by Stephen Plotkin, Reference Archivist
Having brought our Declassification staff in to dispel some of the obscurity that surrounds their work, we thought we should put that work in the larger context of archival processing as a whole. To that end, we asked the leader of our processing unit to explain what she does.
Why isn’t it open yet?
The above words are an often-heard chorus reminding archivists of how frequently the processing “process” – the arrangement, description, preservation, and screening of archival records and manuscripts – is misunderstood. Why archives have backlogs is not easily explained. The interconnectedness of archival work means that the cause is rarely single, but rather the sum of all the steps that comprise archival processing.
The basic structure of archival processing goes like this: incoming materials must be signed in or “accessioned” (so we know they exist in our building), inventoried (so we know roughly what they consist of), evaluated (to determine among other things their organization – or lack thereof ), organized if necessary (so researchers can find what they are looking for), preserved (so researchers can handle them), and screened for privacy or other restrictions (we don’t want to release an individual’s social security number, or other personal information). When all of the above steps are performed, they result in the nicely foldered and boxed letters, photos, or other materials you can read about and request in an archival research room.
Archivists take the time to do all of the above so that researchers have the best access to materials possible. Depending on other archival activities (we also assist researchers, take care of our existing holdings, maintain institutional files, etc…) and institutional priorities, we may not be able to tend to our backlogs as quickly as we would like. Here at the Kennedy Library we must also follow federal regulations throughout the process, which makes our work slower than we might like.
A good example I like to use when people ask, “Why isn’t it open yet?” is this: I tell them to imagine their own workplace, or home, and think about their file cabinets or desk drawers. Do they always put their materials in folders? Do they label the folders consistently? Do they keep the same type of folder in the same location? I ask them to imagine what would happen if a researcher were to come into their home or office to conduct their research. Chances are, the only way they could find information would be by rifling through your desk drawers – and you probably would find that less than ideal (you might remove some files before the researcher came, in fact!), and the researcher would find it fairly inefficient.
Archival work is slow and steady, but the results are enduring. We thank you for your patience as we work to make all of our collections properly housed, described, and available to research.