Arrangement / Assessment / Preservation / Processing / Robert Van Nice

Next Steps and Some Vocabulary

It’s been a couple of weeks now since I finished an initial assessment of the Van Nice Collection.  The next big step is to use all of the notes I took to evaluate whether the current organization is adequate, and if not, to determine the best way to re-order the collection without inadvertently breaking up any meaningful connections between items or groups of items.

The Van Nice Collection presents a couple of specific challenges that have to be considered, as well.  It has been processed in the past, but we don’t know very much about how this was done, or to what degree, since it wasn’t particularly well-documented.  Some parts of the collection appear well-organized in new, clean folders, while other sections do not. We’ve had to do a lot of detective work to even make guesses about the way that these materials were originally stored, and how active a role Van Nice played in the packaging, transporting, and ultimate organization of his own records.

Since I am learning a lot about archival standards and procedures as I go, I thought I’d write up a short vocabulary list for anyone who may not be familiar with the terminology.  Some of it might look self explanatory, but there are subtleties to a lot of these definitions that matter for both archivists and researchers.  Knowing what specific terms mean can make finding what you’re looking for much easier!

Processing: Processing is a general term used to describe how archivists bring collections from their various original states to a neat, ordered existence where the material is safely stored, described in a finding aid, and made accessible to researchers.  Specific steps taken to do this vary by the size, type, original order, and purpose of a collection.

Assessment: This one is a little self-explanatory. Assessment refers to the process of assessing a collection as-is.  For me, that meant carefully going through all 70 boxes of material just as they have been stored here and taking a lot of notes on the overall organization of the collection, how the materials relate to each other, what each folder contains, and the physical condition of the collection.

Arrangement: The process of taking the notes and information gleaned from the assessment, and using them to inform a new organizational scheme, if necessary.  It refers to both the intellectual process of understanding and dividing these materials, as well as the physical re-ordering of the materials.

Provenance: The physical history of the collection, from its creation to its current status, including previous owners, repository locations, and/or sale history.  This information is very useful to both scholars and archivists, since it often indicates how “handled” a collection is, and how close it is to its original condition.  Sometimes, the history of a collection is the object of study itself, especially if it was owned by interesting or famous people.  It is also invaluable for determining the copyright status and use guidelines of a collection.

Finding aid: A written guide for researchers that normally includes: a description of the collection with the dates and content it covers, a historical note on the material and/or the creator of the collection, index terms for helping you figure out if the collection will contain useful information for your project, bibliographical references, guidelines for use and copyright information, and the main attraction: an outline of what is actually in the collection, in the order that it is stored.  This can range from very detailed to very general depending on the size of the collection, and how much time archivists have had to work with it.

Subgroup, series, sub-series, etc.: Names given to the groupings of objects in a finding aid.  For example, in our finding aid, the whole “group” is the collection, divided into three subgroups:” Records,” “Fieldwork Papers and Research,” and “Publications.” Within these subgroups, there are series, which are further divided into sub-series, and sub-subseries for more specific groupings.

Bulk Dates vs. Inclusive Dates: The inclusive dates of a collection will encompass everything from the very earliest piece to the very latest.  Bulk dates, on the other hand, indicate the range of dates that accounts for the majority of the collection.

Scope and Content: The Scope and Content section of a finding aid will tell you what the collection contains in general terms.  The subject of the collection, and the chronological and/or geographical scope will be described so you can quickly tell whether or not the collection is relevant to your research.

For more information, check out this glossary and these books:

Arranging & Describing Archives & Manuscripts. Kathleen D. Roe, Society of American Archivists, Archival Fundamentals Series II, Chicago: 2005.

Describing Archives A Content Standard.  Society of American Archivists, Chicago: 2004.

That’s it! Now to actually make all of this happen with the Van Nice Collection…

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