How to Proceed: Preparing to Process

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Back to How to Proceed Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Preparing to Process
3. Arranging
4. Describing
5. Housing and Preserving
6. Finishing the Job


Preparing to Process

Preliminary Research and Survey

Getting an overview of your collection and preparing a plan are the first major steps in processing. You will begin by preparing the plan on the form provided. Throughout the project, you will meet with your supervising archivist to review and modify this plan as appropriate.

The first thing you need to determine is whether you are processing a new collection or adding to an already established collection. Additions to established collections will be discussed elsewhere; this section deals primarily with new collection processing and also contains information useful when reprocessing.

Where to Begin

Before you start processing, you will want to get a sense of the history of both the collection and the creator of the materials, be it an individual, family, organization, or university department.

Administrative History

When processing a manuscript collection (SHC, SFC, or RBLHP), a good place to start the search for information about the history of the collection is with the control file. Control files often contain information essential to satisfactory processing: collection descriptions; notes on the original arrangement of the papers and how they were transferred; a gift agreement noting special conditions of gift or loan/deposit, access restrictions, and disposition of discards; letters from researchers concerning the papers; and other material that provides biographical or historical information about the creator. Information in the control files should also provide a sense of why this particular collection was acquired and if there is content or items that should be highlighted in the description. You will apply some information, such as restrictions on access and disposition of dispersals, to your processing plan.

If your collection has restrictions, you will need to determine whether they apply to all or part of your collection. In the course of processing you will need to segregate restricted material and label it to ensure that restrictions on use will be clear to Research and Instructional Services staff and to researchers. In the finding aid, you will let researchers know what restrictions to expect.

Control files must stay in the file cabinets near the administrative offices, so you may wish to photocopy some pages from the control file and keep them, along with your processing plan, in the processing room for ready reference.

When processing a University Archives record group, there is no need to consult the control file. You will find basic information attached to the first box of the transfer. This will include a records transfer form submitted by the department that transferred the records and a list of the files in each box. You do not need to worry about donor-imposed restrictions, since the records in University Archives are public records. A good way to start familiarizing yourself with the records is to compare the list to what is actually in the boxes. Are folders labeled consistently? Do you discern an order, or do the files seem to have been boxed randomly? Do you notice any files that might help you to trace the history of the department?

Historical Context

To process effectively, you need enough information about the creator of the materials to answer basic questions about the collection: who, what, when, and where. If you exhaust the possible sources and still come up empty, the materials themselves become the chief resource. In such cases, it is not unusual to feel somewhat mystified as to who is who and what is what. Often the mists are at least partially lifted in the normal course of processing, but you should not feel that you have been derelict in your duty if you leave some of the investigative work to future researchers.

Usually, some information about collection creators can be found, sometimes without leaving the fourth floor, but you may need to go further with your background research. How deeply you go will be greatly influenced by the research value of your collection. Try to get the basics down before you start. More research can be done later to address questions that arise during processing.

Some of the immediately available tools for background research are described here:

  • Control files may hold a considerable amount of information on the historical context in which the papers were generated. Control files often contain newspaper clippings relating to important persons in the papers and notes written by the curator during negotiations with the donor. In some cases, donors have supplied information about the creators of the papers they have given. Note that, while University Archives and Records Management Services has its own version of control files, they are unlikely to provide any information that is not on the records transfer form and box list that are attached to the first box of the transfer.
  • The online catalog, if the entity you are investigating has been cataloged, may lead you to useful information in our finding aids. Remember that you can also search WorldCat and ArchiveGrid for related collections.
  • Basic printed sources for historical and biographical information available in the Department include, but are not limited to, the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, the Encyclopedia of Southern History, Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Webster's Biographical Dictionary, The Civil War Day by Day, Biographical Directory of the American Congress, American Authors and Books, and A Bibliographical Guide to the Study of Southern Authors. For information on individuals and institutions on the state and local level, be sure to consult the resources of the North Carolina Collection (NCC) (See Sources for researching people and UNC history).
  • If your collection's creator was a UNC graduate, you may want to look at alumni directories (the 1924 edition, for instance, has useful biographical sketches).
  • For other sources on the history of the University, see Sources for researching people and UNC history.
  • In addition to printed sources, we now have many online sources for historical and biographical information available from the University Library web page. Biographical indexes, newspapers, encyclopedias, American Civil War Research Database, and America: History and Life may be especially helpful. On the World Wide Web, you might turn to trusted sources, such as Google Scholar, Heritage Quest, and Find a Grave. Depending on the kind of information you are seeking, Wikipedia might also be considered a go-to source.

Relative Research Value, Priority Level, and Processing Level

A collection enters the processing queue after the curator has assessed its relative research value and assigned a corresponding priority level. The research value is “relative” because it is the curator’s educated guess at the real or potential value of the collection to researchers; there is no way of knowing for sure which collections will be most valuable to researchers.

The curator draws on the relative research value and negotiations with the donor to assign one of the following priority levels to each collection:

1. Process as soon as possible because of high research value and/or donor/curator considerations.

2. Expected to get significant use in the near future.

3. Material is worth collecting, but unclear how much use the collection will receive in the near future.

The priority level, however, may have been based on a hurried scan of the papers. You will quickly become the person with the most information on what the papers actually contain. Tell your supervising archivist if you feel that your collection has been either underrated or overrated.

The priority level will largely determine our processing level--the amount of time and resources we devote to the project. A collection with high research value generally, but not always, calls for more intensive processing and a more descriptive finding aid. A collection that we do not think will be heavily used or that has arrived in a usable state may not need intensive processing treatment. Or we could guess that some parts of a collection will be heavily used while others probably will not. In that case, the collection might merit intensive processing for some parts and a lighter treatment for others and a finding aid that reflects these variations.

In the past, we were much more apt to engage in what is called "item-level" processing. This means that we would examine collection materials item-by-item and remove duplicates, printed material, and materials we considered sensitive. We might also make preservation photocopies and routinely wrap acidic newspaper clippings. We would typically arrange materials in strict chronological or alphabetical order within folders. This type of processing is still warranted in some instances, but it is not appropriate for every collection.

In our current approach, we expend our processing resources much more strategically. We take a triage approach to arrangement, description, and preservation. All collections (and all parts of a given collection) do not need the same level of arrangement, description, and preservation attention. Many collections can be made accessible without arranging materials into multiple series, refoldering, or removing duplicates. Part of the beauty of this practice is its flexibility. Should it come to our attention through patrons or Research and Instructional Services staff that a collection (or parts thereof) would benefit from additional arrangement, description, or preservation because it is more heavily researched than was originally anticipated, we can reprocess to meet revised collection needs. In short, we provide broad, if not always deep, access to all of our collections in a timely fashion rather than intensive processing for just a few collections.

Our goal is to make materials usable in the reading room as quickly and efficiently as possible. Since what constitutes usable is different for each collection, we spend time analyzing the material and thinking about the most appropriate arrangement, description, and preservation treatment for each collection. This manual often discusses more intensive processing procedures than you are likely to use routinely. We do this so that you will know what the possibilities are and how to apply them when they are necessary. Discussing the collection as it has been received, the perceived research value of the materials, and the priority level assigned by the curator with your supervising archivist before you start processing will give you guidance on how in-depth your processing treatment should be.

The Survey

Having gained some sense of the administrative history and historical context, you are ready to examine the collection itself. To survey, you must try to see the collection as a whole. If space allows, spread out all of the boxes and open them. Scan the papers to get a feeling for their scope and content. Skim. Do not spend too much time on any one item. Resist the temptation to begin arranging and describing. At this point, just try to get a picture of what the collection is about.

As you begin to look through the containers, remember to handle the materials gently. Folder labels often flake off and delicate manuscripts can easily tear. Slowly remove small handfuls of papers; after examining them, return them carefully to their proper place. Books, bound volumes, photographs, tapes, discs, and other material in an archival collection deserve the same care.

On the Lookout

Since your survey and analysis of the collection will form the basis of your processing plan, you will want to look for certain things in the materials as you go along. Look at the processing plan form and see what elements are needed. Take particular note of the following features of the collection:

Provenance: The control file, or the records transfer form, should tell you from whom we received the papers or records. What person, organization, or office actually generated and/or accumulated the material? Have the papers passed through a series of hands? Check the accuracy of the name given to the collection (collection creator), remembering that, especially with new collections, the name assigned at accessioning is a preliminary judgment call and may not reflect the true nature of the papers or records. For example, if you are processing the Hamilton Patton Copeland Papers, check to see if the papers focus in some way on H. P. Copeland. It could be that a better name for this collection would be the Copeland Family Papers.

If you are processing University Archives, you might discover that there are personal papers of a department administrator intermingled with departmental records. While this will not change what we call the group of records, it is something you should note. Or, you might discover that the department that transferred the records had inherited the records of another department.

Names: Look out also for basic identifying information about the collection creator and other major players in the collection. In particular, take note of essential names and dates. Did your collection creator sign his name Robert Richardson Jones, Robert R. Jones, or simply Robert Jones? If Robert Jones had a grandfather, an uncle, and a son with the same name (all too common), it will be very helpful to know birth and death dates in order to distinguish one Robert Jones from another. If birth and death dates are unavailable, some indication of when the person lived should be given, even if only in terms of a flourish date (fl.). Flourish dates show the years when the person is known to have been active.

If you are processing University Archives, you may find that the current name of the department that transferred the records is different from the name reflected in the records. This might be simply the result of a name change, or it might reflect an administrative reorganization that changed some of the functions of the department. Always take note of name changes and the dates at which they occurred, if you can determine them.

Arrangement: Observe the arrangement of the materials. Can you discern a purposeful order? Are the materials in file folders? If so, do the folder headings appear to be accurate and meaningful? Are there lists of folder headings at the beginning of a file? Is there an index? Does the collection seem to be in its original order or has someone, either the creator or someone else, imposed another order? How well does the current arrangement provide access to the information in the papers? Look for related groupings of material. Sets of material are the basis of, series, and subseries--the building blocks of every arrangement scheme. Is the current arrangement of the materials usable? If not, what arrangement might be appropriate? If the materials seem to be in no particular order, are there series that you can create to facilitate use of the collection?

Content: As you scan the materials and briefly examine selected items, try to form an impression of what the collection is about. What are the major subjects and research strengths? How well do the materials document the various aspects of a person's or an organization's history? Is there anything missing? Do some materials seem not to fit with the rest of the collection?

Format and Physical Condition: These aspects of the materials are almost as important as the content in deciding what to process and what levels of processing will be used. Are most of the items letter, legal, or oversized? Are there duplicates? Are there photocopies? What condition is the paper in? Is mold visible? Are there peculiar odors? Is the handwriting legible? What formats other than paper are in the collection? What condition are these other materials in?

In addition, you will want to note:

  • approximate earliest and latest dates of the materials (inclusive dates);
  • approximate earliest and latest dates of the bulk of the materials (bulk dates);
  • frequent or prominent correspondents;
  • major figures and major events in the life of an individual or in the history of an organization;
  • major occupations of individuals; major functions of an organization; major events and issues in the history of the university, such as controversies, the recruitment of minorities, the establishment of new programs, etc.
  • towns, counties, or other locations that are well-documented;
  • confidential or sensitive materials, such as transcripts, medical records, and case files of third parties represented unknowingly in the collection;
  • bibliographies, histories, genealogies present in the papers;
  • languages (other than English).

Retain whatever information you gather; it will be helpful in making decisions about arranging your collection and will also be useful in processing plan discussions with your supervising archivist.

Taking Note

Take notes from beginning to end. Your notes will help you make better processing decisions and will also help when you write the finding aid throughout but especially at the end of the project. Writing down information as you see it can save much time later. Use your judgment about how much to write, but err on the side of taking more rather than fewer notes. Backtracking to locate something you forgot to note can be extremely frustrating.

Processing notes tend to fall into one of two categories:

  • Content notes help in writing the finding aid and in cataloging the materials through name and subject access points.
  • Sorting notes are aids in arranging the papers--clues, facts, perceptions, and hunches that might help in determining a workable order for the collection. Examples include reminders to yourself about locations of individual items in the papers and hunches about the name the creator gave to a certain file.

Each note, whether content or sorting, should take no more than a sentence or two. You may wish to write down particularly telling, witty, or otherwise special direct quotations from the papers to spice up your finding aid, but these should be few.

Leave tracks as you go. Label the boxes, your stacks of material, and your notes. Document your work so that someone else could carry on in your absence. Leave notes to yourself if you know that you will be leaving this project to work on another or be away for any extended period of time. Do not lose sight of the idea that your task at this point is to survey. Pace yourself accordingly. Although every collection is different, a very thorough overview of a medium-sized collection (10 to 15 record center boxes) should not take more than a few days; as your experience grows, a relatively small collection may reveal its salient points to you within minutes.

Writing a Processing Plan

Your analysis of the collection will result in a processing plan. This plan should be completed in consultation with your supervising archivist. The plan becomes an important document, providing a framework and continuity for the project. You and your supervising archivist will refer to it regularly and adjust it as necessary throughout the course of the processing work. You will need to be familiar with the ideas set forth in chapters 4 and 5 of this manual before you can write a processing plan. As you read these sections, bear in mind that you will have to make decisions on the following points:

  • Overall arrangement scheme: List proposed series and subseries, if any.
  • Arrangement within series and subseries.
  • Levels of processing for each series: Should material be arranged to the box, file, or item level? How much refoldering and relabeling is appropriate? How extensive should you make each series description (narrative plus folder/file listings)?
  • Biographical/historical note: How extensive will it be? What form will it take? How accessible is pertinent information?
  • Use of team members: Optimally, what tasks (flattening, annotating, refoldering, labeling, etc.) could less-experienced workers carry out? Approximately how much time should each task take? Could the project be completed more efficiently if other more experienced processors were involved? How would they be involved?
  • Supplies: Are there any unusual needs for supplies--large numbers of folders (thousands) or large numbers of boxes (50 or more), or other special needs?
  • Duration: How many total hours will the project require? What is a realistic project completion date?
  • Other considerations: Are special indexes or unusually detailed cataloging warranted? Are there unusual conservation needs? There may have been promises made to the donor (for photocopies, digitization, etc.). How will these affect the project? What else needs to be kept in mind as the work proceeds?

The more information you can provide up front, the clearer will be the task ahead. Remember that your entire career is not riding on how accurately your plan predicts the actual processing of your collection. The plan is a working document; you should expect changes and modifications to occur. A sample form follows.


Collection number:			Collection name:

New or addition (circle one)

Processor name:
Date of plan:

	Received from
	Gift/loan/deposit/transfer (circle one)

Restrictions from donor (for manuscript collections):

Disposal of dispersals:

Special considerations or notes from collector:

HISTORICAL CONTEXT:  (Briefly note who, what, when, and where)

Received arrangement:


Physical condition (formats, condition):

Inclusive dates:

Potential restrictions:

Languages other than English:

Potential discards:


List potential series and subseries and note how each will be handled
or note here if series are not needed and how you will treat the files.


Use of team members:

Projected completion date:


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