Thursday, March 06, 2008

New collection: some processing required

[Identity of donor withheld to protect the congenitally disorganized.]

Yesterday, we took in 28 storage cartons of materials from a single source. The materials, highly valuable, widely diverse, and of great interest to us and (inevitably) future researchers, is also in complete disarray. Papers from four decades of a career, documents spanning a century, materials in all formats. Any given box may hold sheets of paper from multiple decades relating to numerous activities, entities, or subject areas.

How is the archives to approach such a collection, if it is trying to maximize efficiency, control backlogs, and preserve materials effectively? In this day of more product, less process, can such a collection ever become useful without a major investment of time and effort to arrange items into series?

Surely, we cannot be the only repository to have received such a legacy. In recent years here, this is the second such chaotic collection. Often the collector is at fault: no matter how much librarians and archivists might deny it, the truth is that some people are simply not organizers--and never will be, no matter how much you lecture them about records management. Often the collector is not at fault: death may have cut short a long-delayed attempt at file cleanup; hasty departure from a position may have left colleagues no other recourse than emptying file drawers into boxes.

The old adage equating a messy desk with genius is sometimes true. Should the papers of geniuses, in wild disarray, remain unavailable to researchers because of some artificial benchmark of the amount of processing time that "should" be spent on any given box? Or should we make exceptions for these collections, give them the time and care they require to make them usable?

You know our answer. We'll be spending some quality time with this new collection, and from time to time you'll be hearing about the gems as we uncover them.

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