American Civil Liberties Union Records Processing Project Update

The Mudd Library has reached an important mile stone in the ACLU Records Processing Project: completing the collection inventories. We now have a list of what is in each of the 2,500 boxes in the collection. These boxes remain closed to research until July 1, 2012 pending a review for restricted materials. However, researchers wishing to access the collection before that date may request up to ten boxes be reviewed for immediate release. For further information, please contact the Mudd Library at For more information on the project, you can read our previous blog entries
We also welcomed a new staff member to the project this summer, David Gillespie. Dave has a background in American and military history, with varied archival experience including research assistant at the Strategic Studies Institute, intern at the Gettysburg National Military Park Archives, and intern on the House Divided project creating a digital collection on Dickinson College during the Civil War Era. On the ACLU project, he is responsible for reviewing the legal case files within the collection for any restricted materials, which account for about 65% of the records. Through this review, we expect to be able to open the majority of these materials on July 1.

Ship’s Bottle in the Archives

You never know what you are going to find in an archival collection. Pictured here is the bottle used to christen the U.S.S. Vulcan, a Navy repair ship, at its launch on December 14, 1940.

Thumbnail image for Forrestal Ship Bottle

The netting held the pieces of the bottle together when it was smashed during the ceremony. The ship was sponsored by Josephine (Ogden) Forrestal, the wife of then Undersecretary of the Navy James Forrestal. James Forrestal went on to become the Secretary of the Navy in 1944 and the first Secretary of Defense in 1947, charged with unifying the military departments of the United States for the first time. The bottle is from the James V. Forrestal Papers.

During World War II, the U.S.S. Vulcan served in Iceland (1941-1943), North Africa (1943-1944), and throughout the Pacific (1945-1946), making emergency repairs to ships and also providing a sick bay for wounded sailors. After the war, the ship was stationed first in Newport, Rhode Island and then moved to Norfolk, Virginia in 1954, its home port for the duration of its service. The U.S.S. Vulcan conducted repair, training, and occasional rescue missions along the entire Atlantic Coast, as well as assisting during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and participating in NATO exercises in the Northern Atlantic in 1964. On November 1, 1978, the U.S.S. Vulcan was the first non-hospital ship in the Navy to receive female officers. When the ship was decommissioned in 1991, it was the oldest ship in the Atlantic fleet.

To learn more about the USS Vulcan:

The ACLU Records: Tips for processing 2400 feet in two years

The following entry relates to our ongoing American Civil Liberties Union processing project previously described here and here.

Processing, regardless of the size of the collection, has many common features: In almost all cases, you survey the boxes to see what is there, decide what to keep and how it will be organized, arrange the boxes, create folder or box lists (inventories), and write descriptive information. Sheer size does pose some challenges, however. Below are some of the strategies I have implemented for the ACLU processing project, which consists of approximately 2,400 linear feet of records.
1. Repurpose data. The information I received from ACLU, both from inventories and from the box labels, was inputted into a spreadsheet and formed the basis of my collection survey. The survey data, after some clean up, formed the basis of the inventories created by my student assistants. And those inventories are now being used to adjust the arrangement of the records. This allowed me to do less survey work, knowing that the inventories would provide more information, and increased my students’ speed from an average of 1 foot an hour to 3-6 feet an hour for creating inventories.
2. Flexibility with inventory detail. It is at least twice as fast to make an inventory at the box level, so whenever access would be sufficient at the box level, or with a few sections per box, we stopped there. This was most apparent with legal case files, which are found throughout the collection. For each case, the records were in folders by the type of document (i.e. transcripts or briefs). Rather than type this list of documents for each case, we can summarize that in the series descriptions and simply make a list of cases. This saved significant time without sacrificing accessibility.
3. Work in iterations. While it may seem more efficient to look at each box only once, I found that repeated passes allowed me to spend just as much time as needed with each box. For the survey, I first looked at each box briefly, and then analyzed that information to see if I could place the box within the arrangement. For the remaining boxes, I went through this process a few more times, spending more time with the remaining boxes on each pass, until at the end of three months I knew where each box belonged in the organization. We also plan to make additional passes through boxes likely to contain restricted records.
4. Find ways to manipulate data. Whatever means you use to create descriptive information, you should find ways to analyze and manipulate the data. In our case, we are using Microsoft Excel. The sorting and filtering functionalities have been critical for understanding and re-ordering the survey and inventory data, and other functions and formulas have assisted in checking student work for accuracy and data clean up. We have also developed some simple macros to allow us to calculate date restrictions and prepare the data for EAD encoding, which allow the finding aids to be delivered and searched online.
5. Prioritize time. Since the primary goal of processing is to improve accessibility, the vast majority of our time is being spent on gaining intellectual control over the records: creating inventories, description, and reviewing materials for restrictions. Most of the physical work associated with processing, such as replacing boxes and folders, will not be done at all since the existing housing is sufficient, except for the replacement of damaged boxes. This is also the first collection I have processed where we are waiting until the end of the project to physically arrange the boxes. With the data from the completed inventories, I can adjust the arrangement, and only then will anything be moved so we only have to move the boxes once.

ACLU Records Processing Project Progress

The Mudd Manuscript Library has finished the first phase of an NHPRC-funded project to process the most recent records of the American Civil Liberties Union. After an extensive survey, we have a record of the contents of each of the 2,461 boxes. This is an increase of nearly 500 linear feet of materials from what we had initially estimated would be included in the project. To put that in perspective, instead of a project the length of 5.5 football fields, it is closer to 6.8 football fields. Many of the additional materials are case files and project files, but there is also a significant increase in the number of organizational records.

Emma Watt ’13 with 1200 boxes of ACLU Records

The records will be divided into the six series, closely following the arrangement of the earlier ACLU records to aid researchers in transitioning between the two sets:

Series 1: Organizational Matters
Series 2: Project Files
Series 3: Subject Files
Series 4: Legal Case Files
Series 5: Regional Offices

Series 6: Printed Materials and Audiovisual Materials

The next phase in the project is to create an inventory of the collection, which will be the main tool for researchers to locate relevant documents. Work began in September with the return of the Princeton University undergraduates to campus who will do the actual work of typing the inventories. The able assistants on this project are Jamie LaMontagne (Class of 2011), Brandon Joseph (Class of 2012), and Emma Watt (Class of 2013). Simultaneously, project archivist Adriane Hanson will be reviewing the records for materials that should be restricted due to legal requirements, ensuring that the maximum number of records can be opened at the completion of the project.

Despite the additional linear feet involved, the project is still scheduled to be completed on time in Summer 2012. We will publish a traditional finding aid online to describe the contents of these records and also create a guide to link together the numerous collections related to the American Civil Liberties Union at the Mudd Manuscript Library. In addition to the records for earlier periods in the ACLU’s history, some of these include the personal papers of: