Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Weeks 12, 13 (November 4, 5, 6, 11, 12)

Get to know me and you realize I have a penchant for sticking my foot in my mouth with bold predictions and actions. About a month ago (Week 8) I brazenly wrote: “I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to revise my goals and aim to minimally process the whole collection by semester’s end.” Now, five weeks further along, I’ve learned a couple of immutable lessons:

1. Processing is Unpredictable - Processing is like the weather in the sense that beyond a week (and often even less) the future is unpredictable. Like a meteorologist, I forecast sun for October and November and came away with an overcast sky. This is not to imply that the experience has not been a positive one. Rather, I use the metaphor of clouds to allude to the fact that despite my best intentions, unexpected complications and details slowed me down far short of the once lofty goal. I can state with far greater certainty today (with six processing days left) that I will not finish even minimal processing of the Mary Ann Wells Papers.

2. Every Archivist has Their Own Style – I don’t have to look far to identify where I tripped up between early October and right now. Minimal processing is an accepted technique for processing archival collections, but it is not for me. This may not make me the best future archivist, but I think the realization is an important one nevertheless.

I finished Series III (Subject Files) the week I wrote the ill-considered words mentioned above. Had I followed the minimal processing procedure, perhaps I’d feel differently and consider the sentence prophetic. Right now I’d be somewhere nearer completion, having worked my way through the photographic and negative files and be getting ready to process the slides.

Instead, I invested the last six weeks entirely in full processing of the oversize newspapers in Series I (October) and in further processing Series III (November). This time was not ill-spent and may well be invaluable to users, but it does not reflect well on my processing method. I think what inhibits my ability to minimally process is that I hate repeated effort. I don’t think the newspapers would be much use without full processing. Caption and article titles (when there is one) often don’t reflect the anything about the content of the subject. Furthermore, not only are the newspapers important to the users, but their cumbersome size and acidity makes them a headache that I wouldn’t want anyone else to endure. I cannot bear the idea of minimally process the Mary Ann Wells Papers, labeling 40-50 boxes physically and electronically, and then leaving it to someone else to have to re-label everything when they go back and pull 4-5 archival boxes worth of folded newspapers from the Series III folders and process them into an oversize box.

3. Incomplete can still be Invaluable - I’ve been doing this the last two weeks (and for at least another week) and it is incredibly complicated. So far, I’ve pulled newspapers from 96 Series III folders, and in the process added 146 photographs or series of contact sheets to the Photographic Index. To track the shifting locations of the newspapers and make sure to keep the archival standard of two copies, I maintain four Microsoft Word documents concurrently to keep everything straight. I use my finding aid to pull the right files from the boxes. The master list shows how many copies I’ve already processed and whether I need to save the pulled newspapers (and deposit them in Box 7, Folder 1) or discard them. There is also a document of marker sheet templates and a list of the newspapers in Box 7, Folder 1. So far I’ve weeded out one box and expect to do two or three more before it is all said and done. I think that another archivist would be hard-pressed to undertake this process were they to start cold.

All told, there is still so much work to do even on the more fully processed Series III. The newspapers and photographs will be in good shape, but there are still 547 file folders in Series III that need to be moved to archival folders, have the remaining acidic materials removed from them, and relabeled. There are also hundreds of photographs that need more description beyond a number.

Note on Weekend Hours: I spent 10.50 hours entering information into the computer from August and September. When I first started on Series III, I made all my notes longhand, including listing the contents of the first 309 folders.

Note on Scope: Right now the finding aid is approximately 75 pages (portrait) and the master list is 50 pages (landscape). I expect the finding aid to continue to expand as I add more information.