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International Congress on Archives 2004 - pres 206 ONUF ZUSABERK 01 (Page 2)

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International Congress on Archives 2004 - pres 206 ONUF ZUSABERK 01
International Congress on Archives
Archival Collection Management Systems: A Model for Prioritizing Backlogs
Rachel Onuf, Historical Society of Pennsylvania

I'm going to be describing a model for prioritizing processing backlogs that I helped implement at the
Historical Society of Pennsylvania. And I just want to make it clear up front that this project was not a
backlog abatement project: the survey project and subsequent long range processing plan enabled us to
prioritize the work we have done since, as we do start to tackle the backlog. I'll be describing the
HSP's project in some detail, focusing on the numerical ratings criteria we developed, and then speak
briefly about some of the grant-funded processing projects we have subsequently started and some of
the other implementations of the model.

But first a bit of background about the HSP. We are an old institution ­ for the United States! The
HSP was founded in 1824, in part in response to Lafayette's visit to Philadelphia in that year and in
realization that the founding fathers were by that point dropping like flies, and it is one of the oldest
historical societies in the United States. Like many historical societies in the states, we have both
paper-based holdings and fine art and artifacts but in the 1990s our Board decided to focus on being a
research library. As a result, we have turned our art and artifact collection over to the care of the
Atwater Kent Museum of the City of Philadelphia. The heart of our research library is our archival
collections -- over 19 million manuscript and graphic items ­ which are supported by a library of
600,000 printed items and an extensive collection of microfilm. The Society is one of the largest family
history libraries in the nation, has preeminent printed collections on Pennsylvania and regional history,
and offers superb manuscript collections renowned for their strength in 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century
history. The merger of another institution, the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, into the Society in
2002 extended our documentation of ethnic communities and immigrant experiences well into the 20
century. Now, unlike many other historical societies in the United States, the HSP is a private non-
profit institution. Since we are not affiliated with federal, state, or local government we do not receive
regular operational support from them. Our funding comes from our endowment, membership, and
grants from government agencies and private foundations. As a result much of the basic work of the
Society, like processing and conservation, is accomplished through specific grant-funded projects.
Since we rely so heavily on funding from agencies and foundations we have needed to develop superior
project proposals that prove we have thought about our holdings strategically. The work done during
the survey and assessment project provided us with just such a strategic plan for our preservation and
access work.

On to the survey. The HSP survey and assessment of archival collections project was based on a model
developed by our president, David Moltke-Hansen, while he was at the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill. When he arrived at HSP in 1999, David was intensely interested in learning more about
the collections of the Society, which are known to be some of the richest in the country for the colonial
period and early republic.
At the time, there was no manuscript dept. The library's focus was on the frontlines of public service
and there was no one with direct oversight of the archival collections. Knowing the reputed richness of
the archival holdings, and confronted by their great needs, which were painfully obvious just by going
into our stacks, or by witnessing some poor sod attempting to do research using our medley of
inadequate resources -- card catalog, published guide to manuscripts, collection folders, and handful of
inventories -- it was clear that massive amounts of arrangement, description, and preservation work
needed to happen. Because of the overwhelming nature of the need, the curatorial vacuum, and the
lack of collection management tools in electronic form, there was no obvious way to prioritize the
preservation and access work that so clearly needed to be done, no clear sense of how to shape projects
to pitch to funding agencies.
So David and his staff drafted a proposal to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a survey and
assessment project that would frame and direct the work of the archives department -- once there was
one -- for many years to come. Because so many collections that were open for research were -- and
still are -- seriously underprocessed, they chose to think of the entire holdings as our backlog. This
"big tent" definition of backlog may be deeply frightening to those of you suffering from
"backlogophobia", but one way of diminishing its hold is to make it the norm. Although many of your
repositories presumably do not need to go that route, it was incredibly useful for HSP to define backlog
broadly. By submitting every collection to the same survey and assessment process, we would know
the relative merits and needs of each in relation to the whole. A comprehensive survey would also

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