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On Photography Backlogs

If you’ve been in Tamiment within the past year or so and taken a peek into our conference room, you may have wondered, “What is the deal with all of the Post-its?” All will be revealed to you now…

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So many Post-its.

We are pleased to announce the successful completion of a project to eliminate our backlog of unprocessed photograph collections! The overall aims of this undertaking were to establish intellectual control over and provide access to a large number of photograph collections that had previously been largely invisible to the public. We sought to utilize as much legacy description as possible, revise existing description in compliance with professional and local content standards, and re-integrate photographs that had been separated from the manuscript collections they had previously been part of.
We began with a backlog of 210 unprocessed photograph collections. Eep. Yikes. Sad archives trombone. And so forth. Using a workforce of primarily part-time paraprofessional graduate students, we were able to describe and make available all of these collections in a little over a year (which included periods of time where the project was put on hold in order to prioritize more time-sensitive repository needs).
At the outset, we established several basic parameters that proved crucial to our success and serve as valuable lessons for future endeavors. We prioritized spending our time on creating rich description over physical arrangement, limited rehousing activities to only those situations where materials were actively being damaged in their current state, and set a benchmark to create collection-level records for the materials (for the non-archivists in our midst – welcome! Don’t run away! – this means that we described on the larger, more general level of the collection as a whole, and depending on factors including the materials themselves and the presence of pre-existing description, we may or may not have created more detailed inventories with information on individual boxes, folders, or items).

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Progress.

Much like a novel of manners, restraint was paramount. Going through these collections brought numerous issues to light, and it became clear quite quickly that attempting to address every problem we encountered or create finding aids that inventoried every item in the collection would prevent us from eliminating this backlog. The primary objective was to bring all of these collections up to an acceptable base level of publicly available description that enabled access. Many of these collections may warrant conservation treatment or more detailed description at a later date, but it seemed not only imprudent, but irresponsible to focus significant time and resources on just a few collections when we had so many that were completely unavailable to researchers. This initial effort will serve as a foundation for further work in the future, as appropriate.
Another priority was to reunite many of these photographs back with the manuscript collections they were originally part of. Former Tamiment practice had been to separate serials, photographs, sound recordings, published works, and moving image materials; remove them from manuscript collections; and place them into either parallel format-based collections, larger artificial collections assembled by the archives, or to our library of publications. For example, if we had received a collection from Kilgore Trout that included a number of photographs, we would have created a collection for the manuscripts and called it the Kilgore Trout Papers, and then separated the photographs, establishing those as a distinct but related collection called the Kilgore Trout Photographs. While this tendency is not uncommon in the archival profession, at Tamiment we have more recently decided that keeping these materials together preserves their provenance and context much better, in addition to making things easier for both archivists and researchers. Physical format is an important factor we must be aware and mindful of; however, preserving the informational content and context of materials is crucial to the work archivists perform. Of the 210 photograph collections we worked on during this project, 170 were re-integrated into their parent manuscript collections while 40 remained discrete photograph collections. We kept these 40 photograph collections separate when there was no manuscript component, or in cases where the creator or provenance of the materials was different.

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Photographic print cleaned, humidified, and rehoused during the project, 1949; Barbara Kopple: Peekskill Riots Collection; TAM 307; Box 10; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

As if achieving our stated goals was not enough, we reaped numerous other benefits from this project: our internal locations management is better, we freed up about 70 linear feet of stack storage space by sending a few collections to our offsite facility, we found parts of collections that had previously been identified as missing, and we cleared out the admittedly unkempt aisles where many of these collections were previously housed. By being restrained in our preservation activities, we were able to target select materials that truly required treatment, like the photographs in the Barbara Kopple: Peekskill Riots Collection (TAM 307) that our colleagues in the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation and Conservation Department cleaned, humidified, mended, and rehoused in order accommodate browsing and handling. Improved access to collections allows for more timely and effective preservation actions by increasing their visibility and the likelihood that a patron or staff member will identify and address particular issues; similarly, the cleaning, mending, and rehousing of certain materials significantly increased their access to users. Our project staff got a lot of practice applying professional descriptive standards and now has great experience describing materials employing varying levels of physical arrangement. We also edited the finding aids for the manuscript collections that the photographs were integrated into, bringing them more closely in line with our current benchmarks for quality archival description. And perhaps most central to our mission and purpose, users have access to more materials and will have a simplified research experience.
Utilizing existing legacy description considerably contributed to our success, but also highlighted some troubling tendencies concerning the barriers well-intentional archivists sometimes inadvertently create between researchers and the collections. Only five of the 210 collections in the backlog had any form of online description at the outset; however, we found that at least 121 had some form of already existing description, ranging from a narrative summary to brief finding aids to box or item-level inventories in paper or electronic formats. One of our students wrote a great explanation of the process she used to transform some of these earlier inventories into usable data. In many cases, much of the descriptive work necessary to provide access had already been completed, but the collections were still presented as undescribed, unprocessed, and as a result, largely invisible to our researchers.

Finished Section
This project really touched on every major archival function: accessioning, arrangement, description, and reference services. We thought about how taking an “accessioning as processing” approach could help eliminate similar backlogs from forming; the importance of getting our collections to an acceptable base level with an eye on future, iterative work; experimenting with rich description and minimal physical arrangement, as appropriate; and ultimately, the impact of these efforts on our user statistics and research experience.
That’s been a quick look behind the scenes at Tamiment. We’ve taken the Post-it notes down, but there is still plenty of work to do around here, so on to the next project we go!

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