The 2013 school semester has started, and students are back on campus. Our own students are back on a regular schedule, assisting me in processing the collections. This semester we will be working on two collections, with two goals: finishing up the SER/Jobs for Progress Inc. Records and starting the AFL-CIO Records. Previously, our limited work area only allowed us to work on one collection, but in August we were given more processing space permitting us spread ourselves out enough to take on bringing another collection onsite and do some much needed catching up.
The SER Records turned out to be more work than expected, and we need to start processing the AFL-CIO collection now in order to stay on track with the projected processing timeline. Processing the SER Records has been a struggle for several reasons: the first, SER is a very complicated organization that like most non-profits received funding from not one, but various branches of the government at the local, state and federal level. It also partnered with many other organizations and programs in order to provide its training and education services; and SER also worked with many business and agencies to provide job opportunities for their applicants. The second reason is the collection is very much unorganized and there are a lot of miscellaneous materials that we just don’t know what it pertains to.
While it is our job to organize the collection, there is a lot of information we need to know before we move documents around: what’s it purpose? Where does it fit? Does it fit where it’s at now? Is there a relationship or significance to this document, where it goes and where it is? These are the kind of questions we ask, and if we don’t have that information or it’s too cryptic to deduct, then it slows down the process significantly. There is much to consider in keeping the integrity and original order of the collection. It was only last week that the pieces of the puzzle started really coming together and I started to see clearly how the organization was run here in Arizona and where documents should more appropriately be placed.
Processing is puzzle, like solving a murder mystery. Too often our situation is like the mystery cases which have the witnesses with foggy memories, shady alibis or unfortunately and, more often than not, are no longer with us. It’s never the story that you’re handed a summary or a map of how the organization worked; or how they chose to file their materials or how a writer kept track of their drafts. I wish!
Starting on an unprocessed collection is like going into a stranger’s house and having to find where they keep their scissors without being able to ask the stranger. We must use the science of deduction.
Question: Where would I keep the scissors?
Answer: Office, desk, kitchen, garage (maybe with the tools)
If I find them in the kitchen, I’m going to keep them in the kitchen. But if I find them in the living room on the coffee table, where I know they don’t go, I have to choose where is the best place to put them back so next person who needs to find the scissors can do so and also understand why they are in this new location. Sometimes it’s very easy to see the pattern. But it’s also very easy not to see the pattern, especially when it comes to very large collections. Large collections can be overwhelming. It’s the difference between organizing an office versus a house. It’s much easier to know where a pair of scissors goes, much less find it in an office versus a house.
Continuing with the house and scissor metaphor, imagine your own house. Now compare it to someone else’s. Consider the following: are you neat? Are you messy? Are you a hoarder perhaps? Now think of a pair of scissors in any of those houses. Imagine the best case scenario for finding those scissors. Imagine the worst case scenario. Now replace the scissors with a piece of paper, a document with names and a note referring to a meeting. There’s a page number on the top, a two and there is no first page to this document, just page two. And now the house is not a house, but a large collection you have just received from an organization that has been in business for over 30 years. You know that the collection is incomplete and that not all the documents are important to the purpose of the organization (like in a house not all you have in it is valuable). Like the scissors on the coffee table, you have found this piece of paper with incomplete information in a place where you could make an argument to keep it there, but will anyone find it? Where should it go?
These are the kinds of questions we have to consider. We try and simplify what we do as organizing documents, but that perpetuates the misconception that the work we do is easy. But it’s so much more. We have to manage, plan, and analyze how to regain intellectual control of the materials we’ve been given in order for the user (students, staff, researchers, etc.) to easily find the information they are looking for and easily maneuver their way through the boxes and folders. We do this as seamlessly as possible, to leave an invisible trail, and we do it on top of the time restraints, not enough manpower (often it’s only one person doing all this work), and not enough funding.
So going back to the SER Records, struggles, yes, but expected. Bumps in the road are expected. We do set time goals and it’s still disappointing when we don’t meet them, can’t meet them (I had hoped to be done with SER by September and that’s the processing, not including the work that goes into the finding aid and then the Spanish translation of the finding aid), but we don’t let that deter us; we make new goals, redraw the processing plan and go back to work.
In the re-draw, we’re going to simultaneously work on the AFL-CIO Records in our new added space, and from an analysis of the content, it looks like we do have a better road map to how this organization filed their documents. So rather than expecting a slower processing rate outcome, we might actually have a faster processing rate. It looks like a very optimistic academic year!