First, a definition. The word “Description,” when used by an archivist in a professional setting, refers to “information about a collection.” This can include things such as finding aids, inventories, scope and content statements, catalog records, subject-oriented “pathfinders” and other research aids. Think of Description as being a tool that you consult before actually diving in to do the research. It can help you decide if a collection has materials of interest, guide you to a specific box to request during your visit, and help you determine if a collection has enough content to be worth travel expenses to conduct research at a far-away repository.
The act of archival description wields enormous power. Fail to mention that an 1849 account book contains details about the buying and selling of human beings; or that an entire box of materials in Mr. VIP’s collection actually documents the social and charitable activities of Mrs. VIP over the course of 40 years – and it might as well be as if these things do not exist. Indeed, from the perspective of a researcher – they do not exist, because the contents of the collections have not be adequately communicated to the end user.
If either of these collections were processed today, I am confident that they would be adequately described to bring out the content relating to African American and women’s history. Those subjects are topics that are generally understood within the archival and history professions to be worth mentioning and highlighting. However, that has not always been the case.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, most of history through the mid-twentieth century was focused on the stories of “Great Men.” Thus, a collection that was processed and described by an earlier generation of archivists, might not provide adequate description for modern researchers. Seth Rockman’s comment about African American resources being hidden away in a box or folder labelled “Miscellaneous” is an example. The easy and obvious question is: why can’t archivists provide more (and adequate) description for the contents of their collections?
If only the answer were that simple. Two main factors work against this:
1) As a general rule, archivists seldom have time to reprocess or re-describe collections that already have some form of finding aid or descriptive summary. If a collection was processed in 1920, in any form – then archivists are going to be concentrating their time and efforts on collections that still have received no processing or description at all.
2) Collections from the latter part of the twentieth century are more voluminous than ever. In an attempt to make better use of archivists’ scarce time, Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner proposed a method of processing known in archives lingo as “MPLP” – (More Product Less Process). What this means is that archivists are encouraged to do “speed processing”. One way to do this is to process at a more global, less granular level – at the box-level, for instance, rather than the folder-level. We might, for example, determine that this box contains financial records, another box contains correspondence, and yet another box has marketing materials and advertisements, all part of the Local Widget Company records. That might be as detailed as the description gets. After that, it’s up to the researcher to dig around and determine if the collection has any content of interest. So the MPLP method does present some risk in terms of overlooking certain subject matter – like labor unrest, or LWC’s refusal to hire women on the factory floor, or the Widgets for America campaign during World War II, for instance.
So how can researchers work around these limitations of archival description? First, I encourage you to think broadly. Even if the formal description from the archives for the Local Widget Company records doesn’t mention its WWII campaign, if you know there is content from that time period in the collection – then it is worth investigating. Consider related topics – narrow and broaden your search terms and your way of thinking of your primary research focus. For instance, if you are researching women factory workers, perhaps try terms like “industry” or “manufacturing” or “widgets” or “women in the workforce”. If that still doesn’t help, always always ALWAYS – ask an archivist!!! Most experienced archivists have more content in their heads than any finding aid could ever capture.
What are archivists doing to try to bring out “hidden topics” from their collections? Some institutions routinely highlight certain items from their collections. Carnival floats and costumes from LARC (LouisianA Research Collections) at Tulane is one great example. Other institutions are creating “virtual exhibits” like Territorial Kansas Online, in this case, featuring content from several repositories. Other organizations are using social media, blogs, or outlets like Historypin to highlight different aspects of their collections. These methods all allow archivists to zero in on specific items from their collections, or particular themes, and bring them to a wider audience.
Part 3 in a series.
Part 1 – Access
Part 2 – Collections
Part 4 – Acquisitions