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I too, was glad to attend the Society of American Archivists’ annual conference in New Orleans this year. As Craig, Rebecca and Tanya have already mentioned, it was a very informative and useful conference that touched on many pertinent topics that we deal with in archives on a daily basis. As always, it was helpful to hear about experiences from other institutions that let us know we are not the only place that has challenges with our collections, space, and resources. We also heard how other places have dealt with their challenges, giving us good ideas to bring back home and try.
Sessions that were particularly useful included:
*The Process of Processing
Presenters shared stories of how they dealt with huge backlogs of collections that had not been processed, or even accessioned in some cases. Jill Sweetapple of the Dekalb History Center told of club minutes that were held together with wooden clothes pins (with the year written on the pin in black ink, of course)! There were also labels falling off of folders, rusted paper clips, etc. which made it difficult and embarrassing to show researchers. Her advice was that even if your backlog it big, just start somewhere and make the materials useable. Don’t worry about detailed descriptions when a container list will work and let the researcher know what’s there. Christine de Catanzaro from Georgia Tech shared how they incorporate student workers and interns into their large projects lasting usually for at least a full semester. Betsy Pittman from UCONN discussed how 30-40% of their collection was in backlog when she arrived in the 1990’s, and that student processing was NOT working for them. Once students were fully trained, the graduated or left that job. So they reworked their workflow for students to do rehousing of materials and basic inventories of collections, but not detailed processing. Now more collections are accessible to researchers. Sarah Cunningham from the LBJ Library echoed similar themes, saying that you need to have a plan of attack for backlogs, and that it’s ok to challenge past practices that may not work now. Investing time and funds for staffing is important so that the collection can be properly maintained, and flexibility is necessary when deciding how to develop workflows. Striving for perfection only slows down the process, so focus on doing it well butdon’t get bogged down on details that aren’t important.
This lightning round featured archivists from multiple places including Yale, the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, UCLA, Rockefeller Archives Center and others, who shared how they work with unprocessed and minimally processed accessions (new materials) and additions to existing collections. Most agreed that they do minimal processing and description, so they can gain physical control of what they have. Several places create a MARC records upon accessioning and at least can have the catalog record available online then. Many times, the accessioning IS the processing, so the person accessioning the materials will give a bit more detail in the description and that will serve as the finding aid. Box and folder lists are also used as finding aids, so that researchers can at least see what topics are included in a collection. One presenter said “action trumps anxiety”, so just jump in and see how things go with the “golden minimum” of accessioning.
*Digital Data Preservation for Small and Mid-Size Institutions
Speakers shared how they began developing a digital preservation plan and how it became a consortial effort. Several schools in Illinois created the POWRR consortium and told about how they started the project. They emphasized that it cannot be done by just one person, you must have a team. Collaboration means more stakeholders and more interest because of involvement. Constant education of faculty and administrators is important, so that they understand why we are trying to preserve digital materials. The speaker from Illinois Wesleyan reminds them of the great campus server crash several years ago when huge amounts of data were lost across the school, and people are then more willing to listen and consider participating. The speaker from Northern Illinois emphasized that it was tempting to just find a program or tool and grab it to start, but that buy-in and good information are more important at the start. Once the foundation is there, then you can look at the tools and find the best fit. Both speakers said that it is important to just begin somewhere and to “embrace good enough”, because there is no perfect plan or system. Something is better than nothing.
If anyone would like to talk about any of these topics, please feel free to stop by. I’ll be glad to share more details!