyone not conducting a physical search through multiple folders. In this case, an examination of the material nature and contents is needed to create folder groupings that both accurately represent the contents and are easily discoverable by future users.

So, what does this look like in practice? Let’s take a look at these three documents originally in a folder labeled simply Inanda Seminary Materials:

Three documents all related to Inanda Seminary in South Africa

While all three are related to Inanda Seminary, the bottom item, a program from a school event, is clearly materially different from the top two, which represent official reports on the school’s operations. In processing through more folders, I discovered multiple additional programs and orders of worship. Given the similarities in material type and use, I determined that “Inanda Seminary Programs and Orders of Worship” is a logical folder grouping.

Just a few of the Inanda Seminary programs and orders of worship found in my processing

The remaining two report documents seem similar, and could easily be grouped together, and indeed further processing revealed a number of additional reports related to Inanda Seminary. However, a closer look at the titles of the two sample documents offers an interesting distinction:

A close-up of the titles of the two Inanda Seminary reports highlighting the important distinction noticed between them

While both documents fall under the category of “Reports” the title of the document on the right “Annual Report of Inanda Seminary” identifies it as a specific type of report, and more importantly one that recurs in the same format on an annual basis. Indeed, as I continued processing through the folders I discovered multiple additional “Annual Reports” documents!

A few of the additional Inanda Seminary Annual Reports found through further processing. Grouping these together will allow for both quicker discovery and contextual understanding

So, keeping my focus on ease of use and understanding, I chose to divide these out from the more general reports. The end result is three new (working) folders with titles that more clearly and accurately describe the contents, allowing future users to quickly determine which portions of the collection are most useful:

Still not finalized, but these new folder groupings are an important visible step in creating archival arrangement

Once this process has been repeated for all folders and materials in the original box, I transferred my newly created folders, placed in alphabetical order, into new document boxes that once finalized will be much easier for future users, and SCRC staff, to navigate:

Preview of what the final processed version of the collection will look like, stay tuned!

This is just a small glimpse into my still ongoing processing work on the Lavinia Scott papers and if it seems like well, a process, it is, but one that is so worth doing correctly.

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