Processing Primer Pt.1, Let's Eat Some Cake

By T.J. Szafranski (BMRC Processing Intern)

A Two-Part Processing Primer: Part 1, Let’s Eat Some Cake

After I began to work for the Black Metropolis Research Consortium, I had a variety of people ask me about my job. My aunt cornered me at a family party, I ran into an old friend at the bar, and my dentist interrogated me while I was in the chair (Yes, please continue to ask me questions while you’re sticking sharp objects in my mouth).

Here’s how those conversations usually go:

Them: “So, what are you up to these days?”
Me: “I’ve been working as an archivist at the DuSable Museum”
Them: “Oh neat, so what do you do?”
Me: “I process archival collections.”
Them: “Oh neat, so what exactly do you do?”

So, with those conversations in mind, I present this processing primer. I hope it conveys a rationale behind processing collections and removes some of the mystery behind the word “processing.” It’s my attempt to explain why we do what we do, and what it is that we do. One caveat before we proceed: in the archiving world there are specific distinctions between the words “collection,” “papers,” and “records.” It has to do with who created the documents, but that’s for another blog. For the purposes of this post, I’m using “collection” to stand for all the documents that make up one single archival entity, whether it’s one box of material, or fifty.

Processing a Collection 

Simply put, processing is what an archivist does. Keep this analogy in mind: archivist is to processing as baker is to baking. If someone said, “I’m going to bake a cake,” you would have a general sense of what was about to happen. You may not know what kind of cake was getting baked, or how long it would take, or how many eggs would be needed, or when the sugar was going to be added, but you could reasonably expect that at some point you’d have a cake in front of you. In the same way, if I said, “I’m going to process a collection,” that simply means I’m going to take the necessary steps to turn an unusable collection (the raw ingredients) into a useable collection (the cake).

Ultimately, processing is simply the name given to the process (clever, huh?) that archivists undertake to gain intellectual and physical control of their collections.

Intellectual and Physical Control

Intellectual control over a collection means that an archivist knows, and can communicate, the essence of a collection. The essence of a collection involves an understanding of who created the collection, what is in the collection, how the items in the collection relate to one another, and how the collection as a whole relates to a larger context. Archivists gain intellectual control during their processing and they communicate this information through a finding aid. A finding aid is a written guide to the collection. A good finding aid will relay details about the creator(s) of the collection, explain what can be found in the collection, and give a clear road map to locate individual items in the collection.

Physical control of a collection means the collection is arranged and stored so that it can be easily accessed and properly preserved. 

So What Do You Do?

When discussing my job, I’ve found that it’s easier to describe the rationale behind processing than it is to give a play-by-play of processing. The simplest rationale behind processing is that it turns unusable collections into useable ones. Archives are used by a multitude of people, and provide a multitude of benefits, but these benefits can’t be realized unless the collections are useable.

Let’s go back to the kitchen. Before a cake is a cake, it’s a set of ingredients. These ingredients (raw eggs, flour, sugar, etc.) are technically edible, but they’re not appetizing. Choosing to eat the ingredients that make up a cake, instead of waiting for the final product would be an inefficient way to eat a cake. Similarly, an unprocessed collection is a set of material that is technically usable, but it’s not appealing. And using a collection before it’s processed would be extremely inefficient.

Baking can involve any of the following steps: mixing, measuring, separating, rolling, stirring, putting in an oven and waiting, pouring, cutting, spreading, and a whole lot more. These steps all contribute to the goal of creating a single edible entity (the cake). Similarly, processing involves a range of individual tasks, with these tasks contributing to the goal of making the collection a useable entity (the processed collection). If we extended this analogy one step further, we could say that a finding aid is like a fork. It’s the utensil that lets you consume the finished product. The best way to use the collection is with the finding aid in hand, just like the best way to eat cake is with a fork in hand.

(Unless, of course, you think the best way to eat cake is with your hand, in which case the finding aid equals a hand).

So What Exactly Do You Do?

For a more detailed breakdown of the actual steps that it takes to process a collection, stay tuned for Part II of this processing primer. Until then, I hope I’ve removed some of the uncertainty and vagueness from the phrase “processing a collection.”