Discovery in the archives?

I came across this article via a Facebook post on the SAA page yesterday.   As of today, the link has garnered over 60 “likes” on their page.  I thought it was a nice read, and ultimately a nice (and crucial) reminder that cultural heritage institutions have missions that involve cultivating and curating collections making it possible for researchers to do their work.

The article basically argues that media publicizing a researcher “discovering” something in an archive isn’t helpful (read:  it reinforces the stereotype that archives are inaccessible, musty old places) and isn’t true (read:  careful curation, organization, arrangement and cataloging greatly facilitated the researchers’ in their discovering).

While Ms. Fisher, the author, does concede that in the case of some discoveries there may be a cataloging backlog and thus the researchers don’t know precisely the contents of particular collections, her ultimate point is that archives do a lot of behind the scenes work to make this all possible:

“It’s important to remember,” said my colleague John Overholt, a rare-book and manuscript curator at the Houghton Library at Harvard, “that in most cases what’s termed an archival ‘discovery’ was possible only because of the years or decades of effort a repository invested in arranging, describing, preserving, and providing access to the materials in its care.

“That work,” he continued, “is indispensable to the research process, and I hate to see it devalued for the sake a more exciting narrative. I wish there were more articles headlined ‘Thorough, Accurate Cataloging Pays Off!’ “

It strikes me that the better the archivist does his or her job, the more invisible the work driving discoverability in the archives becomes.  If everything were miraculously cataloged (described) to the item level, and if everything had cross-links allowing researchers to jump easily from collection to collection, all the curators’ effort in creating this discovery space might evaporate from peoples’ minds.

This raises another point that comes up in the comments section of this article:  to get a lot of discoveries, one really needs item level processing.  Discoveries happen because items in collections aren’t expected to exist or be where they are found, right?  Mostly at least?  Well, metadata about collections (whether housed in a library catalog or archival finding aid) is around to imply what might be on the shelf, in the box, or in the folder.  What’s wrong?  Huge backlogs.

But, wait!  Archivists that have backlogs have heard for a long time to simply avoid this item-level processing in order to open up more of the collection.  Aside:  In the Wikipedia article on Archival Processing, this paper is one of only five external links provided!  So there’s clearly a tension in the archival field over wanting to go into detail on describing collections, but also wanting to just unleash the collections, providing bare-bones finding aids and letting researchers loose so at least something can be done with the resources.

It also makes me wonder about libraries.

Cataloging library items is a relatively different ballgame than describing archival collections, groups, series, and items.  Much of library cataloging is copy-cataloging, right?  And sure, there can be backlogs for works that must be cataloged from scratch, but the copy-cataloging infrastructure is incredibly important for getting metadata diffused throughout the world of libraries.  It seems to me that discoveries that happen in libraries happen when an item slips through the cracks.  Or, uses the tools of the library to unearth something unexpected.

But archival collections are… unique!  By at least some peoples’ definition, no?  Which brings us back to the tension between item level processing and collection level processing.  And I think digital and print archives are likely incredibly different in these cases.

I worked for an institution with a dark digital archive for several months while at the School of Information and we processed to the item level all digital submissions to our DSpace archive.  The archive was small but growing… rapidly.  I wondered if it could scale – as the research the Center was doing expanded, could the archives team keep up?  They appear to be doing great, I am happy to report, though!  And certainly, having item level processing and a good internal classification system really made discovery a lot easier for the researchers there.

In the end, I think institutions will be strapped for resources – human and financial – and there will be backlogs.  I generally subscribe to the MPLP approach when backlogs are rendering collections invisible to researchers entirely.  I realize that in this world of digital connectedness, there will be a growing number of examples pointing to successful crowd-sourced processing of digital resources.  And that is an intriguing prospect.  But, researchers are going to make discoveries from our collections – archival or library.  That’s ultimately a good thing.  That’s what we’re here for!  How we market that and publicize that will be crucial for how we are perceived by the public (as a critical component facilitating the discovery OR as a musty old place where the protagonist researcher saves the day by swooping in to rescue that inaccessible, priceless document).  More on marketing another day!

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