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.

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