International Congress on Archives
were highly motivated, energetic, and passionate. After the initial orientation period, we started -- as
one huge team -- simultaneously surveying collections and revising the ratings criteria, which I had
already started tinkering with. The ratings criteria that came from UNC often were not applicable to
HSP. Their intellectual access rating assumed the existence of a finding aid; we only had about 30
collection surrogates that you could call finding aids. The condition rating focused exclusively on the
quality of the paper and anticipated rate of deterioration; we needed to broaden the criteria to include
the wide range of archival materials we encountered in collections. We also needed to have more than
just a "poor, fair, good, very good, and excellent" descriptor attached to the numbers and in those first
few weeks we developed fairly specific criteria together. We continued to revise the ratings criteria as
a group as we encountered new issues, like transcriptions.
To all of this we added a quality of housing rating, which had not been necessary at UNC, where all or
nearly all of the collections subjected to the survey and assessment were in archival housing. At HSP,
an acidic box that came to be known as the green monster reigns supreme in the stacks, and once we
started the actual survey process, we realized we needed a way to flag non-archival or otherwise
This communal criteria development and test surveying 8 hours a day 5 days a week was intense and
we were able to internalize the ratings relatively quickly. There were some external checks in place.
Other staff, including -- especially -- David -- reviewed our ratings and debated them with us. We
realized we needed to document the verbal rationales we were hashing out as a team as we rated a
collection, so we started including narrative rationales for the ratings given, particularly the RVR, as a
part of the record, using a note field. We also worked to out our own biases and prejudices for and
against different types of records and research topics. When, later on, it became clear we did not know
how to interpret business records and thus could not assess the RVR with any confidence, we brought
in consultant historians to show us how to distinguish among the various record types -- daybooks,
ledgers, journals, receipt books -- and read the information they included. They also told us what
kinds of records they had found most useful in their own research.
The teaminess is really critical to this model. No one ever surveyed a collection alone. Consensus
needed to be reached and you had to be able to articulate and defend your position. One former
surveyor commented that it "Helps if you are stubborn but not too stubborn" -- you also had to learn
how to compromise. The RVR rating was the only one that typically inspired debate, but it could get
quite heated. If there was deadlock, another surveyor could be asked to listen to the arguments and
weigh in. While surveying, we also verified the information from the printed guide that was already in
the database, wrote conservation notes, and estimated the processing time, using 15 hours per linear
foot as the average.
Once the indoctrination period was over, we split the Mellons (as we were dubbed) into two teams and
moved into the stacks with laptops, which were synchronized with the master database on the server
every night. The two more senior members of the team were officially known as "team leaders" and
we intended to have each of them work with 2 surveyors. This formation held for a few months but as
they became more practiced and as the weeks passed and we were still in the 4th floor vault (with 9
more to go...) we decided to shift to teams of 2, which effectively leveled what remained of the
hierarchy. We also played around with the teams so the same people were not always surveying
together. When we hit really large collections, we teamed up again.
At the same time that we were surveying -- a process that went on for about 18 months -- we were
spending about 100 hours a week on a number of library tasks that needed bodies thrown at them:
recon cleanup, finding aid cleanup (which became finding aid creation) in preparation for a consortial
encoded archival description (EAD) project -- which led to our development of a finding aid template
based on the EAD elements, drafting a Disaster Preparedness plan after dealing with a leak, processing
collections HSP had promised donors would be processed, and inventorying our 175 years' worth of
institutional archives. Having some variety did help combat burnout, which was a very real possibility.
Scheduling the survey teams and HSP work became a feature of my Friday afternoons. I also read all
of the survey records created typically every day or 2 -- going back to the teams with questions --
continued to work ahead of the surveyors in the stacks, occasionally surveyed (particularly in the final
stretch), and kept permanent staff apprised of our progress.
We also worked to ingratiate ourselves with the permanent staff of about 35 people, upon whom we
had descended something like a plague of locusts. Seven strong, the Mellons took over the vaults and
the lunchroom. We tended to move in a solid mass. We were the darlings of the President. To obviate
some of this frisson we invited staff to "survey sitins" and many staff joined us for a 2 hour stint in the
stacks, participating in the survey process. For some of the administrative staff, this was the first time
they had really been close to the collections. They could now visualize what we were up to and why
the silly lab coats we wore were so grimy.