As archivists we often talk about the various collections that we are processing at our repositories, a task to which we devote a considerable amount of our time. However, the general public or daily researchers may not understand what we mean when we say we are “processing” a collection. Thus, this post serves to provide a behind-the-scenes look at what actually occurs when archivists process an archival collection, as well as all the challenges that are involved. Specifically, I will be highlighting the processing of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation records at the National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center.
|Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation at Audobon |
Terrace, 155th and Broadway, New York City, 1921 (P02982)
First, I need to provide some background details about how we actually acquired this collection and why the museum has devoted so much time and energy to ensuring it is processed to high archival standards. When the National Museum of the American Indian was officially established in 1989, the museum acquired all assets that were originally part of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation in New York City, including both objects and archival materials. For a full summary of the history of the collection, please click here. Within these materials were the original records documenting the administration, governance, expeditions, and programmatic activities of the MAI from its inception in 1904 until becoming part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1989. When the NMAI Cultural Resources Center opened in 1999, all of the collections, including the archives, were shipped from New York City to Suitland, Maryland. For more information about the move of the objects, please click here.
|BEFORE: An example of a typical box before processing, |
containing various types of records with no order
|AFTER: Records properly housed in archival |
folders and boxes
|Stack of George Heye's correspondence|
to be alphabatized and integrated
into the collection.
Although this was a huge accomplishment, we now had to begin the phase of making the information accessible to users since part of the inventory did not exist in an electronic format and the other third was in an Access database. Thus, once she had gone through each folder and assigned series and folder titles, the records then had to be input into Archivists’ Toolkit, an archive database system for managing collections and developing finding aids. Since the collection is so large and in such disarray the entire process took nearly a year and a half to complete.
|One aisle of the MAI collection in the Archive |
stacks. The post-its are only temporary labels
until all box numbers have been assigned,
then permanent labels will be printed.
Jennifer R. O’Neal
Head ArchivistNational Museum of the American Indian Archive Center