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Research Now

Arrangement Now!

At this stage of the Research Now project, we have all become familiar with Lou Malcomb’s collection of IU Libraries materials. Lately, we have been thinking about how to arrange the collection. I dusted off my old 2008 class notebook from Dr. David Gracy’s Introduction to Archival Enterprise to reread the principles that shaped my approach to archival work. Here are the first two (out of ten) Fundamentals of Archival Enterprise as they relate to our project.

archives notes
My notes from Introduction to Archival Enterprise, Fall 2008.

1. Archives are us!

archives (noun):

All of the records and documentation written, received, and gathered by an individual or organization in the conduct of affairs of life, which contain information of enduring value and usefulness, some of which possess added value because of their physical form, systematically maintained, commonly after they have fulfilled the purpose for which they were created.

Here’s a version with our details embedded:

All (well, not all of them, but a substantial amount) of the records and documentation written, received, and gathered by Lou Malcomb in the conduct of affairs at IU libraries, which contain information of enduring value and usefulness because they document the history of our institution, buildings, departments, individuals, and events, some of which possess added value because of their physical form, systematically maintained first by Lou, now by Research Now, commonly after they have fulfilled the purpose for which they were created (i.e. we no longer use these materials for the purposes they were originally meant to be used, but we know we should not throw them away).

2. Archivists think in groups.

Where librarians often work with items (e.g. books, recorded media, datasets), archivists are concerned with bodies of documentation generated, gathered, and used by a creator. The primary archival axiom is respect des fonds, which comes from an 1841 French decree that archival documents should be organized by fonds: the person, body, or organization that created them. Prior to that, French archivists categorized and grouped all documents by subjects they perceived to be research interests. Nowadays, respect des fonds is the reason archives have collections bearing the names of the people or entities that created them. Here are a few examples from IU Libraries:

Below the fonds level, the archival series is an intellectual unit of documentation that reflects a particular function or activity of the creator. What determines the archival series? Ideally, the organizational scheme used by the creator, or original order. In reality, lots of archival material arrives out of order or with no order at all, as stated in the Society of American Archivists’ Glossary: “The principle of respect  for original order does not extend to respect for original chaos.” Archivists then arrange the records as closely as possible to how the creator had them or processes caused them to be. It is preferable to form series based on characteristics of the functions and activities of the creator, but you can settle for organizing by characteristics of the records themselves (i.e. format) if necessary.

Life in the IU Libraries today is drastically different than in 19th-Century European archives, yet their principles remain. Why? It is important to note that these principles were developed solely for physical materials, since, well, that’s all they had back then. We are incredibly fortunate to be able to digitize any physical format in this collection. By doing so, we can free digital copies from the pesky physical limitation of only being able to be in one place at a time and perform any combination of the following:

  • Provide access to digitized items in the order they appear within the arranged archival material  (as done in Archives Online)
  • Provide access to just the photographic, non-text images (as done in Image Collections Online)
  • Provide access to a curated collection of material in any number of orders and/or arrangements with narrative content (as done in exhibit sites such as the Lilly Library’s War of 1812)

With help from rich descriptive metadata, digitized items can exist in a variety of locations, fulfill a variety of purposes, and take a variety of forms and organizational structures. If, however, one wanted to access the physical collection material, it should be in a logical arrangement, if for no other reason than peer pressure: most, if not all, IU archival repositories do it this way. Once this not-too-laborious task of arrangement is complete, we will be free to digitize, research, and provide access to this rich collection material.

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