How Does the Archives Fulfill Its Mission to Preserve and Make Available Its Rich Resources?  A Behind the Scenes Look

By Barbara Aikens
October 31, 2016
Processing archivist Stephanie Ashley

For American Archives Month, Barbara Aikens, head of collections processing, takes a deep dive into the finding aid.

As American Archives Month draws to a close, it seems appropriate to give our readers a look at what’s new behind the scenes—technical work and initiatives aimed at improving collections’ stewardship, access, and digitization—all significant components of the Archives’ responsibility and mission to preserve and make available its rich resources.

Accelerated Processing Strategies

Photograph of Stephanie Ashley
Senior archivist Stephanie Ashley processing one of the Archives’ large and complex collections.

In Fiscal Year 2016 (October 1, 2015–September 30, 2016), my team “processed” 104 archival collections measuring 1,228 linear feet—an increase of 30% over the previous year. Archival processing is defined as the activities of accessioning, organizing and arranging for physical access, describing for intellectual access, and properly housing archival materials according to established national standards and best practices. Processing workflows, methodologies, and tools are not static, but continuously evolving on the local and national level as we strive to make more collections more accessible to more users, while still preserving the collections for future generations.

There is no doubt that the significant increase in the amount of archival material processed can be attributed to the Archives’ focused efforts to reduce the backlog through the development and implementation of accelerated processing strategies.

Over the last four years, the Archives, along with many other major archival repositories in U.S., adopted aggressive processing action plans to “do more with less.” This concept of “More Product, Less Process” (MPLP) was first introduced in a published report of a widespread study in 2005 by nationally recognized archivists Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner. The report argued that the nation’s ever-growing backlog of unprocessed archival collections can be traced to traditional archival processing methodologies that have focused almost exclusively on extremely detailed, item-level archival processing activities. This seminal article urged archivists to reconsider detailed arrangement and description and to remember that the first and foremost mission of the archivist is to make as many collections available to researchers as possible.

Example of a task list for processing staff
The Processing Team meticulously tracks the number of hours spent on primary tasks associated with processing each collection – for collections processed at the fullest level and for collections processed at an accelerated level.

While there is no single MPLP tactic that will work for each and every collection, repositories can adopt a toolkit of methods most suitable for their collections. Through four projects funded by the Smithsonian Institution’s Collections Care and Preservation Fund, the Archives has developed, tested, and documented unique accelerated processing strategies that are efficient and work with manuscript collections—versus large bodies of corporate or government archives—yet still result in high-quality online finding aids that meet all national standards and best practices.

Full-level processing is still the most appropriate choice for collections scheduled to be digitized in their entirety; these records will continue to be processed to a finer level of detail. Accelerated processing, however, averages nearly one-half the processing time per linear foot and results in the production of a larger number of finding aids in a shorter period of time.

Finding Aids

Example of a finding aid
Example of a recently completed finding aid for a collection processed according to the Archives’ accelerated processing strategies.

A primary goal of archival processing is the creation of finding aids. In any format, they are an essential tool for researchers, providing detailed information about the content and intellectual and physical arrangement of an archival collection, providing researchers access to information about complex, voluminous, unique, and rare archival material. Finding aids also provide critical context, such as who created the records, why they were created, and what evidence they provide.

Essentially, finding aids are useful, reliable, and practical maps—leading users to the right repository, the right collection, and the right component within a collection. In today’s online environment, finding aids are the most efficient tool available to assist users in navigating archival collections across the globe. At present, the Archives of American Art has 760 standardized electronic finding aids available online, representing about 9,580 linear, slightly over half of our total holdings. On average, we’ve been producing roughly 100 new finding aids each year.

Finding Aids as Metadata for Digitized Collections

Finding aid for a fully digitized collection
Online presentation of a finding aid for a fully digitized collection. Users access the digital files via links in the folder titles found in the container inventory of the finding aid.

Finding aids that are created according to national standards and best practices and additionally encoded in standardized digital schemas for web presentation contain highly structured metadata elements. The Archives has taken full advantage of the potential for repurposing the rich descriptive information found in finding aids to doubly serve as the sole descriptive metadata for our fully digitized collections. We began this effort roughly a decade ago, with major support from the Terra Foundation for American Art, and created an automated system built around the finding aid structure and workflow to support the large scale digitization of collections in their entirety. Not only does the descriptive information about the collection found in the finding aid double as the descriptive metadata for the digital files, the container inventory of boxes and folders in the finding aid also serves as the file directory for the saved digital images. Moreover, the online visual presentation of the finding aid serves as an easy to use online interface for navigating the digital files, providing users with a “virtual reading room” experience. These efficiencies and innovations have resulted in global access to over 2.5 million digital files on our website in the Terra Foundation Center for Digitized Collections, representing 190 fully digitized archival collections. And, the number continues to grow.

Finding Aids and Digital Art History

SNAC project interface prototype
The SNAC (Social Networks and Archival Context) interface prototype explores the vast network of relationships among the creators of primary sources.

In addition to providing context for and access to digital content, the descriptive metadata found in electronically encoded finding aids can be repurposed and remixed for a variety of emerging web applications in the field of digital art history. Highly structured metadata can be transformed into open data that can be “released” to the web according to specific frameworks, thereby contributing to the “Web of Open Data” for linking on the semantic web—data that can be openly mined in various applications, including those capable of supporting any number of digital humanities studies.

Digital humanities scholars are already using advanced data visualization techniques rather than text-based sorting and selecting, and other new tools, such as 3-D mapping and electronic literary analysis, are being developed to analyze and present the data. These new digital scholarship applications will allow users to study and interact with primary source materials in ways that yield new findings and facilitate scholarly community building and information sharing.

Additionally, having a large body of  standardized finding aids available on the web positions the Archives to participate in national-level archival projects that are harvesting and aggregating finding aids, as well as the data found within the finding aids. One such prototype is the SNAC (Social Networks and Archival Context) Project online interface being developed collaboratively by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, the California Digital Library, and the UC Berkeley School of Information, with additional support from the Mellon Foundation and the National Archives and Records Administration. The project has mined biographical and historical notes from existing EAD finding aids to build standardized records about the creators of primary sources and the network of relationships amongst those persons, corporate entities, and families. The interface also links those records across multiple collections and repositories throughout the world, providing integrated access and context to dispersed archival resources.

However, secondary data releasing, linking, mining, and harvesting are only possible if the primary metadata is highly structured according to standards that “play well” together and that can be mapped to other archival metadata and resources on the web, as is the case with the Archives’ data in its finding aids.

There is no doubt that it is an exciting time to be an archivist and who knows what new and innovative developments await in the near future? I hope that by this time next year, we will be reporting on our success in developing effective collections management and access tools for born digital content—a major challenge for archivists across the world.

The archivists at the Archives of American Art hope that these efforts will also lead to exciting new discoveries by our users.

Barbara Aikens is the head of collections processing at the Archives of American Art. She has primary responsibility for managing all archival processing work, the creation of the Archives’ online finding aids, and processing work in support of the Terra Foundation Center for Digital Collections.

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