The Laura Foreman Papers: Adapting Greene and Meissner to Artists’ Archives
One of the most used collections at the Fales Library is the Downtown Collection, which in part seeks to document Downtown New York artists and performers and their art forms. Interdisciplinarity was often the norm rather than the exception among Downtown artists, and as a result materials in our collections regularly span a wide breadth of artistic media. Such is the case of the Laura Foreman Papers, my first assignment as Offsite Processing Archivist, and one that threw its fair share of roadblocks in the way of our newly streamlined processing strategy.
When I arrived at Fales my orientation packet, so to speak, was a printout of Greene and Meissner’s “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing” (The American Archivist, Fall/Winter 2005). The article criticized high-cost, low-benefit processing rituals in favor of efficient processing with a focus on online access and availability. Immediately after its publication, repositories across the country began to reevaluate and modify their processing standards (see the following two issues of American Archivist, both of which are tellingly preoccupied with positive and negative responses to the piece). We’ve adopted its principles for the processing of selected collections or portions of collections here at Fales, but as I learned while processing the Laura Foreman Papers, best practices are difficult to maintain while navigating the multifarious contents of artists’ papers.
Having worked in New York beginning in the late sixties as a dancer, choreographer, performance artist, sculptor, painter and writer, Laura Foreman is a perfect fit in the Downtown Collection. Highlights of the Laura Foreman Papers include audio recordings, objects used in performances, and nearly comprehensive photographic and moving image documentation of Foreman’s dance choreography and performance art.
When I began processing the collection, the audio, video, and correspondence materials had been separated; of the rest of the collection, 42 boxes had been numbered, though nearly as many remained unmarked and filled with mixed materials. What seemed at first to be an ideal collection for time-efficient box-level processing revealed itself rather early on to be something of a mess. Those boxes that had been numbered showed very little intellectual or chronological continuity. The unmarked boxes complicated the process further, containing loose paper materials, appointment books, and a large amount of photographic material. It would have been extraordinarily difficult to describe and preserve those materials in their original order (if you could call it that). We needed to revise our plan to accommodate these unexpected obstacles.
Our biggest departure from Greene and Meissner was out of respect for the photographic material in the collection. It would have been easy to keep the original arrangement and housing of the photographic material and move forward, and I’m sure several repositories would have done so. However, part of our mission at Fales is to meticulously preserve and maintain all forms of artistic creation from the Downtown scene. A large portion of the photos in the Foreman Papers transcend their original purpose as documentation and stand alone as artworks by artists such as Robert Alexander, whose papers also reside at Fales. While the bulk of the Foreman Papers were slated for offsite storage, photographic materials are always kept onsite at Fales, where we have more control over environmental factors. It was with the researcher’s interest in mind that we afforded these materials a higher degree of attention.
Once the remaining paper materials in the collection had been appropriately housed and arranged, the final challenge was efficiently describing a massive amount of material that evinced no continuous intellectual or chronological order. One of the keys to “More Product, Less Process” is the importance of description within an online finding aid. Broad-level description must be as rich as possible in the absence of item- or folder-level data. I tried to imagine what means a researcher would use to mine useful information from such a large volume of materials. In addition to assigning broad date ranges to the boxes, I devised a scheme of twelve “file-types” with which I could loosely classify the materials in each box. I further clarified the descriptions by listing the specific works that are ostensibly referenced in each box, and bolstered the finding aid with a healthy portion of access points. With all of these measures in place, a researcher should be able to not only reach the finding aid, but also navigate it as easily as can be expected.
Stay tuned for further updates on the progress of backlog minimization here at Fales.
– Nicholas Martin, Offsite Processing Archivist, Fales Library