Archival Practice: discussing real-world applications of archival theories and practices in the modern archival repository

Partners in Discovery

Partners in Discovery: Collaboration in Special Collections

Lori Birrell, University of Rochester, River Campus Libraries
Marcy Strong, University of Rochester, River Campus Libraries
Archival Practice, volume 1, no. 2 (2014)


As the focus in academic libraries shifts towards highlighting special collections, library staff have an opportunity to work together in new ways and to contribute their skills to projects that aim to highlight a university’s unique resources. This article examines a project between catalogers, reference subject specialists and special collections librarians, who worked together to process manuscript collections. We hope that our project serves as a model, not only for processing archival collections, but more importantly, as a sustainable approach to collaboratively meeting the challenges of working in a 21st century library.


Academic libraries are going through a period of tremendous change, and to meet the challenges of this evolving landscape we must re-evaluate our workflows, especially those of a Special Collections Department. We must find creative solutions to enhance the discoverability of a university’s unique resources. Collaborating across departments to take advantage of in-house expertise is one method that we’re exploring at the University of Rochester, River Campus Libraries (UR). We hope that our project serves as a model, not only for processing archival collections, but more importantly, as a sustainable approach to collaboratively meeting the challenges of working in a 21st century library.

As the focus in academic libraries shifts towards highlighting special collections, library staff have an opportunity to work together in new ways and to contribute their skills to projects that aim to highlight a university’s unique resources.1 Collaboration is on our minds at the UR. How can we leverage in-house expertise in metadata creation, scholarly communication and archival practice to decrease the backlog of manuscript collections? What does a collaborative project look like in a 21st century library? How can collaborative projects raise awareness of a Special Collections Department within an institution?

While these questions may be daunting to answer, stepping outside of our institution provided a valuable opportunity to observe how other librarians are meeting the evolving needs of their patrons. Participating in a site visit to North Carolina State University (NCSU) in the fall of 2012, we learned about a collaborative manuscript processing workflow which has greatly decreased backlogs by opening up special collections through a partnership with their Cataloging Department.

At the time of this site visit, most of our Rare Books and Special Collections Department’s (RBSC) staff worked independent of other units in the library. Each curator in RBSC acquires, processes and describes her own collections, in addition to other job responsibilities. The department’s focus was on faculty and student outreach and exhibit curation, rather than processing manuscript collections. As a result, the backlog has grown substantially in recent years. In contrast, while NCSU staff acquires collections and accession new materials, they also create brief collection-level records and then move the collections to the library’s Cataloging Department where their staff members process the collections and create the finding aids.2 This collaboration developed over the course of several years and allowed catalogers to apply their skill set to new areas of description and material types. In turn, the archives staff could turn their attention to additional collection development and outreach activities. Increasing collaboration and cooperation across the library is part of our own library’s strategic vision, and the administration supports efforts aimed at achieving this goal. The visit to NCSU inspired us to implement a similar process at the UR.

Replicating this project at UR presented several challenges. Designing a collaborative processing project was a departure for library staff, as job responsibilities were fairly narrow and there were few opportunities for staff to acquire new skills or contribute their own expertise to a RBSC project. In addition to the staffing model, we anticipated issues related to training, the lack of standards, time constraints, and matters of access and security. Despite these challenges, we saw an opportunity to create a project that would reduce the RBSC’s manuscript backlog by cross-training staff, and as a result, pilot a model of collaboration.

The increasing focus on opening up special collections introduced a spirit of experimentation in the library, which helped lend support to our experimental project. Consequently, library administrators approved a small pilot project in December 2012 and we moved ahead to invite staff to participate. Rather than simply moving collections into the Catalog & Metadata Management Department (Cataloging), we considered a different model where staff would partner across departments to process collections. Since this type of work was new, a partnership approach allowed for greater flexibility and knowledge sharing, and seemed a reasonable way to encourage participation. We also wanted to take advantage of different skill sets as we began to develop our processing model. We initially considered pairing members of Cataloging with student workers from RBSC, which would take advantage of the catalogers’ metadata and description expertise, as well as offer students the opportunity to contribute to the creation of research tools designed to help them with their work. However, the timeframe chosen for the project did not work well with student schedules and it became apparent that this particular partnership would not work. We then approached the Department Head of Reference, and he offered this project as an opportunity for his subject librarians. Adding subject librarians to our team enabled us to take advantage of their expertise working with specific disciplines and researchers. Eight interested librarians participated consisting of three catalogers, four subject librarians and the Historical Manuscripts librarian from RBSC.

Project Preparation

The goal of the project was to process four historical manuscript collections within a five-to-six month timeframe. To accomplish our goal, we created a list of possible collections that when accessioned would each be less than five record boxes. Once we knew who the project participants were, we tried to choose collections that would connect with the librarians’ areas of expertise and interest. As we continued to plan the project during December, in anticipation of a January training workshop, we retooled an existing processing manual to reflect the project’s key tasks, using a previously processed collection as a model to underscore possible preservation issues that teams might encounter, as well as to illustrate the concepts of weeding and original order. We adapted a “processing plan” worksheet (please refer to Appendix A) based on an example provided by the staff at NCSU; this processing plan would guide staff through an initial examination of their collection and serve as a foundational document where they log information about their collections as they processed. For example, we provided space to record the collection title and call number, as well as jot down notes about biographical details and possible subject headings.

In the past, staff members working independently from each other in RBSC to process collections and write finding aids did not always maintain and apply standards consistently. Staff paid little attention to changes in national descriptive standards and consequently wrote finding aids that were often not in accordance with content standards like the Describing Archives Content Standard (DACS)3 or its predecessor, APPM.4 This project presented an opportunity to redesign local processing and description workflows and consult outside departments in order to create new guidelines. Moving our finding aids into DACS became a major project objective. DACS is the de facto content standard in the archival community and is used to create finding aids and collection-level records. Most academic libraries and archival institutions in the United States have adopted this standard, and it is the foundation for creating records that are interoperable because they conform to best practices. However, the challenge lay in learning the new standard and then teaching it to project participants. Relying on some cataloging expertise, we learned the DACS standard and its minimum requirements. We also investigated other institutions’ application of DACS in their finding aids and then began to formulate our own practice based on the minimum requirements and our anticipated local needs. Incorporating DACS into our finding aids meant much richer documents with more access points; we began including creators and subject headings, both of which had been neglected in earlier finding aids. To prepare participants, we created a metadata guide that outlined our local practices, and we also edited the existing finding aid for the model collection to make it DACS-compliant and a good example for the processors to follow when creating their own finding aids.

In the last stage of our preparation, we considered where participants would work and how best to configure space to meet their needs. We anticipated that access and security would be one of our challenges. As it is a secured area, most library staff members do not have unrestricted access to the RBSC stacks, including seven of the eight participants in this project. To keep materials secure, it would be ideal to allow the staff to work in the RBSC processing space, but they would need to be aware of the department’s hours and ask to be let into the staff workroom each time they wanted to work on their collection. We thought about scheduling a designated time for staff to work on the project, but with eight different schedules, that option was clearly not feasible. Instead, we needed a space that was secure, yet convenient for participants to use as they had the time. We balanced access issues with security concerns. Although not an ideal solution, we ultimately decided to place the four collections in an empty cubicle in Cataloging, an area that staff members lock after work hours have ended. We outfitted the cubicle with archival supplies, storage cabinets, tables and a computer to create a processing space for staff. To allow four teams to share the space, we requested that the empty cubicle, now known as the “Manuscript processing workroom,” be available as a space we could reserve in our shared Microsoft Outlook calendar environment.


We found that a staff member’s personal interest in the subject of the collection was a critical element of the processing partnership. Prior to the January training workshop, we emailed brief summaries of potential collections to participants. We did not assign collections or partners beforehand; instead, we decided to let the partnerships form naturally. We thought staff would choose their partners based on their personal working relationships with each other, but instead we were surprised to see that partnerships developed out of an interest in the collection material. For example, the first group consisted of a subject librarian for Physics and Optics, who was drawn to a collection documenting the decline of the Eastman Kodak Company. He worked with the serials cataloger, who is a long-time Rochester resident and had an interest in learning more about the history of Kodak, a Rochester-based company. Other partnerships came together in a similar manner, as the Political Science Librarian was drawn to the collection from a county legislator, and the Modern Languages and Cultures Librarian, who is also a new mother, opted to work on a collection from a local childhood lead poisoning prevention organization.

Training and Benchmarks

A project like this cannot succeed without solid training. Yet another major challenge for us was providing a manageable yet comprehensive training experience for project participants. Seven of the eight participants had limited or no experience working with archival materials or processing collections. However, each staff member in each unit brought a specific skill set to the project and we wanted to build upon those skills by cross-training the staff to ensure that everyone understood all aspects of the processing and finding aid creation workflow. Since everyone involved was working on this project in addition to handling their other full-time responsibilities, we wanted to present training in a way that was meaningful but also considerate of time constraints.

To provide context for archival-specific terminology, as well as for how archivists manage archival collections, we assigned project participants two brief readings and asked everyone to spend some time looking over the material before we met.5 Then we scheduled a three-hour workshop in the RBSC Department. The workshop agenda included an introduction to the collections, a tour of the department, sections on intellectual and physical arrangement, followed by a demonstration of processing basics, and finally two exercises that allowed participants to practice the skills they were learning. Since archives are inherently personal and meaningful to the creators, we asked each participant to bring in four objects, as if they were going to donate them to our repository. For example, the Jane Doe Papers included an email from college, a childhood photograph, an anniversary card and a diploma. We put these objects on display as the participants arrived for the training session. In his article, Waibel advocates for the importance of “ ‘the get to know you’ nature of the meeting [that] leads to the development of interpersonal relationships that build a foundation of trust.”6 Seeing a small glimpse into one another’s personal lives and histories built trust among the project participants, an important consideration for our partner-based approach. The personal objects also became the basis for the training exercise; after walking staff members through the processing manual, we passed out an exercise and processing plan worksheet and encouraged participants to practice processing their personal archive. The exercise asked staff to fill out the processing plan worksheet and create folder titles for their collection, which led them to consider issues of physical and intellectual arrangement. We gave them folders and manuscript boxes to rehouse their collections and then asked them to write a Scope and Contents Note and a Biographical Note. Participants spent about fifteen minutes on the exercise, during which they asked us questions about weeding items they had brought in, and the challenges of creating detailed, yet brief folder titles.

After the training, we planned for the partners to spend February looking through their collection and weeding superfluous materials. Making these decisions proved challenging and we worked with each set of partners to talk about different approaches to weeding a collection. Once the partners began to understand the nature of the collection, they moved on to physically re-arranging their collection and developing series in March.

Drawing on different skill sets and experiences of each partner became particularly important as the teams determined the physical and intellectual arrangement of their collections. One group worked on the papers from a local lead poisoning prevention organization, and they found that each partner had a different approach based on her work expertise. Keeping the researchers she works with in mind, the subject librarian preferred to arrange the collection by projects and grants, which she thought would be most useful to a potential user. However, the cataloger preferred to maintain the committee-level original order as much as possible. While the partners ultimately opted for the original order, this challenge presented an interesting opportunity to discuss arrangement options, traditional archival arrangement concepts such as original order, user needs and the time and resources necessary to fulfill either arrangement option.

In March, we also held a finding aid workshop, as partners began to move towards the final stages of the project. Once the staff had participated in the workshop, they began to draft the Biographical, and Scope and Contents Notes to work towards completing April benchmarks. Another group, who worked on the papers of a county legislator, found the absence of biographical details about this figure challenging. At the time, we had difficulty determining if the legislator was still living as well as discovering additional details about her political career. We discussed possible sources that might yield further biographical information, as well as acknowledged that not all manuscript collections can have the same level of description.

One group, working on a sociological study about job satisfaction, confronted the issue of obsolete media and born digital files. In addition to paper questionnaires, there were numerous floppy discs containing data captured in software that we did not have the license to read. We ultimately decided that until we better understand the frequency and type of use for this collection, we would not transfer the contents of the discs to updated storage media. After the partners finalized the physical arrangement of their collections and refoldered the contents, the groups spent the remainder of the time completing their finding aids and creating collection-level records.

Increasing the discoverability of the collections was also a valuable outcome of this project. To connect the resources in RBSC with resources available in other library collections, we added URLs in the finding aids that linked access points to an Integrated Library System (ILS) search, allowing researchers to easily find other items by and about the authors and topics elsewhere in the library.7 We also included the creation of collection-level MARC records in the project’s workflow. These records will be added to OCLC WorldCat and the local ILS to increase discoverability of the collections. RBSC staff had only inconsistently added collection-level records in the past, but the task became the final step in this project. The participation of catalogers in most of the processing teams enabled us to take advantage of their ready experience available for developing subject headings, using name authority files, creating MARC records and providing expertise in other bibliographic control issues.

Lessons learned and Next steps

Six months after we began the project, the entire group met one last time to discuss what worked and what did not. Before meeting, we circulated a brief survey (for survey responses and results, see Appendices B and C) asking participants about how prepared they felt to begin the project, how much time they dedicated to the project, how they felt about working with a partner, how much they enjoyed the work, and if they would do it again.

Time management
Most participants averaged 31-40 hours each on processing the collection and creating the finding aid. All of the participants answered positively about working with a partner. One staff member commented that while he enjoyed working with a partner, “processing became more challenging, but the end product was more robust as a result.”8 Staff had different strategies for working together; some partners scheduled weekly sessions together while others preferred to divide up different aspects of the project and work separately on the collection. All the groups reported that a significant obstacle was having the same time free to work on the project together.

Benefits for participants
While this project was created to foster a collaborative spirit amongst staff members by working to reduce the backlog of unprocessed manuscript collections, staff reported other benefits from their work on this project. One subject librarian discussed the “passive exposure” the collection material gave him to his subject area. Although he was not actively researching the topic for a class or in support of faculty research, the collection related to his subject area allowing him the opportunity to comprehend a greater context within his area of expertise. Another subject librarian reported that the experience gave him a “conversation starter with faculty” providing him the ability to confidently refer to and describe the library’s unique materials, and his collection in particular, as it related to the faculty member’s research topic or class.

The content of the collections was important, but the structure of the collections came up several times as well. Subject librarians found that the work of preparing the finding aid useful for helping students interpret and navigate such a tool. They were also enthusiastic about the enhanced quality of the finding aid as compared to past practices, and about the presence of a collection-level record in the library’s catalog. The catalogers expanded their knowledge and learned how to create different kinds of bibliographic records. While usually working within a MARC framework, this project allowed them to broaden their experience and create detailed, web-based finding aids in addition to traditional bibliographic records.

As was noted earlier, finding the time to work together proved to be the most significant challenge. Perhaps not surprisingly, there were delays in completing the project within the proposed five-month timeframe. Three of the four groups needed additional time and one group did not complete their finding aid until summer’s end. However, working in partnerships allowed for “the nudge factor,” or the encouragement partners felt to prioritize the project and stay on task. Partners did not want to let each other down and this commitment to each other and the project kept them on track and focused in a way that may not have occurred if the participants had been working individually on the project. The participants reported that it was also useful to work with someone who may have picked up on the training in a different way, or remembered something that the other forgot.

Breaking down barriers
This project has been a critical step in helping to break down barriers that exist between library departments and within staff job responsibilities. As this project was put together by members of both the RBSC and Cataloging Departments, there was input from both areas in how the guidelines for the project should be developed. We hope our project’s workflow has set a precedent for finding aids created even after this project is over, and allow for more continuity and greater access across all finding aids.

The library now has seven additional staff members trained to do archival processing, which doubles the number of staff with experience in this work. We have invited the project participants to continue their work by processing recent accruals or other small collections. When asked if they would participate in a similar project again, seven out of eight staff members answered positively. The eighth respondent answered that he would participate “only if my supervisor gave me time I would otherwise devote to my job responsibilities.”9 We hope to initiate a second round of training in 2014 and focus on exposing the work of the RBSC to additional staff members, possibly including the Communications Manager, staff in the Digital Initiatives Unit, as well as the Cataloging and Reference Departments.


Ultimately we set out to accomplish several objectives: to decrease the manuscript backlog; enhance discoverability of the collections; and to develop a new collaborative working model, bolstering awareness of the department within the institution. We are not suggesting that our project offers a scalable solution to every archive’s backlog, or that by training staff members in other departments to process collections we can avoid hiring additional archivists. We did decrease our backlog, but this project was successful in large part due to the small size of the four collections and the relative lack of complexity of their arrangement and description. Certainly larger and more complex collections require the expertise of a professional archivist. We believe that by complying with the DACS standard and adding controlled vocabulary to our finding aids we have enhanced discoverability of our collections, which are much more likely to be found and used both within and outside our institution. Creating collection-level MARC records will only increase the likelihood of an interested researcher discovering our holdings.

Our project has also demonstrated the benefits of establishing real working relationships across departments; by creating opportunities to encourage staff members in each department to contribute their skills and expertise in new ways, we can create more meaningful end results. We have also helped raise awareness of RBSC by involving staff across the library in the department’s projects, allowing them to be better informed when working with faculty and student researchers. We believe that this project built capacity within the library, encouraging staff members to interact in non-traditional ways and reinforce the notion that we are all working together, serving the university community.


1. Gunter Waibel, Diane M. Zorich and Ricky Erway, “Libraries, Archives and Museums: Catalysts along the Collaboration Continuum,” Art Libraries Journal 34, no. 2 (2009): 17.

2. Linda Sellars, e-mail message to Lori Birrell, December 4, 2012.

3. Describing Archives: A Content Standard, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2013).

4. Steven L. Hensen, Archives, Personal Papers, and Manuscripts: A Cataloging Manual for Archival Repositories, Historical Societies, and Manuscript Libraries, 2nd ed. (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1989).

5. Pam Hackbart-Dean and Elizabeth Slomba, How to Manage Processing in Archives and Special Collections, (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2012): 14-25.
Kathleen D. Roe, Arranging & Describing Archives and Manuscripts, (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2005): 61-73.

6. Gunter Waibel, Diane M. Zorich and Ricky Erway, “Libraries, Archives and Museums: Catalysts along the Collaboration Continuum,” Art Libraries Journal 34, no. 2 (2009): 18.

7. “Coalition to Prevent Lead Poisoning (CPLP) Collection,”
“James Watson and Peter Meiksins Study of Engineering Profession,”
“John Larish Papers,”
"Nan Johnson Papers,”

8. Lori Birrell, Marcy Strong, Survey Respondent 6, Manuscript Processing Pilot: Survey Responses, July 23, 2013.

9. Lori Birrell, Marcy Strong, Survey Respondent 1, Manuscript Processing Pilot: Survey Responses, July 16, 2013.

Appendix A

Appendix B

Appendix C