Practical Processing: Arrangement and Description

Terry Abraham


For all that the physical handling of primary source materials is a pleasure in its own right - more than one archivist has commented on joys of reading other people's mail - the point of the whole activity must be reduced, as most work with archives and manuscripts is, to two fundamentally contrary notions: to protect and preserve the material and to increase the use of it. Aside from a few very simple preservation techniques that should be built into any processing activity, this discourse will concentrate on the latter. It could be argued, as some have done, that preservation (or more properly salvage) is the archivist's prime responsibility; the serious researcher, it is claimed, will discover the material and find a way to use it without the archivist's effort. If no serious researchers appear; well, that merely proves that none are serious enough.

There are those that feel that locating primary source material and transferring the boxes from some suburban attic to the basement of a research library is more important in the long run that any activity to prepare the material for use. We can always process them later, they say, but we have only one chance to rescue them. This is always presented as if these are antithetical ideas; that one's professional life can, nay must, be devoted to just one of the two activities. A great deal of anecdotal evidence sustains that argument; stories of collections that got away -- to the dumpster, to the ravages of fire or flood, or heaven forbid, to another archives -- are common at any gathering of archivists. In addition, those who are effective at cultivating donors and developing collections would undoubtedly be less effectively employed if told they can not leave the archives until everything has been processed.

Among the ancients we find the answer, moderation in all things. Too much of one or too little of both will not support an effective archival program. But others will deal with the perils and rewards of collecting. For the nonce, we will assert that providing access to primary source materials is the archivist's greatest challenge; the one that requires the most careful judgment and has the greatest long-term impact. For it is the processor that literally shapes the use of a collection through arrangement and description.

I once did some touch-up work on a wonderful collection of personal papers by an amateur anthropologist and historian. The bulk of the papers and the focus of the published guide about the papers were his accomplishments among neighboring Indian tribes. His adventures and successes as a rancher and horticulturist were not particularly recorded in the papers as donated and so the guide was accordingly slight in that area. However, a small but significant series of the papers dealt with his achievements as the local humane officer in a bustling frontier town just after the turn of the century. There was virtually no mention of that activity in the guide since the original processor thought it was of little importance. As a result of that short-sightedness, those who might find it of particular importance in their research will never be aware of it.

Not too many years ago, the principal means of access to a manuscripts or archives was through the scholar's footnote. Some serious scholar who had waded through a largely undescribed body of materials and transferred note-cards to footnotes and bibliographic essays literally blazed a trail for those following. Similarly, the first comprehensive guide to a major West Coast manuscript collection was begun when the new Director realized that there was only one way to find much of what they had; and that was to ask the oldest employee. The realization that an upcoming retirement would rob them of nearly all access to their significant collections prompted a major bibliographic effort which resulted in the first published guide to the collection.

Now, guides, inventories and registers abound; scholars have grown accustomed to their availability and it is difficult to imagine just how chancy it was to locate appropriate manuscript materials. Interestingly, just as archivists are entering a new age of access to primary source materials, we increasingly hear complaints that fewer and fewer students and scholars are making use of them. Many of those that do concentrate on original research are greatly appreciative of the strides which have taken place in archival description.

In the past archivists have avoided using the "biblio" terms in speaking of providing access to manuscripts and archives. A bibliography, it was reasoned, referred to books, not a guide to manuscripts. This overlooked the true heritage of the word which gathered in books, manuscripts, archives, and other carriers of the written word. In recent years, the increasing rapprochement between librarians and archivists as they adopt similar automated technologies has tended to lessen the emphasis on a difference.

Automation has accomplished much more for archivists than engender feelings of camaraderie with librarians. It has literally changed the way the profession has looked at the issues of arrangement and description. It has also raised serious questions about the theoretical underpinnings -- the fundamentals, if you will -- of the profession. What was once considered high theory is now seen as highly practical responses to very specific circumstances. The universality of archival theory still needs to be demonstrated.

This does not mean that practical guidelines for processing have been discarded, only that -- like Einstein seeking the unified theory, encompassing all -- no single hypothesis has been rigorously evaluated, accepted, and adopted.

Nevertheless, a body of practices -- with some "theoretical" justification -- has been acknowledged as the basis for standard procedure. The SAA handbook on inventories and registers, for instance, presents a very clear formulation of the minimum elements required for a useful finding aid. In other areas, archival theory has been discarded in the rush to adopt library cataloging rules which enable archival materials to be incorporated in library catalogs. This would not have been much of an attraction a decade ago, but now, with the immense growth in nationwide bibliographic utilities, the acceptance of entries describing archives and manuscripts promises to open the archival doors to a new generation of researchers.

Interestingly enough, there is also some transfer of practice from archival settings to libraries. The latter are finding the provenance- and materials-based descriptive practices of archival and manuscript records useful in solving a host of cataloging problems long neglected because they did not fit the usual book-like format. Photographs, maps, ephemera and other bibliographic materials -- common enough in archives and special collections repositories -- are sneaking into library catalogs behind the coat-tails of archival records. Both photographs and maps, are joining manuscripts and archives with their own MARC format. The interaction of these respective constituencies on the assignment of MARC tagging fields are having a tremendous impact on "normal" library cataloging.

In spite of the increasing emphasis on cataloging the arrangement and description of primary source materials remains the essential first step in providing access to researchers.

It might be noted that there has been a tendency here to treat archivists and manuscript curators as members of the same family and to discuss archival groups and manuscript collections as if they are interchangeable terms. The latter, at least, is certainly not true, but -- contrary to the beliefs of some -- the arrangement and description of the two have more similarities than differences. Accordingly, the two terms are frequently used as synonyms or alternate forms of expression, just to keep from overuse of the phrase "archives and manuscripts."

They are, of course, not the same at all. The classic expression which points out that "when I transfer my organization's archival records to your repository, they become your manuscript collection" is the essence of the difference. As to arrangement and description, however, the notion that they are essentially different processes is, as Richard Berner points out in his book on the history of arrangement and description, a relic of a vanished age.

There are, however, aside from provenance, two areas in which the two differ. The first is in the information the researcher (or the processor) brings to the record group. The records of an organization inside that organization, in its own archives, already has an institutional context and not all of that context is considered necessary to supply in either its arrangement or its description. The records of the Department of Fish and Game are primarily about fish and game; it is so self- evident that is overlooked. Frequently, however, neither the arrangement nor the description establishes the context that the Department's records are also about law enforcement, tourism, pollution, and land management, even though those are legitimate functions of the Department of Fish and Game.

The second difference is in the assumption, which is not always true, that archival records can be adequately described at the series, sub-series, or box level while manuscript collections -- and particularly manuscript collections of a literary or "pioneering" variety -- are best described at the item level. The implications for their appropriate arrangement follow those tendencies.

In both cases, it is very much a result of dictating a priori the appropriate arrangement and description. A more sensible approach, it seems, would be to approach every group with an open mind and let it reveal how it should best and most efficiently be presented. Some materials require more elaborate and detailed treatments than others, but it is an error to determine the level of treatment in advance, without giving the records a chance to show the nature and kind of their evidence and to demonstrate through close examination their value as historical documentation. As you process, then, listen to the records.

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January 1999 / intro.htm /