Collection Processing and You: We Are All Librarians

We Are All Librarians

Just over three weeks ago,  I started an internship at the University of California at Davis’ Peter J. Shields Library with the university archivist. It wasn’t until earlier this week that it hit me: we are all librarians. No, really. Many librarians do something called “collection processing.” But whenever someone empties out their wallet or takes out the trash, they’re also processing a collection. What people choose to keep, trash or treasure says a lot about who they are.

I’m not trying to downplay how awesome it is to get an official (and now ALA-accredited!) Master of Management in Library and Information Science degree from the University of Southern California. But consider this: if you have a file cabinet full of folder stuffed with papers, you’re a kind of librarian. If you have a collection of books, DVDs or Blu-Rays, you’re a kind of librarian. If you scrapbook, organize your flatware, or label your emails, you’re a kind of librarian!

What do three photographs, a blank journal with a pencil, and a pair of glasses have to do with collection processing? They can all be part of a collection!

The John Hardie Papers

One of my internship activities involves processing a small collection of the papers of John Hardie. He was both a UC Davis alumnus and a UC Davis administrator for many decades. After Hardie passed away in 2011, the UC Davis Library Archives received folders of his papers. Some of them are neatly organized, while others are only wrapped up with rubber bands, sitting inside the box.

The collection is small. It fits inside a flip-top document storage container about the size of two accordion folders. Still, it’s possible to get an impression of who John Hardie was just by examining the collection.

What Your Stuff Says About You

Let’s say you die tomorrow. After a while, your friends or family decide to donate some of your files to an archive. What would those papers say about you? Do you have them organized in a way that would make sense to someone else?

Another way to look at it is if you’re part of a group (for work, volunteering, or fun) and someone wants to write a biography of that group based on a collection of items. What would your contribution to that collection be? What would it say to future researchers?

“You” In the Form of Things

You might say, “I wouldn’t be part of any collection!” or “Why would an archive or a museum want my stuff?” That’s why you should see what kind of collections your local libraries (public and academic), museums, galleries, and other archives have. Organizations all work with a limited amount of space. They have collection development policies in place to make the most of that space. These policies might include scoping statements that say what their archives could include, and what they won’t.

The Research Value of You

Before researchers can use the items in a collection, librarians perform collection processing. “Collection processing” (or “collection development”) is when a librarian examines the items and appraises them. This assessment isn’t looking at the monetary value (that’s usually done by someone else ahead of time), but research value. They ask questions about the collection items like “Would a visitor want to examine this for more information?” and “What could this tell a researcher?” Librarians want to know if many people would find an item useful. Would they want to examine it in person, or would they rather see it online? These are important questions to ask, regardless of a collection’s size.

Bundles of papers and books tied with string and tagged.
Collection processing can involve sorting through individual papers or examining bundles and books. It all depends on the context.

The Context of Collections

Collections can be more than just papers. They can include photos, videos, blueprints, maps, and so on. They’re all part of a bigger picture: a concept of a person, a group, an event, a period in history, etc. What do you have on you right now that might someday be part of a collection?

Value, Significance, and Worth

You’ve probably heard the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.” If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what’s the value of a fraternity pin? What about some pottery or a certificate? We give everyday objects meaning and keep them around because of what they mean to us. Without that context, they’re meaningless.

Most of the time, researchers approach a collection with a context already in mind. For example, Jane is studying women in enology (the study of wines). In that situation, the tasting notes of Jancis Robinson could be useful to her. Jane’s research could produce different things, like a movie, a presentation, a lecture, an article, or a book.

Jancis might think of her tasting notes in another way. She has personal reasons why she kept individual papers, donated some to UC Davis, and trashed others.

In the same way, librarians use certain strategies when they perform collection processing. Collection creators have their context, but there’s also the possible context(s) of a future, unknown researcher.

In other words, librarians are the bridge between the past and the future.

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