Loads of unsorted boxes, a new archive, new methods, and plenty of coffee for fuel. Now what?
The picture above is a glimpse into a records collection from Musical Theatre North (MTN), a Potsdam, NY-based performing arts company in business from 1979 to the mid-1990s. I’m processing the collection during an internship at SUNY Potsdam Archives and Special Collections. Previous posts from Maine Historical Society’s technical services documented my first excursion into the world of archives. This new experience will be more of a honing in on developing archival techniques and tricks of the trade related to arranging unsorted collections, rather than starting from the ground up with no pre-existing experiences like last time up in Maine. That was tricky.
I learned from the Maine Historical Society internship that it’s a wise move to go through all the paper materials in a collection before diving into the processing aspect. From first glance, this collection was already in a pretty decent order with little to no fishing around inside the boxes necessary. Most of the collection included scrapbooks, Umatic cassettes, slides, and a few folders of photographic negative strips. Overall, it was pretty self-explanatory as far as arrangement went.
Until I got to the photographic images part. The photos were in some form of order, but for the most part there were plenty thrown about with no particular dates attached to them. This is when I figured the lengthy part of the re-housing process would be arranging the photographic hodgepodge.
Then there were these things! 35mm Polaroid slides. I’ve never heard of or seen these before. Luckily, they were already in slip covers and organized by date, save for a few stragglers, ready to be put into archival quality folders.
The photos, not so much. I realized there were two categories to work with as far as content went: production and non-production. Every photo either included images of off-stage shenanigans (workshops, parades) and the other end of the spectrum were solely musicals they did on-stage. Little by little I picked away at the piles and came up with a series that adheres to the photos’ original order as well as the two categories that emerged.
The one on the left is three days of processing, not bad compared to the state those photos were in.
A few articles I’ve been assigned by my mentor discuss the importance of original order in a collection because of the record originator’s intent. Often times, the originator’s intent was to have these documents laid out in a certain way, other times (such as with legal documents from a busy law firm) the collection is chucked around in boxes then donated to an archive with little to no order. I believe the reason behind the former is because the donor of the collection is the most familiar with the material, so there is a method to their madness. The instances of document chaos is where archivists come in to best arrange it for researchers.
The most valuable lesson I’ve taken away so far from my experience is that a collection doesn’t necessarily have to be in complete re-housing condition to be accesible to researchers. An interesting article by Mark Greene discusses MPLP, (More Product, Less Process)which is a framework for processing collections in an efficient way when they can’t necessarily be fully processed by an inevitably overwhelmed archives staff. MPLP is a great way to make backlog (unprocessed stuff) open for use, but I’m finding can also be applied to regular processing.
For instance, one doesn’t have to removed every last paperclip from a collection because it’ll be stored in a controlled environment. Instead, more focus should be devoted to the series arrangement, or duplicates in a collection. This is what I’m finding to be most useful with re-housing and certainly has been working out well. Friday, when I go back for another round of archival goodness, will hold more challenges, let’s see what comes out of the boxes next.