Processing Primer Pt 2, What I Actually Do

By: TJ Szafranski (BMRC Processing Intern)

Welcome to the long awaited part two of my processing primer. Part one of the primer was my attempt to answer the question, “So what exactly do you do?” I compared archival processing to baking a cake, but I never described some of the actual steps I take when I process a collection. That’s what part two is for. Keep in mind that not all archival collections are created equal. While many of the steps I’ll describe can be used for a number of collections, each collection presents unique challenges and opportunities.

Familiarizing: This is the first step in processing. During this step, I examine the collection as a whole—is it in good condition? are boxes labeled well? how big is it?—and I browse through some individual items—what’s the content? are there obvious connections? does anything stand out? The goal of familiarizing is to become acquainted with the collection enough that there are no major surprises down the road. The arrangement of the collection won’t be finalized during this phase, but I will begin to get a sense of what sort of order these documents have, or once had. For example, if I’m working with the Rocky Balboa papers, I might notice that about half of the papers pertain to his professional life (contracts and expense reports), and the other half pertain to his personal life (love letters to Adrian). This becomes the framework for the arrangement. Familiarizing is an important first step, but it’s also an ongoing process. As I continue working on a collection, I become more and more familiarized with it. For that reason, I only try to spend enough time on this phase so that I’m comfortable proceeding.  

Arranging: Arranging means deciding how the collection will be organized—physically and intellectually. The decisions made here give us intellectual control over a collection. Archival collections are broken up into series, and possibly subseries, which represent major sections of a collection. For example, the Rocky Balboa papers might have four series: “Personal Correspondence,” “Boxing,” “Legal Contracts,” and “Publicity.” Arranging collections into series forms the basis for the finding aid, and an individual series can serve as an entry point for researches. Major decisions that need to be made in the stage include

What are the series and subseries?
How will each series be organized?
What material is included in each series?

For the most part, arranging is an intellectual step. Only after I’ve determined the structure of the collection will I begin physically moving things in and out of boxes. So, if you saw me “arranging” you might think I wasn’t doing anything but daydreaming and scribbling notes, but trust me, I’m arranging. Arranging needs to happen near the beginning of the processing because it guides the way the collection is handled. I will hone, or refine my original arrangement as I work with the collection more, but the basic foundations usually remain. 

Separating: This step involves identifying certain types of documents and grouping them together. “Separating” can be a dangerous word for archivists. One of the pillars of archival work is original order, which means that collections should be organized in a way that reflects how the material was arranged by its creator. Therefore, we can’t always separate items from a collection based on a grouping that makes sense to us. However, sometimes there is no discernible original order. In these cases, separating material by type—correspondence over here, magazines over here, financial documents over here—is one way to gain intellectual control. Other times, physical condition necessitates separation. While working on the Metz T.P. Lochard papers, I spent time separating newspaper clippings from the rest of the collection because the clippings were in poor condition and needed to be stored separately from other documents.

Ordering: Ordering is arranging’s little brother. While arranging looks at how the collection as a whole is structured, ordering focuses on organizing specific parts of the collection. Ordering often occurs at the series level. If I decided that Rocky Balboa’s “Correspondence” series should be ordered chronologically, I’ll go through his letters and sort them by date. While working on the Lucy Montgomery papers, we put one series in alphabetical order. Ordering involves physically putting the material in a specific order in a box, and making sure the finding aid reflects that order. Not all series will have a strict order to them, but when they do, ordering usually takes up a substantial part of my processing time.

Refoldering or Reboxing: Yes, this step is exactly as exciting as it sounds. Whether for preservation concerns, or for better organization, sometimes I need to move material from the folders or boxes that they came in to new folders or boxes.    

Labeling Folders: Again, as exciting as it sounds. This step ensures that the collection can be easily accessed and maintained. We label our folders with three bits of information: the title of the collection (Rocky Balboa papers), the title of the folder (Workout Logs), and the box and folder number (Box 3, Folder 44). Labeling can be a monotonous process, but there is something to be said for a box of freshly labeled folders. It shows that the collection has been processed and that there’s a rhyme and reason to its organization. If we bring back the baking analogy, I like to think of labeling folders as icing the cake.   

Writing the Finding Aid: The finding aid is the final product that results from processing. It’s a guide to the collection for users. A good finding aid will relay details about the creator(s) of the collection, while giving a clear sense of what is contained in the collection. Creating a finding aid involves writing an abstract, a biographical note about the subject, a scope and content note about the collection, series notes for each series, and putting together a container list, which lists the boxes and folders in the collection. The finding aid can’t be finished until the collection is fully processed, but it can be worked on during the process. If I’ve spent a few hours ordering the correspondence series, I’ll take some time to write the series note while it’s still fresh in my mind, regardless of where the rest of the collection is in processing. Similarly, as I’m ordering a series, I’ll type up the container list as I go.

Absorbing: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this task, though I’m not sure it’s actually a task, or if I can properly describe it. Absorbing is not a technical term. It’s the term I use to encompass all the intangible ways that an archivist becomes accustomed to a collection. I don’t want this to sound like some mystical phenomenon, but it basically means that as you process a collection, you become better at processing the collection. Unconsciously, you’re able to adapt the collection in front of you to the standard archival practices, and things have a way of falling in to place. Sometimes the right series arrangement just dawns on you, or all of a sudden you realize what someone’s notations mean, or you can start predicting what papers will be in a folder based on the folders around them. (Okay, that sounded pretty mystical).

So, let’s summarize. What do I actually do when I process a collection? I browse through the collection, I make intellectual decisions that determine the how the collection will be arranged, I move stuff in and out of boxes and folders, I put things in order, I label folders, I write finding aids, and I go through a mystical absorption phenomenon. Just like baking a cake.