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Archival Processing and Description

Once collections have been acquired and accessioned by the Manuscript Division, the real work of properly archiving and describing begins. The Division's professional archivists and archive technicians bring their expertise to bear behind the scenes daily. An archivist's hands-on decision making is a crucial intellectual process that determines the "making" of a collection. Archivists shape the ways collections are organized, preserved and described for use by the public.

Collections come in all shapes, sizes, and measures of complexity. Some arrive in good order. Others present special conceptual and archival challenges.

The Eames Diagram and Conceptualization of a Collection: What are the Audiences?

The Work of Charles and Ray Eames Collection

In 1969 the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris invited American designers Charles and Ray Eames to participate in an exhibition, “What Is Design?” Charles drew a diagram for the event to illustrate his belief that good design is achieved by meeting the combined interests of:

• the client
• the design office, and
• society at large

Eames observed that designers do their most inspired work in the dynamic areas where these three needs overlap. He also demonstrated that none of the areas were fixed or static. Each had potential to develop and change and all had influence upon the others.

Charles Eames’s diagram of overlapping interests in design was the inspiration for the similar diagram (right) illustrating the decision-making process used by archivists in arranging collections of personal papers and organizational records.

Manuscript collections ideally arrive at the Library of Congress organized in some inherent order. This arrangement is then perfected by archivists. But many collections come in much more haphazard fashion (see “Experience Teaches,” below). They may be delivered directly from attics, basements, warehouses, barns or garages where they have been stored, often untouched, for years or decades. Very few collections of any kind arrive at the Library in pristine order. Organizing each unique collection poses a different kind of conceptual exercise for the archivist.

Just like designers who approach particular projects for clients, archivists need to take into account overlapping arenas of interest for every collection. When they develop and implement plans to arrange and preserve collections, archivists take into consideration:

• the best practices of the archival profession
• the unique challenges posed by the collections themselves
• the interests and needs of researchers, and
• the resources of the manuscript repository
In the dynamic place where these interests and needs overlap the archivist works–to paraphrase Charles Eames--with “conviction and enthusiasm.”

Visit the Virtual Exhibition
The Work of Charles and Ray Eames

Diagram by Charles Eames
Diagram by Charles Eames
Displayed in the 1969 Exhibition
Qu'est-ce Que Le Design?
(What is Design?)
at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris,
Prints & Photographs Division (A-20)

Archival decision process diagram
Archival decision-making process, diagrammed

Collection register for the Work of Charles and Ray Eames


Experience Teaches Collections Can Arrive In Any Container

The Herbert A. Philbrick Papers

A fundamental archival principle is respect for the original order of a collection. The way a person's papers are arranged can provide evidence of how the papers were created and used during the individual's life. In processing collections in the Manuscript Division, we try to respect this order as much as possible.

Philbrick trash cans
The Herbert A. Philbrick Papers in unprocessed form. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Philbrick papers in boxes
Philbrick Papers after processing

Collection register for the Herbert A. Philbrick Papers

Sometimes it is not possible to put this principle into practice. The Papers of Herbert A. Philbrick offer one example. Upon delivery it was immediately evident that the Philbrick manuscripts had arrived in a state of inherent disarray. The most striking examples of this disorder were three large blue plastic garbage cans, each filled with a chaotic mix of unidentified documents several feet deep.

Turning random contents packed in plastic cans into an organized collection was a labor-intensive process.

The first step was to pull out arm loads of correspondence, newspaper clippings, newsletters, scripts, and printed matter. The creation of a lot of piles and many hours, days, and weeks of sorting followed, as like things were grouped together.

In this process, ways in which the documents related to Herbert Philbrick's life and activities became evident, as did the relations of documents to one another, and within the collection as a whole. In the end, the contents of the trash cans filled in gaps in the story of Herbert Philbrick's work as a leading anticommunist spokesman from the 1950s through the early 1970s.

In the end, the contents of the trash cans filled in gaps in the story of Herbert Philbrick's work as a leading anticommunist spokesman from the 1950s through the early 1970s.

The original containers now hold actual trash in the Preparation Section, and the Philbrick collection is well organized and available to readers in archival boxes.

Do I Contradict Myself? Complexity in a Single Item

The Charles E. Feinberg Walt Whitman Collection

The Charles E. Feinberg collection of Walt Whitman's papers is one of the great collections of Whitman items ever assembled. Gathered over a span of six decades by Feinberg, a Detroit businessman, the collection contains manuscripts possessing surprising characteristics of content and form.

Frugal by necessity, Whitman would often draft verse and prose lines on strips or other odd-sized scraps of waste-paper or on the verso of drafts of correspondence.

Indicative of the literary manuscripts in the collection are the trial pages and drafts of what would eventually be published in Leaves of Grass, seventh edition, 1881, as "Patroling Barnegat."

Whitman drafted two pages of the poem on the verso sides of discarded letters, including one abandoned letter to his friend, the naturalist John Burroughs.

In organizing the collection, it was determined that a series of cross references would be used to identify the recto and verso of items throughout the collection. But which side of a two-sided manuscript would be used as its primary identifier?

Feinberg had been a devoted collector who catalogued many of the manuscripts himself.

In this instance the main title entries from Feinberg's own catalog records were used to identify and locate items within the collection's arrangement.

Whitman butterfly
Visit the Virtual Exhibition

Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass

Poet at Work: Recovered Notebooks from the Thomas Biggs Harned Walt Whitman Collection

Whitman pasted notes
The original kind of cut and paste. Whitman created drafts and revisions on strips of recycled paper, glued into one. Feinberg-Whitman Collection, Manuscript Division, "Patroling Barnegat" file, Box 28.

Whitman index card
Charles Feinberg index record. Feinberg-Whitman Collection, Manuscript Division, "Patroling Barnegat" file, Box 28.

Collection register for the Feinberg-Whitman Collection


Processing the Records of Professional Organizations

The Manuscript Division has long collected and maintained the records of major organizations. These include social change and reform organizations (in subject areas from labor to suffrage and abolition), and professional organizations in the humanities and social sciences as well. Over time the volume of material generated by these latter types of organizations has grown. The challenges of processing and storing massive amounts of papers subsequently became increasingly at issue.

To help us continue to offer large collections of contemporary organizational records to our readers on a timely basis, we needed to creatively rethink our processing arrangements. We now involve the participation of organizations themselves in the responsibility for ensuring good basic organization of records. One means of doing this is through cooperative archival internships, sponsored by the organizations and hosted at the Library of Congress.

In 2007 the American Studies Association (ASA) participated in a joint endeavor to process their organization’s papers using two interns selected by the ASA. These interns were trained and supervised by one of the Manuscript Division’s professional archivists and worked in the processing area of the Manuscript Division. The interns provided the extra staffing necessary to get this large organizational collection ready for researcher use. They in turn received on-the-job training in archival arrangement.

In only three and a half months, lead intern Rebecca Lahr, a recent American Studies graduate from the University of Minnesota, and student intern David Armenti, an American Studies major at the University of Maryland, working under the supervision of archivist Karen Linn Femia, were able to organize a collection of 123,000 items and create a draft of the register for the collection. The success of the American Studies Association project provides a blueprint for future joint endeavors.

interns with records
Karen Linn Femia, Rebecca Lahr, and David Armenti with the records of the American Studies Association.

Explore finding aids for professional organizations in the humanities at the Library of Congress:

American Studies Association
Phi Beta Kappa

Last But Not Least: Storing and Managing Over 11,000 Collections

microfilm in drawer
Microfilm in drawer

oversize bound volumes
Oversize bound volumes

oversize drawer
Oversize stored in drawers

processed collection in storage
Processed collection stored in Library warehouse

Record center boxes
Record center boxes as received by the Library

The Manuscript Division currently holds approximately 11,000 collections that have been processed by our archivists for use by researchers. These collections can range in size from one item in a folder to huge groups of personal papers or organizational records housed in hundreds-- and sometimes thousands--of document cases or archival boxes.

The physical arrangement, storage, and management of these collections is a significant element in the Division’s mission to provide prompt and thorough access to its holdings. At the same time, maintaining the physical integrity of each collection is important for the preservation of the material and the information they contain.

The physical location of a processed collection is driven by efficiency of access for the Reference and Reader Service staff who assist onsite researchers. Three principal criteria that determine the arrangement of collections include:

  • format of the collection (is it microfilm or physical, regular or oversize?)
  • overall space needed for the collection (is it large or small?), and
  • frequency of use (is there a good deal of researcher demand?)

Nearest to the Reading Room and reference staff are kept small collections, microfilm editions of papers, and oversized items.

Microfilm permits quick retrieval of significant amounts of a collection and concomitantly reduces handling of original documents.

Oversized maps, broadsides, scrapbooks, and bound volumes of original items are withdrawn from collections and stored in large flat files and specially constructed shelving. Because these awkwardly sized items are handled individually and may require special conditions for delivery to patrons, their location must to be convenient to the Manuscript Division Reading Room.

For the bulk of collections, frequency of use ideally determines proximity to the Reading Room. The most heavily trafficked collections are placed within easy reach for retrievals and returns by reference staff. Collections are periodically rotated to new locations in stack areas based on evaluation of user statistics, or when an older collection is displaced by a recently processed set of papers that is anticipated to have significant and heavy use. Location guides are updated regularly and helpful devices such as distinctly colored document cases or labels help staff easily identify and quantify a group of papers among the thousands of uniformly sized containers in the stacks.

Nearby offsite facilities in Maryland hold additional processed collections. They also serve as the primary storage area for newly acquired and unprocessed papers.

Whenever possible, manuscript collections should be delivered to the Library of Congress organized in professionally packed moving crates and record center boxes, with box lists briefly describing contents. In practice, conditions are not always ideal. Many materials come to us under conditions of expediency and from private hands, such as during the course of the settlement of an estate, or the sale of a family home in which items have been stored in a basement or attic. Such materials might arrive in all kinds of containers: old family suitcases, shipping trunks, footlockers, discarded cardboard boxes from local liquor stores, or plastic cartons. It falls to our professional archivists to make sense of these materials, and to rehouse them by proper means, in useable order.

On receipt, all new collections are analyzed and evaluated, and a brief, written summary of the contents is prepared as an accession record. The accession record is the source for a preliminary online catalog record that documents the material in the Library’s holdings. New accessions are also examined for existing and potential preservation problems that may need immediate attention.

As the Manuscript Division’s holdings increase, storage space is a constant concern. The Library is currently developing new offsite storage for processed collections to provide rapid retrieval of material, increased environmental controls for preservation, and greater use of technological tools for administering the collections.

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  December 5, 2013
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