After archives inventory, then what?

I came to my job as a special collections librarian in an urban public library with grand ideas about interactive finding aids, MARC records linking to HTML or EAD finding aids or maybe a catablog, digitized content in a DAM system or collaborative project, and envisioning our first born-digital acquisitions. What I found: tens of feet of unprocessed manuscripts, rare books, objects, and ephemera without printed finding aids or even donor agreements; uncataloged maps and card catalog-indexed vertical files, uncataloged microform, and a backlog “closet of doom.”

Nearly one year into my first professional position as librarian-archivist, I have some idea of how I would like to proceed with the unique collections of the North Carolina Room. I decided early on to formulate a structure for our existing archival and special collections materials, but first we needed a place for stuff to go. I got an NCPC grant and had a locking cage built where our department would be moving. Then my colleagues and I started moving collections, objects, and rare books into the cage (photographic and audiovisual materials are kept in a temperature-controlled closet).

The North Carolina Room has officially moved to the ground floor of Central Library, where I am now able to deal directly with the materials in our cage, particularly record groups that need finding aids. Our community organization archives (League of Women Voters, Daughters of the American Revolution, as well as StoryLine) can be kept securely in one place, but no one knows about them. My next step? Create an inventory of fonds (as well as objects, scrapbooks, and other unique materials).

After that, I have to admit I am unsure where to go. Ideally I would work with an IT team and administration to purchase and install Archon/AT and start adding finding aids that can be exported into our catalog as MARC and through our website as EAD/HTML. But we don’t have an IT team, our budget is slashed, and our county government programmers are not interested in supporting a database (yet).

I’ve developed an accession numbering system to go through all of the inventoried “collections” and am creating MS Word-based, very preliminary finding aids that I will hand to our cataloger so we can at least get some “placeholder” MARC records in the catalog. Then I am going to create a catablog and/or create HTML finding aids and investigate the possibility of our finding aids becoming part of ArchiveGrid.

In some ways, I have come to prefer “placeholder” MARC records that can be shared on WorldCat to the multitude of complicated, expensive finding aid programs out there. At UCLA (before AT) we would create a MS Word finding aid, an MS Excel container list, then send these files to an EAD coder who would then program the finding aid and send it to the OAC for harvesting. The Brooklyn Historical Society’s catablog, Emma, combines full-text searchable summary entries with links to PDF finding aids — using a free blog interface.

In my mind, and in line with the now overhyped MPLP method, people prefer to know that you have a group of records about someone/something instead of waiting for a precise description of every single item in a group of records. I see rows of unprocessed scrapbooks, slides, maps, artwork, administrative records, etc… and see a lot of information that isn’t being shared. Basically what I am wondering is: are finding aids in the traditional sense worth it?

Here’s to making things available. Feedback/suggestions are welcome!


2 Responses to “After archives inventory, then what?”

  1. 1 Jim Gerencser
    September 24, 2009 at 3:44 am

    Are finding aids worth it? Yes. Are they the highest priority as a means of providing access to materials? No. As you’ve noted, you have lots of options for how to provide some level of access – “starter” MARC records, catablogs, basic inventories as PDF files, etc. Any of these various methods of providing some description of your holdings can be valuable as steps along the way toward to more detailed finding tools. The most important thing is that you share what information you can about your holdings when you can. It sounds to me like you’ve already come to that conclusion yourself as well. So assess your available resources (again, you seem to have done this quite well already), consider your delivery options for sharing what you know, set your priorities for what to share when, and have at it. As more and more of your basic information leads to usage of materials, you’ll be able to adjust your priorities in response to user needs.

    I think you’ve laid a really good foundation for yourself. Try not to let the details of the best method of delivery bog you down too much. Keeping in mind that our delivery mechanisms are likely to change a few times within our lifetimes, there’s no sense in worrying about it being “just so” right now. As long as you make discovery possible, you’ve made good progress.

  2. November 10, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    Naturally, it is great to have a full-fledged system to generate EAD finding aids, but all the necessary tools to “do it yourself” are available for free. I taught myself to encode EAD XML using an editor (like Notepad), and found free tools to transform them to PDF and HTML for the web. The learning curve can be steep certainly, but there are lots of resources (“XML for Dummies” 🙂 when you really do not have the ability to buy the perfect technology. Also, by doing the work originally in XML, you eliminate the need to keep re-converting it from other formats like Word Docs or PDF and instead have your data ready to send to many display formats or even re-use (i.e. digital object metadata).

    We have long created simple, “temporary” finding aids to aid in access. These can consist of as little as a 1-2 sentence scope and content and a box list. Even fully processed, we rarely go beyond folder level. Just concentrate on providing good keywords like people and places to pull in the searchers and you’ve got a great start.

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