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Sunday, October 17, 2010

From Chaos To Organization: The Art of Processing an Archive Collection

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 the collection arrived at the CRC some initial processing work was completed, including a very rough inventory of the boxes and folders (approximately 500 linear feet). In addition, a portion of the collection’s legacy data, about one-third, was transferred into an Access database. Completion of an inventory is only the first of many steps of processing a collection, which usually includes three major areas; arrangement, description, and preservation. Over subsequent years other processing work continued, focusing on preservation of the most fragile items and beginning an initial arrangement of the Director’s correspondence and Board of Trustee records. However, the progress of processing the collection was halted for several years, during which time the positions of Head Archivist and Processing Archivist remained vacant.

AFTER: Records properly housed in archival
folders and boxes 

Consequently, when I came on board in July of 2008 as the Head Archivist, overseeing the daily operations and management of all the collections, my first major task and goal included the final completion of the processing of the MAI/Heye Foundation records. Knowing we had so much processing still to do address, we were able to hire a Processing Archivist, to begin the arduous task of arranging and organizing the records into discernable series of records. After reviewing the entire collection we determined that the collection would be organized into twenty different series of records. Furthermore, although the records had been inventoried they still had to be culled through to determine whether some files could be merged with others or if they should even be kept. Professional processing standards suggest retaining two copies of a particular item; thus additional copies are often pitched or given to offices as reference copies. In addition, more preservation work was required, including replacing old folders with acid free folders and protecting fragile or brittle documents with mylar. During this time the Processing Archivist also assigned and wrote new folder headings which included the series, folder title, and inclusive dates.

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. 
As with any project, nothing goes quiet as planned. Since this project was funded on essentially a shoe-string budget, we could only fund the project archivist for a certain amount of time. When that time ended this past May the processing was put on hold for almost four months. Luckily we were able to procure some additional funding to complete the final phase of the processing. We brought on a replacement Project Archivist, Rachel Menyuk, who I refer to as our “closer,” to complete the final stage of the remaining work. The final tasks have included arranging and describing the oversize portion of the collection, inputting remaining file data into Archivists’ Toolkit, and assigning box and folder numbers to the entire collection. Currently, out of about 500 boxes, over 115 boxes have been numbered. Our goal is to have the entire collection processed by the beginning of November and then have our finding aid accessible by the months’ end. Furthermore, our next phase will include the digitization of the collection, which will enable researchers to click on a link in the finding aid and view items in a specific folder just as they would if they were in our reading room and provide context regarding the entire collection. We are thrilled to be embarking on this very important next stage and hope that you will stay tuned for further updates about this collection.

I hope that this post has given you some behind-the-scenes insight about what actually goes into processing a large-scale archive collection. While archival work is rooted in arrangement, description, and preservation, the processing of archive collections is definitely an art, not a science, and will be different for each repository depending on their goals and outcomes for a collection. Since the MAI/Heye Foundation records are of such significant importance to the history of NMAI, we decided to spend a considerable amount of time and resources on this collection to ensure that it is processed at a very high-level. We will continue to provide updates about the collection through this blog and the NMAI website.
For additional information about the NMAI Archive Center, please stop by our booth or come to our talk at the SI Archives Fair, October 22, 2010.  

Jennifer R. O’Neal
Head ArchivistNational Museum of the American Indian Archive Center


  1. Thank you so much for allowing us to see the process and experience the journey that is archiving with all of you. From a Museum Studies student's perspective I couldn't ask for more!

  2. Thank you Jennifer for taking us on the journey with you. I hope you are able to get it done.

  3. So interesting, Jennifer. You explained the archiving process very well.

  4. Great blog post Jennifer - thanks for taking us behind the scenes! Hope all is well at the NMAI.

  5. Thanks for the before & after photos. Sometimes it's easier to show than to tell...