Arrangement and Description

Terry Abraham


It is called "processing": the arrangement and description of manuscript collections and archival records. It is not too far-fetched to think of processed records as something similar to "processed" cheese or "processed" meat. Processing rearranges the bits, eliminates the indigestible parts, and provides it in uniform and accessible packages . In Europe it would be heavily taxed because processing adds value to the product. While some would say that processed meats and cheeses are bland and unsatisfactory substitutes for the real thing, it is also true that they offer economies in time, convenience, and reliability for the consumer. It is similar economies which the processor of archival records offers to the researcher.

In a perfect world, there would be no need for processing, of meats or of archives. In the latter case, however, we know that a pure records management operation with absolute control of permanent records from creation to final shelving does not exist. Archival records are seldom specifically identified from the start, forced to be written on acid-free papers with permanent blue-black inks or carbon typewriter ribbons, housed in acid-free folders (into which non-acidic papers or non-permanent records are never added), until that day when the archivist accessions them and elevates them to the topmost archival container for use by generations of scholars. No, records are created haphazardly, are preserved by chance, and frequently appear at the archives door looking as if they'd escaped from the dumpster just in time to join the choir at the altar. It might be that open-eyed look of innocence, the I-can't-believe-it-happened-to-me-look, but the archivist always opens the door and ushers them in.

Before they can join the choir, however, there's a certain amount of cleaning up to do. And that is what processing is all about.

Aside from that, it is also about making decisions, decisions which are not always made on altruistic grounds. Weighing the balance of economic, political, educational, functional, and emotional consequences are an essential part of the archivist's job. Processors, perhaps even more so than reference archivists or acquisitive manuscripts curators, need to consider the long-term consequences of their decisions. And it is not enough to be able to place the records in historical context, that is frequently the least of the concerns. Processors must realize that the principal virtue of primary source materials -- the raw data, so to speak -- is that its subject content reflects back to the researcher only that small portion of immediate interest. The daily newspaper, for instance, is to some people a media for sports news. To others, its only purpose is to present the daily comics. A family seeking housing, or a car, may only read the classified ads while others may not read beyond the front page. Similarly, a body of records is seldom swallowed whole, it is tasted, sampled, dipped into, and skimmed. The processor frequently becomes the only person who ever sees it as a whole and thus has a unique responsibility to present the entire corpus as a unit. For it is impossible to predict the questions which will be asked and the primary source materials which will best provide evidence for those questions.

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January 1999 / preface.htm /