Completing My Assigned Work

As of today, the 27th, I have completed all of my assigned boxes. I still have twenty more hours, or two weeks, left to fulfill my internship requirements, so I asked Hillary how she would like me to utilize this time. Earlier in the summer another intern was unable to stay on and forfeited her assigned boxes, meaning there was plenty of work left for us remaining interns to pick up.

I feel satisfied having gotten through all of my work in an efficient manner. Upon completion, Hillary queried the database for the old location information, a way to see if I missed any documents that had previously been entered into PastPerfect. I had very few of these errors and was able to go back to all of them and fix my mistakes in twenty minutes or so. I am glad that my workflow was as successful as I believed it to be.

It feels a bit daunting that I will not be able to finish all of these extra boxes. I would have loved to have finished the project, but I only have limited time left with MCHC. It is a good illustration of the ever-changing nature of the MCHC workforce, however. Interns will continue this summer project in the fall; these interns will make their own decisions, find their own flow, and approach the documents in their own ways. Ultimately, I have to be satisfied that I did my best work, informed by my qualifications, and I was able to help the MCHC build a better, though not perfect, digital record of their collections.

Making Decisions

A week or two ago I briefly mentioned that I had come across documents in the collection that had been labeled like 0000.000.0000a-z despite being stapled together, unable to be physically separated or divorced form each others’ contexts. I’ve likewise mentioned before that sometimes items are not yet entered into PastPerfect, giving me more space to make decisions about how they are recorded. Now that I am most of the way through my internship, I feel much more confident making decisions about the collection, so when I found some of these stapled a-z documents that had not yet been entered into the system, I proposed a change to my supervisor.

 I explained to Hillary how they had originally been numbered, and said that I believe this to be a waste of digital space as well as dangerous for the document; getting a scan of the second page would require me to crease fragile paper in the scanner, leaving it vulnerable to damage. I asked if I could instead create only one record, leaving out any letter modifiers, and simply note in the description that it is a stapled document. She agreed that this was a more appropriate way to handle the records and would not be a detriment to discovery by those in the future.

Scanning for Access

I’ve mentioned before that we are adding scans for all of the documents into PastPerfect. Originally I understood this to be for internal purposes—Hillary is the primary user of the database and a quick reference image is helpful for her locating or identifying an object. I was recently in conversation with her and another volunteer, Susan, about the scans and she offered some more information about the use of these images. Apparently MCHC is courting companies that could make its database or parts of the database available online, which would allow researchers to see what documents the History Center has, hopefully increasing the usefulness and accessibility of the archival materials (and other non-document items in the MCHC’s holdings).

These images would be available on this future online resource, giving possible outside users the same ability to identify or reference the appearance of an item when searching for it if they come on-site. Or the image, along with the description, could help verify the usefulness of a document and perhaps allow the researcher to request a scan of the document from the MCHC confident it will fulfill their information needs.

We do not scan everything—a book’s record will only display the cover, a stapled manuscript of ten pages will only display the first sheet of paper. The use of these low-resolution scans is not for research work but instead for helping with democratization of the collections, giving users a visual reference for items of interest to them.

Leaving a Trail

I previously discussed the issues that can arise when so many people of so many different professional and academic backgrounds make decisions about an entire archival collection. I mentioned that these issues are not necessarily detrimental to the needs of MCHC, but at times it requires a bit more communication in order to make things more clear for those who handle the records in the future. For this reason, Hillary encourages us to leave notes explaining any issues we encountered and were unable to resolve.

For example, this week I came across a restaurant menu and upon looking up its number, found a description for a completely different object. It was not a particularly cohesive accession, so I was no able to determine which item was more likely assigned this number by the context of the other objects in the collection. MCHC acquisition documentation, which I discussed last time, seemed to match the description in PastPerfect but we were unable to locate the correct item (it was a dress, not a document, so this required my supervisor’s help). We looked through documentation where numbers might be flipped or mistaken for each other (like a 7 instead of a 1, etc.), but were unable to locate a correct accession number for the menu I needed to enter. Ultimately this was not a problem I could resolve, and I could not spend any more time on the issue.

I ended up leaving a note in the PastPerfect record explaining that two items have been given the same number with a brief description of the menu and the location. I marked the dress as missing so it is flagged for Hillary in the future. Without a note, a future intern or volunteer might come across the same problem and have to do all of the digging through acquisitions records and textiles that I already had to do, which is why communicating with future volunteers via notes is important.

Searching MCHC’s Records

Our overarching goal for this project is twofold. First, we need to make sure every item is accounted for in the PastPerfect system. Second, we need for the items to be discoverable and easily identifiable. As I get deeper into the collections, I am finding more documents that have never been added to PastPerfect or that have errors in their entries. Often one of these documents will just stump me, and I have to consult the MCHC records of the acquisition. For accessions before 1995, catalog cards for every item are available. This is helpful particularly when a number has been misread and the entry for the item I am looking at does not match its own entry in PastPerfect. The card confirms exactly which item has been assigned that number.

For accessions after 1995 we have the gift paperwork, which enumerates the items given by the donor. These tend to have less description but are also helpful.  Becoming familiar with the documentation that exists outside of the database is a skill that I can see being useful in future archival work. I have been to several smaller institutions that rely on paper records, and I am glad to have gotten this experience and been able to delve a little deeper into MCHC’s own history with an object.

Relying on Volunteer Labor

Having worked at the MCHC for a couple of months, I am beginning to see some of the pitfalls of relying on volunteer labor through the work I am assigned in collection’s archives. Relying on volunteers and interns means that its workforce is transient and does not necessarily have the training of a professional archivist. People who have worked with these archival materials over the years have had to at times make decisions without reference to a precedent. And different collection’s managers have made different decisions over the years as well. One of our more simple examples are multi-page letters or manuscripts. If papers are loose, they may be cataloged as something like 1993.114.0003a, 1993.114.0003b, and so on. Others volunteers might have labeled the same document as 1993.114.0003-01, 1993.114.0003-02, and so on. It is worth keeping in mind also that before 1998, these records were not kept digitally in anyway, so this was unlikely to confuse or bother archive users.

However, these same decisions are more nuanced in 2019. Each record means more space taken up on PastPerfect, more time taken to run queries, and more opportunities for incorrect data entry. I have come across documents that are stapled together but are still labeled a-z. There is no way the attached documents can escape each other’s contexts and no researcher will use the third piece of paper, say, divorced from the context of the first three sheets. If the items cannot be separated and are best described together, this is an unnecessary use of digital space. But most volunteers do not have the informatics and information science training I am fortunate to have had. This leads to a patchwork of decisions that do not ultimately disrupt discoverability too drastically, but would likely be handled differently with a professional archivist on staff. As it is, though, it functions for the History Center’s needs.

Finding a Flow

At this point in my internship I have settled into a flow that works quite efficiently for me. The system used to catalog all of the MCHC’s items, PastPerfect, is not the most modern software on the market; I was speaking to my supervisor, Hillary, and she said the History Center began using PastPerfect in 1998. This reality means that there is a bit of lag time when using more advanced features, such as adding an image from the scanner. The scanner itself also takes a minute or two on each item. In order to go through the boxes more quickly, I have to use these pauses to my advantage.

When I begin a new folder I first look at the contents to get a sense of what is inside. If the contents belong to only a few collections, this tells me I will have possibly some like objects. If a folder has a completely random assortment of items, I know that I will have to use more of my time navigating between different accessions.

When I have an idea of what the folder will be like, I organize all of the items according to the order they are listed on the folder’s outside. This allows me to check more thoroughly that no documents are missing, no extras are found, and everything can be accounted for properly.

Then I will put the first item on the scanner, and preview the image so I can crop it. After it is cropped it will take a minute to scan, so I begin looking at the accession number. I change the necessary information in the record, and when the scan is finished attach it to the record as well. This is where the system lags; while it lags, I utilize the time to begin my next scan. This means that by the time I can go to the next item’s record, I have already had the time to preview and crop the image. When items are smaller, I can add several at a time to the scanner and get further ahead. Having organized them in the order listed on the folder beforehand, I do not have any problems getting confused about working on one item’s record while scanning the next ones. This flow is allowing me to get through even more complicated boxes faster than I was at the beginning of the internship.

Critical Description Choices

This internship is allowing me to practice describing items while only having a limited time to process them. As I get further into my allotted boxes, I am finding documents that have not been entered in the database. I am then responsible for giving a rudimentary description that would allow the object to be found in via query. The MCHC has chosen to use few of the metadata features provided by Past Perfect, so the description entry for the archival material is particularly important for discovery. I have to be mindful of the deadline, however, and only have a limited amount of time I can devote to a single object.

I have decided to describe these items with the kind of document, a brief physical description if relevant, and any identifying information. I often include important parties involved, such as organizations, companies, creators, and recipients; I also make note of the date if one is provided. This can usually be done in a few sentences and does not take me more than a couple of minutes. As I get more familiar with the materials, I begin to recognize identifying information that is of particular interest to Monroe County, which in turn enriches my ability to describe the items. This internship is good practice in becoming acquainted with the breadth of an entire collection and visualizing the connecting themes that make the individual items into a cohesive archival body of materials.  

Volunteering for MCHC

Having really enjoyed my time at the Monroe County History Center, I decided to volunteer to help at their annual garage sale fundraiser this past weekend. The Center is dependent on volunteer staff, many of which are senior citizens. I enjoyed meeting some of the other volunteers and being able to help support MCHC. I am aware of the importance of fundraising and community involvement in private memory institutions like the History Center, and supporting such events is critical to the daily operations of these places. Overall I think interacting with my internship in this way was a great addition to my opportunity.

Priorities at Memory Institutions

Much of what I have noted so far while completing this internship has revolved around the collection’s lack of professional archival oversight. This is no criticism of the institution; the MCHC’s goal is not to connect their patrons with these documents—they will allow it, but it is not a priority of the institution. Resources are limited, and hiring such a professional would not be realistic. Ultimately, I am enjoying learning how differently decisions are made at places that are not primarily archival institutions but do have archival needs. The internship is providing insight into the complexities of memory institutions, and how they must balance resources and priorities, which is part of why I find the field so fascinating to begin with.