Jack McCarthy, Celia Caust-Ellenbogen, And Sarah Leu 2015-05-22 12:38:04
Where should a researcher go to find photographs of the world’s first solar power plant, built in Egypt in the 1910s by a Philadelphia-based inventor?1 Or the scrapbooks of renowned actress, singer, and special representative to the United Nations Pearl Bailey?2 Or the records of the oldest continuously existing troop in the US National Guard?3 These important collections are not held at well-known, professionally run archival institutions, but at small repositories without professional archivists on staff. The Small Repositories Project It was the realization that thousands of such collections, largely hidden and unknown to researchers, exist in hundreds of small, under-the-radar repositories in the Greater Philadelphia area that inspired the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP)’s Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR). Known as the “small repositories project,” HCI-PSAR is a five-year, multiphase initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Its goal is to make archival collections in small repositories in the Philadelphia region better known and more accessible to researchers. Project staff work to identify and create an online directory of all small repositories in the region, survey and assess their archival collections, and create summary finding aids to these collections that are posted on a publicly accessible finding aids database. Participating repositories include volunteerrun historical societies, museums, historic sites, churches, schools, community groups, performing arts institutions, ethnic organizations, and others. To be eligible for participation, organizations must be nonprofit, have historically significant archival collections that they agree to make available to researchers, and not employ a full-time, professionally trained archivist. Since the launch of HCI-PSAR in 2011, project staff have visited 150 of these repositories and surveyed and created online finding aids to more than 1,200 individual archival collections. Managing the Collections In addition to increasing intellectual access to small repository collections, the project provides repositories with useful information for managing their collections. Participating repositories receive a comprehensive survey report that includes a summary finding aid and an assessment of each of its archival collections, as well as a processing plan for one or more of its collections and information on best practices for archival preservation and management. The finding aids, which are posted online, conform to Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS) for single-level, minimum description. The assessments, which are not made public and are intended to help repositories in setting priorities for managing their collections, are numerical ratings with explanatory notes on each collection’s condition, quality of housing, physical organization, intellectual access, and research value. (Research value is an assessment of how wide of a potential audience would be interested in the collection based on the topics it covers and how thoroughly it documents those topics.) The assessment methodology was developed at the HSP in the early 2000s and has since been used in numerous other major archival survey projects, both in the Philadelphia region and nationally. An assessment module based on this methodology was integrated into Archivists’ Toolkit and has been proposed for ArchivesSpace. HCI-PSAR project staff also serves as a resource for Philadelphia-area small repositories, providing advice on issues of archival stewardship, managing a small repository listserv and a Resources for Small Archives website, and offering a series of monthly training programs on various aspects of archival work. Staff also stays in touch with repositories and the archival community through several social media outlets. These activities are designed to enhance repositories’ stewardship of their collections and to foster a “community of practice,” a network of support and communication among the region’s small archival repositories. Building an Online Database The HCI-PSAR project complements the work of several other hidden collections initiatives undertaken in recent years by the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL). PACSCL is a thirty-six-member consortium of the larger, professionally managed archival repositories and special collections libraries in the Greater Philadelphia area. Beginning in 2004, PACSCL received Mellon Foundation funding, both directly from Mellon and later through the Council on Library and Information Resources, for a series of projects to survey the backlogged, unprocessed collections of its member institutions and to process select collections identified in the survey as being of high research value. One of the outgrowths of these projects is the PACSCL finding aid website (http://findingaids.pacscl.org), a central online repository of finding aids to the collections of PACSCL member institutions. When the HCI-PSAR project commenced in 2011, PACSCL agreed to host the finding aids created in that project on the website as well. With finding aids to the collections of both the larger, professionally managed PACSCL institutions and the smaller, nonprofessional HCI-PSAR repositories being contributed on a regular basis to one publicly accessible, fully searchable online database, the PACSCL finding aid website is becoming one of the most comprehensive repositories in the nation of descriptive information on the archival collections of a specific metropolitan area. Committing to Small Repositories The HCI-PSAR project is part of an overall effort by the HSP to engage with and support the broader community of small-to-medium-sized history and heritage organizations in the Philadelphia region. There are some 340 such organizations in the region (not all of which are archival repositories). Many of these are all-volunteer organizations that face daunting challenges. Although some archivists may argue that important archival collections are better off in larger, professionally managed repositories that have the resources to provide adequate care for them, the idea of a wholesale transfer of collections from small to large repositories is simply not feasible, for both logistical and philosophical reasons. From a logistical standpoint, the sheer size and scope of small repository collections in a given region would overwhelm many larger repositories (such as county historical societies or university special collections libraries); in most cases the larger institutions would not have the space or resources to handle the materials, or they would be outside of their collecting scope. Perhaps more importantly, from a philosophical standpoint, the people at small repositories are deeply committed to the history of their local communities and organizations. They treasure their archival collections and, despite limited resources, invest much time and effort in preserving the materials and using them for research, exhibits, school programs, and other activities. The idea of removing these local archival treasures from the community or organization that created them would be anathema to these dedicated individuals. While in some cases transfer to a better-resourced repository is certainly warranted—when the collections are exceptionally important and/or conditions in a small repository especially poor—on a broader scale the only feasible option is to work with small repositories in making their collections more accessible and improving their stewardship of them. This is what HSP is doing with the HCI-PSAR project. (It should be noted that, through the HCI-PSAR project, HSP now has comprehensive data on small repository collections in the Philadelphia region and thus has the information necessary to respond quickly should collections become at risk due to a crisis or the closing of a local small repository.) A National Model With the HCI-PSAR project HSP has developed an effective approach to largescale surveying and assessing of small repository archival collections. HSP envisions the project as a national model for making such collections better known and more accessible. Later in 2015 HSP will be working with the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh to train its staff in project methodology and undertake some sample surveying in that region. HSP also has been in discussion with archivists in several other states regarding the possibility of serving in an advisory capacity for those states considering undertaking similar small repository projects. * * * The archival profession has become increasingly sophisticated and has made enormous strides in making historical materials more accessible through new technologies and descriptive standards. Smaller, nonprofessional repositories are also stewards of important archival collections. A more inclusive approach will help to ensure that the full range of the nation’s documentary heritage is preserved and accessible. For more information on the HCI-PSAR project, visit the project website at www.hsp.org/hcipsar or contact Project Director Jack McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org. HCI-PSAR repository finding aids are available at http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/pacscl/ancillary.html?id=collections/pacscl/repositories2. Notes 1 Historical Society of Tacony Frank Shuman collection, Historical Society of Tacony: http://hdl .library.upenn.edu/1017/d/pacscl/HSP_HST06. 2 Pearl Bailey papers, African American Museum in Philadelphia: http://hdl.library.upenn.edu/1017/d /pacscl/HSP_AAMPG95013. 3 1st Regiment Infantry, Pennsylvania records, 1st Regiment Infantry Museum: http://hdl.library .upenn.edu/1017/d/pacscl/HSP_1R02.
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