Rob Cox has served as Head of Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Massachusetts Amherst since 2004, following stints heading up departments at the American Philosophical Society and William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan. As an historian of early America (and former molecular paleontologist), he has written and lectured on the history of the American Spiritualist movement, Quaker-Seneca relations in the 1790s, early American science, and the Lewis and Clark expedition. He is currently at work on a history of sleep theory in the 18th and 19th centuries.
member of Collection Management panel
In many respects, the Department of Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) at UMass Amherst is typical of mid-sized archives throughout the United States: we labor under the profound sensation of being underfunded, understaffed, and overworked. Yet beginning in 2004, we sought physick for our ailments, and even with the relatively scant means at our disposal, the physick has begun to have its effect. Even as we dramatically increased the rate and quality of our acquisitions, we managed to increase the rate of processing, increase our exposure to the public, and -- ultimately -- increase collection use.
In 2005 we launched a collection survey project adapted from the protocols pioneered by David Moltke-Hansen and Rachel Onuf at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, with the triple goal of gaining comprehensive intellectual and physical control over our holdings, establishing priorities for collections management, and most importantly, exposing all of our collections to the public. For access, our solution was to exploit the indexing capacity of blogging software to create a "catablog" -- a blog-powered integrated collection management system -- that we have dubbed UMarmot (UMass Archival Records, Manuscripts, and Other Things). After experimenting with several packages, we selected WordPress, which provides cheap, effective, flexible, and relatively comprehensive integration of manuscript and archival resources, and offers the potential for a degree of interactivity with researchers. The resulting catablog is a fairly intuitive interface in which researchers are able to explore collections in layered fashion: any single collection can be located in several different ways, reflecting different research styles, including free-text searches across the entire corpus, alphabetical browsing by collection title, selection by generic category (subject content), or by using a variety of mediated approaches that provide an interpretive gloss, such as exhibits, "featured collections," or research guides, all of which are integrated into the catablog.
In many respects, our survey might be seen in the context of the recent trend in archival circles toward so-called "minimal processing," but we depart from that trend -- at least as it is practiced by many of our peers -- in significant ways. Our field theoretical approach to conceptualizing the process of processing places a rigorous insistence upon viewing the survey within a long trajectory. The minimal descriptions that form the basis of UMarmot records ("pre-descriptions," in our terminology) are considered little more than temporary placeholders, and even the full EAD finding aids ("descriptions") are considered ephemeral and open to revision ("post-description"). Our finding aids, in other words, are intended to be contingent and dynamic, changing in response to historiographic and cultural currents, and we feel strongly that many processed collections are as inaccessible as any unprocessed collection. More importantly, we choose to emphasize maximal, rather than minimal description, aiming to produce descriptions of our collections as thick as we can possibly deliver, taking into account the strictures imposed upon us by staffing and funding.
"Appropriate technology and the catablog"
Background Readings and Links
Elizabeth Yakel, Seth Shaw, and Polly Reynolds, "Creating the next generation finding aids," D-Lib Magazine 13:5/6 (2007). Available online at http://www.dlib.org/dlib/may07/yakel/05yakel.html.
Magia Ghetu Krause and Elizabeth Yakel, "Interaction in virtual archives: The Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections Next Generation Finding Aid." American Archivist 70:2 (2007): 282-314. (SAA members can access this article online here.)
Max J. Evans, "Archives of the people, by the people, for the people," American Archivist 70:2 (2007): 387-400. (SAA members can access this article online here.)