In a place like the American Heritage Center (AHC), which houses tens of thousands of historical documents, it can be hard to navigate them and figure out what each collection is. Thankfully, the Center has Jamie Greene, the Manager of Arrangement and Description.
“Basically, our job is to rehouse, arrange, describe, catalog, and create finding aids for our collections, and that’s what makes them a little more usable to the researcher,” Greene explains. “So, the catalog record is how patrons find collections in our systems. And then the finding aid is how they navigate the collection and try to locate whatever their research interests are.”
In simple terms, Greene is in charge of arranging and describing collections so that researchers know what’s in them.
And while the process might sound simple, it’s actually much more intricate, as I learned from Jamie. There are two units within the AHC’s Arrangement and Description Department that make collections available: Content Listing and Processing. Those words may not sound exciting, but the results certainly are for researchers and history lovers alike.
Jamie explains, “The Content Listing Unit inventories and makes available newly acquired collection materials, while the Processing Unit arranges and describes collections that have been at the AHC for years.”
As we learned in last week’s post, a set of materials comes in the AHC’s door and Bailey Sparks in the Accessioning Unit does all that’s needed to make sure the materials are legally transferred to the Center and a record is made of their new status as a AHC collection.
From there, the collection goes to Content Listing. This is where Jamie and her assistants come into the picture. Content listing is a fairly new procedure at the AHC, and for archives in general. It means that, instead of waiting potentially years for newly acquired collections to be fully arranged and described (i.e., “processed”), the new collection will get a brief description and inventory – enough to get it in the hands of researchers sooner rather than later.
“The Content Listing Unit inventories new collection material using an archival practice called MPLP (More Product, Less Process),” Jamie describes. “This allows us to rehouse and get just enough descriptive information to quickly catalog and create or edit a finding aid for new collection materials and note if more detailed arrangement and description is required later when resources allow.”
So, what happens when collections get the full treatment and they are processed? “You can think about what’s called ‘processing order,’” Jamie told me. “Either you try to maintain the order that the materials came to you, because usually they can be in some kind of order, or if they’re not in order, your job as a processor is to formulate one. Then a processing plan is made by creating record groups of series and sub-series. Once you’re happy with that, you start creating a catalog record, and that’s what goes into the catalog system we share with the University of Wyoming Libraries.”
But one thing makes the AHC’s collections stand out from books and other published materials housed at the UW Libraries. “What makes cataloging archives unique from a library is we also create what’s called a ‘finding aid’ for each collection,” Jamie notes.
From Jamie, I learned that a finding aid is a document that archivists provide to researchers so they can have a description of a collection’s contents and where to locate an item within the collection. Researchers can know box by box what’s in a collection and sometimes even folder by folder if the finding aid is detailed enough. The AHC has collections that can be more than 100 boxes. Can you imagine trying to find something specific if you had to examine even 10 boxes? Thank goodness for finding aids!
While describing a collection and creating a finding aid may seem simple and easy, Greene wants people to know that it’s not and, depending on the collection, it can be a time-consuming process.
“It just depends on the size of the collection,” Greene notes. “A collection can be one folder to 1000s of boxes. So, clearly, if it’s one folder, you can probably get it done in four hours to a day. One thousand boxes are going to take a few years. Honestly, it depends on the size and the complexity of the collection.”
During her time at the Center, as an undergrad student employee, a digitization tech and supervisor, a processor, and in her current position as Manager of Arrangement and Description, which she has held the past two and a half years, she has seen a lot of different collections.
“There are ones that stand out because they’re a mixture of what I thought was cool, but they also were difficult. There were difficulties in getting them taken care of on the shelves and processed,” Jamie describes, “I can’t really name a favorite, to be honest. They’ve all kind of blended together.”
That is not to say Jamie doesn’t love her job, because she does.
“I’m working with the collection materials,” she remarks. “I like arrangement and description, the cataloging, and the creating of the finding aids,”
To learn more about the AHC, see the Center’s website at http://www.uwyo.edu/ahc/.
Post contributed by AHC intern Carissa Mosness.