Archives 101: Finding Aids are the Windows into a Collection

In this series, Phillips Manager, Archives and Library Resources Juli Folk and Digital Assets Librarian Rachel Jacobson explain the ins and outs of how archives work.

Welcome to another installment of Archives 101. So far, we have reviewed what an archival collection is and critical steps in archival processing. Now, let’s focus on describing archival material so that you, the researcher, might decide whether or not to seek further access to an archival collection.

The primary tool to figuring out whether or not an archival collection may be of use to you is the Finding Aid. A finding aid, according to the Society of American Archivists, is a description that typically consists of contextual and structural information about an archival resource. A finding aid should place the archival resources within context that allows a user to decide if they want to explore a collection more thoroughly. The contextual information generally included in a finding aid is:

  • • Title for the collection
  • • Dates, including bulk dates which indicate the period that most of the material is from
  • • Note about what can be found within the collection, usually called a scope and content note
  • • Provenance information
  • • Note about how the material has been arranged, usually called an arrangement note
  • • Description of the formats within a collection and storage information

As was the case with accessioning and arrangement, there is some wiggle room around how finding aids are written. However, this should not indicate that there aren’t documented standards and procedures for an archivist to follow.

The Phillips Collection archival repository is embarking on a new era with the implementation of the archival information management system ArchivesSpace. One of the many helpful things about the management system is that it helps create consistency across finding aids due to format and required fields. It also is the first time our archival material will be in one centralized and searchable database. We’re making progress; getting all our archival holdings into the system is a lofty goal and will take time!

However, the system will make searching through finding aids much easier. Below is a screenshot of some of the archival finding aids in our instance of ArchivesSpace thus far. ArchivesSpace refers to finding aids as collections, which are what the finding aid guides you through.

Peek into our instance of the archival information management system, ArchivesSpace.

After reading the notes and other information that gives you insight into generally what exists within a collection you can take a closer look at the contents.

Take a closer look into the finding aid. Scope and contents notes, dates, and other information give you insight into what you can broadly expect to find from a given archival collection.

By clicking on the “Collection Organization” tab you can see more specifically what the contents of a given collection are. For example, you will find titles of folders and the dates for which the material was created.

If everything still seems relevant to your research inquiry it may be time to request access to a specific folder, set of folders, or archival box.

A look inside one of the folders from the papers of C. Law Watkins (associate director of the gallery and director of the art school). Some of our folders will be accessible remotely, but for most of the material, researchers will still need to look at them in person.

Due to the arduous nature of getting to the point where an archivist is ready to create a finding aid, The Phillips Collection Library and Archives does not yet have nearly all our archival collections described. We are working to catch up with our material. The more we have available to users, the more likely we are to find those diamonds in the rough. Stay tuned for more information about the launch of our ArchivesSpace repository this summer!

Archives 101: An Introduction to Archival Processing

In this series, Phillips Manager, Archives and Library Resources Juli Folk and Digital Assets Librarian Rachel Jacobson explain the ins and outs of how archives work.

The previous “Archives 101” post introduced the concept of archival collections. Archives and special collections establish policies to guide what materials are accepted and preserved by an institution. Because every collection is unique and can include a variety of different materials, formats, and related information, they require varying levels of description, so the standards for archival organization are applied to best suit the needs of individual repositories. I will discuss the first few steps that occur after an archive is accessioned into a repository as a new collection, also understood as archival processing. In addition to including activities that promote preservation, processing also provides improved physical and intellectual access to the records. Generally speaking, during processing, materials are surveyed, arranged, described, and preserved for long-term storage with archival-quality housing.

Surveying the collection establishes an understanding of the contents of the collection and the physical state of the materials. During this step, it’s important to gather all contextual information (e.g., donor agreements, accession details, preliminary inventories) and prepare a standardized way to capture the details. The archivist will:

  • • Count the boxes, volumes, and items
  • • Review existing container labels
  • • Confirm the materials appear as expected
  • • Note any damage or special handling needs
  • • Identify existing groups of related materials

These steps may also help identify missing components and will aid in gathering the information needed to write detailed historical/biographical notes.

After the survey is complete, it is time to create a processing plan that intellectually arranges the collection into Series, and, if necessary, Subseries, usually determined by subject, function, or form. Series filing systems may be geographic, chronological, or alphabetical and a collection can include only a single series or many series. Intellectual arrangement decisions are based on the state of the collection and the needs of potential users, who can include museumgoers, researchers, art historians, students, and teachers. Intellectual arrangement also relies on two fundamental archival principles stated below.

Provenance refers to the individual or group that created or collected the items and dictates that records of different origins be kept separate to preserve their context. Establishing provenance is key to creating accurate and helpful accession records.

Original order refers to how the collection was organized when it was brought to the repository for accessioning. It often indicates how the record creator(s) considered, maintained, and used the materials. If the original order is useful and meaningful, then retaining it preserves existing relationships and evidentiary significance that will be helpful to collection users. If the original order is non-existent or not meaningful, then an archivist will likely suggest a new arrangement to better serve future researchers.

Before processing, the Duncan Phillips Directorial Correspondence was organized chronologically, in folders labeled only with the first letter for the correspondents within. This box contains all correspondence from 1954-1955 from individuals and businesses whose names begin with letters between A-L. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection Library & Archives.

This is an example where the original order was known but found to be unhelpful for users of the collection. As the label on the box describes, the original order of the Directorial Correspondence of Duncan Phillips was chronological and alphabetical by the correspondent’s name. However, this meant that a folder labeled ‘A’ would contain dozens of correspondents with the first letter ‘A’, making it difficult to pinpoint individuals. Therefore, it was determined that additional processing would help provide valuable information about individual correspondents. The arrangement is still chronological by correspondent, but individual correspondents have been separated into their own folder.

After processing, the Duncan Phillips Directorial Correspondence is organized alphabetically by correspondent, with multiple years arranged together, for ease of research. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection Library & Archives.

Surveying and arranging the materials provides all the information needed to describe the collection in a Finding Aid. Finding aids contextualize the materials and breadth of a collection, describing why it is important and unique. They contain detailed notes used by researchers to determine whether the contents of a collection may be useful to their research. We’ll discuss Finding Aids in more detail next!

Archives 101: What is an Archival Collection?

In this series, Phillips Manager, Archives and Library Resources Juli Folk and Digital Assets Librarian Rachel Jacobson explain the ins and outs of how archives work.

It’s usually fair to say that the average person is more familiar with libraries than archives. If that is the case for you, here are some helpful distinctions aimed at enhancing your next visit to The Phillips Collection Library & Archives.

Libraries hold published books and materials, which are secondary sources that were consciously created and intended to be distributed for review. Books are collected and circulated through libraries as individual items and are cataloged and organized according to standards that have been well-established for hundreds of years.

Archives are different in that they are made up of primary-source materials that were created over the course of normal daily business and life. Archival materials can include receipts, correspondence, photographs, ledgers, digital media, and related ephemera. In order to maintain their context, archival items are classified in aggregate as “collections,” instead of as standalone items.

The Phillips Collection Library & Archives holds numerous collections that include materials documenting the inner workings of the museum. Some items that may have seemed run of the mill at the time have since become treasures. For example, this undated handwritten note was left for Duncan Phillips at the front desk of the museum by Georgia O’Keeffe during one of her visits.

There are a variety of different kinds of archival collections. For example, institutional departmental collections manage and preserve the records of the business or institution. These collections exist to serve the needs of researchers and staff members, to document historical discussion and decisions over time, and to support strategic institutional goals. Two examples of these types of collections in our archive are the Records of the Music Department and the Exhibition History Records.

The Records of the Music Department consist of materials dated from 1925 and include correspondence, press clippings and reviews, photographs, concert programs, serial publications, pamphlets, press releases, and other ephemera pertaining to concerts and performers.

Archival boxes housing the Music Department records are organized chronologically, ready for research. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection Library & Archives

Exhibition History records are dated from the early 1900s and contain material that was created and collected by the Curatorial Department to support activities related to the research, planning, preparation, logistics, and catalogue for individual shows. The collections include articles, brochures, catalogues, checklists, correspondence, and reviews.

Photograph collections are compiled or created by individuals, families, or organizations and are preserved for their enduring evidentiary value and context. Our recently digitized Historic Photographs Collection is arranged chronologically with items that date from the late 1800s. The collection includes images of the museum building interior and exterior, the immediate and extended families of Duncan and Marjorie Phillips, art exhibitions, notable visitors, special events, and construction projects. The materials are in a variety of formats and sizes, with both color and black-and-white prints. This collection will be available digitally soon!

Duncan Phillips (left) and his younger brother Jim Phillips in the late 1800s. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection Library & Archives

Annex installation from the 1960s exhibition Sculpture Seen Anew: The Bronze Age to Brancusi, including works by Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore. Courtesy of The Phillips Collection Library & Archives

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, which will focus on Archival Processing to describe the steps we take to make our collections more accessible and useful to researchers.