Processing from the Outside In: Processing Plan

Hello and welcome back to Processing from the Outside In, where I’ll be sharing with you updates from the James M. Buchanan papers processing project. It’s been six months since I’ve started working on the project, which means we’re one-quarter of the way finished!

In my last blog post, I discussed my initial survey of the collection and the archival principle of original order, which involves preserving the system of organization established by the creator(s) of the papers (in this case, Buchanan and his staff, Betty Tillman and Jo Ann Burgess). One reason original order is important is because it can provide researchers with information about how the creator of the papers did their work. Now I’ve completed the initial survey of the collection and the processing plan, so I’ll update you on that process and the next steps.

Photo of James Buchanan lecturing at Virginia Tech, 2002.

A processing plan contains contextual information about the papers, potential issues, and a proposed arrangement. The proposed arrangement details the series and subseries that we will use to arrange the papers for researcher access. In the archives world, series means a grouping of records. Think to your own personal files: you might have files relating to your finances, to your medical history, or to your school records. If you were to describe your personal files like an archivist, you would have a “Financials” series. You might have subgroupings of files within the Financials series called subseries, for example a taxes or mortgage subseries. Subseries are optional; they can be used if they exist in the original order, or if subtopics are easily identifiable and will make the papers easier to use.

So when surveying the collection, I looked for groupings of files that could become series. Some series already existed, like a series containing all of Buchanan’s writings. The writings series is organized alphabetically by title of the work. This arrangement is easy to use, so it was an easy decision to preserve the original order. The decision was not that simple for the correspondence series. This series contains letters and printed emails Buchanan sent and received on a wide range of topics, mostly related to his academic interests. The arrangement was alphabetical by correspondent for the first 34 of boxes. Then it starts over again with A at box 35, and does that once more at box 54. Then there is another grouping of correspondence which is arranged by date, not alphabetically at all. This original order means that a researcher looking for correspondence with Buchanan’s colleague Gordon Tullock would have to request boxes 23, 24, 33, 42, and 81, and probably several boxes from the chronologically-arranged section. This is time-consuming for our Research Services staff and a barrier to access.

Letter from Gordon Tullock to James Buchanan from May 8, 1968

A letter from Gordon Tullock to James Buchanan from 1968. Tullock was famous among his colleagues for his sharp and biting sense of humor.

Original order versus accessibility, how do we go about resolving this problem? Let’s look at our options. Option 1: we could preserve original order and not make any changes. The benefits are those of original order, that users would see that Buchanan’s correspondence had several different filing schemes. However, we don’t have any information on why there are multiple filing schemes to provide the user with context, so the user is not gaining much information about the workings of Buchanan’s office. Option 2: we could completely disregard original order and rearrange the files in a strict alphabetical or chronological order, including removing all of the letters out of the chronologically filed section and re-filing them alphabetically. This would completely erase all context, especially if we were re-filing individual letters. Not to mention the sheer amount of time involved in shifting and re-foldering thousands of individual pieces of paper, we could kiss our two-year deadline goodbye!

So I decided on a compromise option, one that would preserve some context and original order while also improving access. That is, instead of having three alphabetical subseries, re-alphabetize the folders into one alphabetical series, and leave the chronological series as-is. Shifting at the folder level is much faster than individual letters, and preserves the context of the folder without mixing everything up. Users will still see some of the original filing schemes since the folders will be unchanged, but all of the Gordon Tullock folders will be in nearby boxes for easy access. Our Graduate Research Assistant, Rachel, is currently getting started on that arrangement project.

The chronological subseries still presents a challenge to our fictional Tullock researcher, since theoretically their correspondence could be in any of the folders from the 1950s until the 2010s. Time permitting, we hope to do quick examinations of these folders, taking notes on correspondents and topics. We’ll then add these notes as folder description so researchers can have some guidance as to the contents of the folders.

I had to make those decisions for all the series in the collection in order to create the processing plan. Now that the plan is complete, we’ve moved into the implementation stage, where we will being arranging materials according the plan. While some boxes were already arranged in series like correspondence and writings, 147 boxes had no grouping at all. I’m now going through all those boxes one by one and then sorting them folder by folder into the correct series. Oftentimes there will be a chunk of several related folders where I can recognize some original order and keep them together, but other times there will be all kinds of different folders in a box – correspondence, writings, and conferences to name a few. And not just folders, also video and audio tapes and published books!

Three open boxes partially full of files. Two more open boxes are on a file cart.

My setup for sorting the unarranged boxes. Folders from the active box on the left will be sorted into one of the open boxes on the table.

This implementation phase will be significant, and Rachel and I will spend several months shifting folders around in boxes to make the collection accessible and understandable for researchers. Look forward to more updates as the project progresses!

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