Seeing the forest for the trees

I started my position as the processing archivist for Latin American Manuscripts Collections in Special Collections about a year ago, and so far, I think it has been quite productive, but not without its challenges. Thankfully, I have the privilege of working with a magnificent, collaborative, and forward-thinking group of colleagues. One of our primary goals as stewards of unique archival collections should be to make as much of this material open and accessible to the user and research community as quickly as possible. Therefore, developing sustainable, efficient, and extensible processing practices requires rethinking traditional archival approaches and taking a more forward-thinking and integrated approach.

Unfortunately, large backlogs are quite common in our profession, as it was the case here when I arrived with regards to the Latin American manuscript collections. Backlogs in archival repositories can be traced to lack of staffing resources, as well as traditional archival processing techniques that have primarily focused on extremely detailed item to folder-level archival processing approaches, resulting in only a handful of collections being processed each year. This level of work, combined with an ever-increasing number of acquisitions, has led to an ever-growing number of unprocessed collections that are hidden from the public. One of the primary reasons why I was hired for this position had to do with my past experience dealing with large backlogs. In my two previous positions, I was able to considerably reduce the backlogs at those institutions in a relatively short amount of time, primarily through the application of efficient processing techniques to cut down on the time spent on each collection.

An article entitled, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing” (1) written in 2005 by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, had a profound influence in the archival profession. And aside from the overall misunderstandings behind the principles of “More Product, Less Process,” commonly referred to as MPLP, the fundamental takeaway from this approach is that perfect should not be the enemy of good, and that expediting the access to archival materials should be the main goal of our efforts. The Archival Description and Processing Team (ADAPT) in Special Collections has been working on developing guidelines for processing priorities and levels with this approach in mind, which will also support and enhance user access to materials as part of the recently developed strategic mission for Firestone Library. (2)

It is important to note that applying efficient processing techniques does not diminish the quality of archival processing, which should not be measured by the level of detail that is applied, but instead should be evaluated by how effectively a processed collection serves its users, and how wisely an archivist spent the limited resources of the particular repository. Moreover, one has to realize that a finding aid is a living document, as well as a descriptive surrogate for the materials themselves. We can’t do it all and we’ll never be able to find it all, and if warranted, additions/edits can be done after it has, first and foremost, been made accessible to the public. There have been various studies carried out since the publication of the article by Greene and Meissner, such as the survey of American archivists conducted in 2009, (3) focusing on the implementation of MPLP across archival repositories, which have clearly indicated the positive effect in reducing processing backlogs and improving research access.

As a result of implementing these efficient processing practices, I have been able to process several notable collections which are now available to the public. Some of these collections provide a clear contrast on how the organization (or lack thereof) of archival materials differs upon their arrival in our repositories. On one hand, some of the collections are highly organized upon their arrival, such as being placed in distinctive file groups and arranged chronologically and/or alphabetically, with folders clearly labeled, while others arrive in complete disarray, consisting of various types of materials scattered throughout, mostly unfoldered and unlabeled, and without any type of discernable organization.

One of these collections is the Carlos Fuentes Papers. Fuentes (1928-2012) was a Mexican author, editor, and diplomat, who produced an extensive body of work throughout his life. The papers were acquired back in 2013, after Fuentes’ death, and they represented an addition to an already processed collection. It consists of approximately 200 boxes, and materials include notebooks; numerous drafts of novels, short stories, screenplays, articles and essays, speeches, and translations; subject files; press clippings; audiovisual materials; drawings; and printed material. Since the collection was highly organized, it was arranged, for the most part, as received by the repository. Due to its considerable size, much of the processing time was spent performing data entry, reboxing, refoldering, and labeling. Fortunately, I had the valuable assistance of our summer resident, Alice Griffin, and one of our current student assistants, Alia Wood. And after about six years of being hidden in our stacks, this rich collection is now available to the public. Besides having had the privilege of processing the materials of one of my favorite authors while pursuing my undergraduate studies, I also discovered that Fuentes was a talented caricaturist, as seen below.

Caricature by Carlos Fuentes. Drawings and paintings; Carlos Fuentes Papers, C0790, Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

On the opposite spectrum, one of the collections I processed when I first arrived here was one of the most disorganized collections that I had worked on during my professional trajectory as a processing archivist. The papers began to arrive in periodic shipments in December 2018. All in all, a total of 15 large cartons were received. As I began to open the boxes, I immediately realized that the materials were in complete disarray. It consisted of various types of materials scattered throughout without any type of discernable organization (see image below). A few files had been foldered and sometimes labeled, but those were the exception. Additionally, a large number of the materials were undated, untitled, unattributed, and in many cases, drafts and fragments mixed together, which were impossible to separate and identify.

Box with various types of materials scattered throughout .

Therefore, given the disorganized state of the material upon receipt, a functional processing decision had to be made that required the application of current archival processes and best practices to be as efficient as possible with our limited resources and to expedite getting the collection into the hands of users. After performing an overall collection assessment, an arrangement was devised that reflected the sphere(s) of functions and/or activities deemed most appropriate to represent the overall context of the collection. Materials were arranged in file groups by type of materials, consisting of: Notebooks; Diaries and Journals; Writings; Correspondence; Printed Materials; and Other Materials. Furthermore, the writings were subdivided into the following file groupings: Poetry; Short Stories and Novels; Articles and Essays; Scripts; Translations; Other writings; and Writings by Others.

Another issue was how to proceed with the arrangement of the correspondence (see image below). There were about four large cartons containing correspondence, and after looking at other finding aids in the Latin American literary collections, I saw that arrangement in the past had been primarily done using the traditional processing approach of arranging them alphabetically. That particular arrangement might be feasible if the correspondence had arrived in somewhat discernable groupings, but in this particular situation, alphabetically arranging the correspondence would have taken a significant amount of time and effort. One of the most important things we do as archivists is processing, but it is also one of the most expensive, therefore, it is essential to take into consideration the amount of time and effort that we perform from the outset. If in the future, evidence warrants the re-processing of certain portions of the collection, we can always go back and revisit, but the time spent from the onset can never be regained.

I therefore decided that the correspondence was best arranged chronologically (by decades), which still took a considerable amount of time, almost a month. Only the correspondence that was received in identifiable groupings or was easily identified was separated and arranged by correspondent. Additionally, while separating the correspondence by decades, careful attention was undertaken in order to establish access points for prevalent and particular names found throughout.

Box with correspondence.

Another important consideration in the archival profession is the principle of respect des fonds, which is the basis of archival arrangement and description, and refers to the combined principles of provenance and original order. The latter, as defined by the Society of American Archivists (SAA), “means that the order of the records that was established by the creator should be maintained by physical and/or intellectual means whenever possible to preserve existing relationships between the documents and the evidential value inherent in their order.”(4) Taking this principle into consideration, how much intervention should an archivist perform during processing? As an archivist, one has to be cognizant of how the records were created. The inherent nature of personal papers does not only simply document facts, but also the character, and other aspects of an individual’s inner life. We should not think that all archival materials will be used to simply indicate facts, dates, activities, and functional activities to researchers and historians, but might also shed light on the character of the creator.

Fundamentally, archives are used and archivists are not only guardians of information, we also have to be effective at making that information available for the public. We have to essentially shift our perception of what “processed” looks like and means, in order not to let perfection be the enemy of “good enough,” which has greatly hindered access to the resources that we are committed to. As processing archivists, it is quite gratifying to see the final results of our work being accessible to the public. By making decisions based on the mission, audience, and current resources of the institution, we can better serve our patrons and thus reduce our backlogs and provide access to our valuable collections in a timely manner for the benefit of the people.