Technical Documentation for “Uncovering Hidden Audiovisual Media Documenting Postmodern Art”

A project funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources “Hidden Collections” grant program

For more information, see also the project overview page.

Project Plan

A primary goal of this project is the development of guidelines and methodologies for processing media-rich mixed manuscript collections according to an archival approach, rather than the item-level approach to media typically taken by archives. Guidelines for taking a broader, more comprehensive approach to processing mixed collections are currently scarce and underdeveloped, possibly because existing standards and guidelines for processing archival media were developed by media-specific units for whom item-level cataloging is the norm. Manuscript repositories with mixed-media collections who wish to use standard archival approaches to processing and description have been left to develop practices for audiovisual components on their own. As a result, much audiovisual media is left hidden, misidentified and poorly described, resulting in a large media backlog in most manuscript repositories.

Archivists continue to debate the level of specificity most appropriate for describing media in EAD finding aids. Some have begun to advocate that a broader, more archival approach might better serve both researchers AND our limited resources. Recently on the EAD ListServ, a well-known notable archivist stated, “My experience does not convince me that the logistical issues are any different for collections whose contents are heterogeneous than for those with more diverse content. Is the increased emphasis on recording physical characteristics in media-rich collections essential for discovery and access?…Is that what our researchers require?” Perhaps this was a rally for a MPLP (More Product, Less Process) approach to processing and describing archival media?

AAA believes that it is important to enable the effective, complete, and accurate description of the entire collection before individual items are digitized and cataloged. Collection and series-level archival description, which provides more efficient and context-rich description, is better suited to processing this material in a manuscript repository, ensuring it does not become relegated to a special-format backlog. Once access is facilitated through EAD finding aids with consistent terminology and encoding, users can better assess their own need to access material at the item-level. Research demand will then aid in prioritization for reformatting. This approach is innovative, efficient, and supports current MPLP methodologies being developed across the country for archival collections consisting primarily of documents.

AAA will develop processing guidelines that address specific issues related to media items and media groups within mixed media collections, such as risk assessment and content sampling, while addressing the overall processing needs of the entire collection at the same time. Actual processing times will be estimated, tracked, and recorded-information currently lacking in the field. This project will also create and share guidelines for describing media-rich collections according to EAD and DACS (Describing Archives: A Content Standard) - only roughly considered in existing published standards and guidelines.

Technical Approach

The technical approach for each step of the project is outlined below with specific reference to media-specific processing procedures, criteria, guidelines, and benchmarks that will be developed to support the implementation of an archival approach to processing audiovisual media.

The procedures, workflows, and guidelines developed under this project will be incorporated into the Archives’ general processing procedures, to be used by all processing staff at AAA, thereby increasing our capacity to sustain this work in the future. We also plan to make the guidelines, procedures, benchmarks, and tools available to other interested repositories through professional conferences and committee meetings, relevant listserv postings, and the Archives’ website. A key goal of this project is to provide tools that can enable all archivists, not just media specialists, to successfully improve physical and intellectual access to archival audiovisual media in the course of processing manuscript collections, according to measurable standards.

Processing Surveys and Proposal

Each collection will be surveyed to identify extent, formats of materials, physical condition of records, any pre-existing arrangement, and possible archival series. Based on the survey, the archivist will propose a processing plan for each collection to the project manager. In addition to a proposed arrangement, the survey and plan will incorporate a specific assessment of the media in the collection, including the existing level of intellectual access to their content. Any media requiring intervention in order to be adequately described according to criteria developed for the description of audiovisual materials (see “description” below), will be noted along with a supporting plan; i.e. inspection, re-housing, playback, and reformatting for access.

Tools to be developed:

  • Adopt and document measurable survey standards for conducting preservation risk-assessments of audiovisual media in collections based on the physical condition ratings used in the widely adopted “Mellon Survey Tool.”
  • Develop similar survey standards and ratings for evaluating and documenting levels of intellectual access to media records in collections and collections comprised entirely of media. Begin with the intellectual access rating used by AAA for its collections-wide survey adopted from the Mellon Survey Tool, but develop criteria that more accurately addresses access issues inherent in audiovisual media.
  • Define and codify various levels of processing for media in collections that reflect AAA’s defined levels of processing for traditional archival collections: 1: Accession-level; 2: Minimal-level; 3: Intermediate-level; 4: Full.
  • Define and document procedures for the stabilization of media items within collections based on the level of processing approved for that collection. Such procedures may include re-housing, magnetic media and film inspections, playback of media, and reformatting for access or for preservation when necessary. Define acceptable base-lines for preservation work to be completed for media within collections. Define the criteria and planning implications of using those procedures in a processing plan.
  • Define and document acceptable minimal and base-line levels of intellectual access to media within processed collections.

Arrangement, Preservation, and EAD Description

Collections will be arranged according to standard archival practices, according to the context of creation, function, and intellectual content of all records, including audiovisual media. All of the collections in this project will be processed to levels between intermediate and full. Interventions that have been identified as necessary to improve the physical and intellectual access to the audiovisual records will be implemented as specified in the processing proposal.

Collections will be described in DACS-compliant EAD finding aids. Finding aids will include all core descriptive elements for archival audiovisual media (to be determined) at the collection level, the series level, and the folder or item level. Tools and other guidelines will be made available on AAA’s website via a special project page.

Tools to be developed:

  • Develop and document procedures and data collection tools for visual inspection of magnetic media and motion picture film.
  • Develop and document procedures for improvement of the physical condition of media objects, including re-housing and seating in archival containers.
  • Develop and document DACS-compliant EAD encoding guidelines for the description of audiovisual materials in collections. Develop criteria for which core elements should be included for each of the four levels of processing described above, and create a sample encoding guide for each element.
  • Document the time taken for all media-specific processing procedures, and for completing processing of media-rich collections at the varying levels of existing physical condition, physical access, and intellectual access, according to the level of processing.
  • Over time these measurements will provide benchmarks for collection management of media-rich archival collections, and allow us (and other archivists) to more accurately estimate processing times for future projects.
  • Explore the use of Archivist’s Toolkit in the encoding of EAD finding aids. Archivist’s Toolkit may be better equipped to describe items when needed, and to provide descriptive metadata for future linking to digitized audiovisual media.

Sharing Collection Information

Each finding aid will be reviewed and approved by the project manager and deployed to AAA's website and web directories for harvesting by OCLC/RLG Archives Grid and the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center. The finding aids are searchable on all of these websites to varying degrees. Collection-level MARC records will be enhanced and updated based on information in the finding aids, and these enhanced records will be contributed to the Smithsonian’s SIRIS bibliographic database and OCLC’s WorldCat.

Archivist’s Toolkit, currently in the process of being adopted to enable a consortia or federated search vehicle for all of the Smithsonian’s archival units, will likely be incorporated into our workflow during the course of the project. A shared database of SI-wide EAD finding aids will increase discoverability and access to these collections.

Each collection will be announced on our website and highlighted on the Archives of American Art Blog, with guest bloggers and graduate interns invited to highlight the research interest in the collections.

For further information about this project, contact:

Project Director Barbara Aikens
AV Archivist Megan McShea

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