It’s a Project Archivist Christmas

As 2013 comes to a close, I’ve repackaged and catalogued over 1,000 files from the Archive. In this blog post, I’ll share a few of the methods I used to get this historic material processed and available for researchers as quickly as possible.

Project Archivist Matt reflects

Project Archivist Matt reflects on a year’s work.

As I wrote in my introductory post, most if not all archive services have backlogs of material that hasn’t been catalogued due to lack of time or staff. My main role as Project Archivist is to reduce the BPMA’s backlog, one section of the Archive at a time. So far I’ve eliminated four backlogs:

  • Organisation, circulation and sorting of inland mails (POST 17).
  • Post Office counter operations and services (POST 22).
  • Establishment records (POST 59).
  • Public Relations Department, predecessors and successors (POST 108).

Each backlog was composed of hundreds of individual files, ranging from administrative papers to technical plans to visual material like posters and photographs. The files had come into the Archive from many different sources over the past few decades. My task was to repackage and catalogue the files, and find places for them in the BPMA’s existing catalogue structure. I also needed to remove redundant files to free up much-needed repository space. And I wanted to make my descriptions reasonably detailed, to help people search for files in our online catalogue.

The working method I devised, therefore, was based around fast, detailed processing on a file-by-file basis. I had the opportunity to evaluate and refine the method after each backlog was finished. I also familiarised myself with More Product Less Process (MPLP) theory after recommendations from professional colleagues. While I didn’t completely embrace the MPLP approach, I adopted some of its ideas to increase efficiency.

I’m not going to hurl technical details at you, but here are some of the techniques I used to process over 1,000 wildly differing files alongside the other work I do at the BPMA.

1. Get to know the territory: Before starting, I visually inspected the entire backlog to get a rough idea of its extent and anything requiring special conservation treatment. I also collated any existing box lists and accession records, did background research, and compiled a glossary of terms used in file names.

2. Establish basic standards: I adopted a minimum standard of description and repackaging, which could be enhanced if a file warranted it. Any file containing a contents list or executive summary had it copied pretty much verbatim into the catalogue description, while files in stable ring binders were generally not repackaged.

3. Multi-task: I combined appraisal (i.e. deciding if we needed to keep the file), repackaging, physical arrangement and catalogue description into a single integrated process, performed on one file at a time. Intellectual arrangement of files into a catalogue structure was only done after all files had been processed.

4. Use simple, sensible numbering: The BPMA uses two numbering systems. Each file/item has a Finding Number, which is unique, fixed, and used by researchers and staff to retrieve archives for consultation. Files/items also have Reference Numbers, which structure the multi-level archival descriptions I described in this blog post. Reference Numbers aren’t seen by researchers and can be swapped around as often as needed. This is a really great way to do almost all the processing of files without having to worry about exactly where they’ll go in the catalogue.

Cataloguing database screen capture

A screen capture of Matt’s cataloguing database, showing some of the completed fields and the BPMA’s dual numbering system.

5. Wherever possible, get a computer to help: I designed a relational database in Access for all my project work. The database would automatically complete some catalogue fields, saving lots of time. It logged which files had been catalogued and which had been marked for disposal. I used it during processing to group files into rough subject categories, which were refined into catalogue sub-series at the end. Best of all, I could take all the descriptions I’d written in the database and import them into our catalogue software in one batch.

These are some of the techniques I’ve used in my work. Perhaps you might find them helpful if you’re working on a similar task. Of course, there are many other ways of working, and I’d be very interested to read your suggestions for how I could do things differently!

WW2 postal records

Christmas is all about opening boxes, but archivists get to do it every day! Here, Matt opens the first of several boxes of uncatalogued WW2 postal records.

My new project is to catalogue a large collection of British Army postal service records, dating from World War 2 to the 1980s. I’ll keep you posted.

Happy Christmas, and see you in the New Year!

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

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