Recently I’ve been working on a fairly large archival cleanup project. This project involves overhauling the arrangement of a collection, updating physical processing to meet our internal standards, and improving metadata online to improve accessibility of the material. This type of cleanup work can be hugely time consuming and it often reminds me of diving down a rabbit hole.
Cleanup Scope Creep
Cleanup projects can be sneaky in their size. Often what looks like a quick fix of a few records and grow into a much larger. For example, you’re working on a research request and you find a few things in an online description that need updating. You you start to fix that and then you realize that a bunch of other things could be improved as well and before you know it the project has snowballed and grown in scope.
Sometimes you need to be realistic about what you can fix and what is worth cleaning up. It would be wonderful if all museum and archival collections were perfectly described and consistently followed description standards. But description work is time consuming, standards and procedures change, and people make mistakes. I’m sure every heritage professional has a least one collection they have personally processed that they look back on and wish they had processed it differently. Sometimes you have the ability to make those changes and sometimes you don’t.
I have a few general rules around taking on cleanup projects:
- Make sure you understand the complete scope of the project. This might mean limiting yourself to only doing a certain level of cleanup initially.
- Consider if the cleanup is really necessary. Is the collection accessible the way it is? How will accessibility be improved by the cleanup? Is this a collection that is frequently accessed by researchers? Does the time required to undertake the work match the level of accessibility improvement that it will be seen?
- Keep an ongoing list of collections that need cleanup attention. This list can be used to allocate resources based on time and staffing levels. Having this ongoing list also makes me feel a lot better about the fact that things need fixing but we don’t simply have the time/staff to do so currently. Instead of simply ignoring the cleanup that needs to be done the list helps document the work and schedule it for later.
- Determine what type of skills are needed to do the work. Is it something that needs to be done be a staff person or is it something a student/intern can manage?
- Document how you are going to tackle the project – I often use spreadsheets to keep track of progress on larger projects, particularly if I know I’m going to be doing the work intermittently.
How institutions prioritize this cleanup type of work is going to vary widely. I’m lucky in that there is virtually no backlog at the archives where I work. This lack of backlog means we have substantially more time to spend on accessibility, digitization, and outreach projects. That being said accessioning new donations, educational programming, and reference take priority over cleanup – so even though there’s no backlog I often find cleanup projects being pushed to the back burner.