More Product, Less Process – Interview with Erica Williams, Archivist and Records Manager
What is your role at History Associates?
I’ve been an archivist at History Associates for 11 years now. It was my first job out of grad school. We’re a team of historians and archivists who are hired by private companies, government organizations, and nonprofits that need archival or historical services. I was originally hired to work on a contract for the National Library of Medicine. Since then, I’ve collaborated on many different projects, such as the National Park Service archives work and our current project, the Dr. Hector P. Garcia Papers.
Most of my work is connected with 20th century manuscript collections. My job is to arrange them into a coherent order and attend to any physical processing tasks, such as photocopying, sleeving, removing oversized materials – basically to make sure everything is in the proper housing. Then we write a guide so that researchers will know what’s in the collection and where to find things.
Tell us a little about the processing of the latest project, the Garcia Papers.
It’s a project that’s going on right now, and this is one of the few times that we’re making some of the archival material immediately available while we’re actively working on it.
We’re working for Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi, with the Special Collections and Archives Department of the Mary and Jeff Bell Library at the University. The collection is pretty large, originally estimated to be 570 linear feet, but as we consolidate materials and weed duplicates it’s shrinking down to be something closer to around 400 linear feet
Dr. Hector P. Garcia was an activist, physician, soldier, and had close relationships with political figures. He was also a significant figure in the Mexican-American civil rights movement. He’s one of those unique people who actually kept a lot of the things he created in his life. So there’s a large amount of material that details his work and his relationships.
What we’re doing now is putting it all into a coherent order to allow researchers to learn more about Dr. Garcia. He’s not very well known, but he should be. He was actually very influential and interesting.
Another important portion of this project is to digitize some of the materials and put them online. This was done last fall and went live in December of 2016.
Can you tell us about how the “More Product, Less Process” approach to archiving was used in the Garcia project?
Typically “More Product, Less Process” – or MPLP – is used when an organization has a huge backlog of archives to process. So you address only the most essential issues as quickly as possible to make the collection available. The danger of releasing materials without sufficient processing is that it’s easier to lose track of items or you simply don’t even know what you have.
In the Dr. Hector P. Garcia project, the collection was so large that the client didn’t have the resources to complete the collection in a timely manner. Our company provided them with a solution tailored to their situation – in this case, a mixture of full and minimum level processing – and a schedule that fulfilled their goal to make the collection accessible in a shorter timeframe.
We start by taking an initial survey, looking at everything at a box-by-box level. We look at the basic contents, how it’s arranged, major preservation concerns, and how we envision it should be ordered. This helps us estimate the level of effort required to process the collection.
Some collections are in relatively good physical condition and require little rearrangement, so the MPLP approach works well. Others may have more substantial arrangement or preservation issues to address, and in those cases it’s advisable to process the materials more fully if you have the time and resources to do so.
All collections tend to be based on some sort of relational hierarchy, so we also look for indications of what that hierarchy should be. You might see clear indications of major record groups such as personal papers, correspondence, military service, professional development, and so on. Then within these groups you have subgroups, so correspondence might be arranged alphabetically or chronologically. Military service might be divided into tours of duty.
In this project, the survey made it clear that the amount of MPLP required would vary from section to section. Some parts had very little advance work done on them, while others had been meticulously worked on by a prior archivist. Some sections needed significant revamping. Then there were other parts that required very little work from us. So in the end, we had to do a blend of MPLP and full-level processing.
Where do you go from these initial steps?
After the initial survey, we come up with a processing plan which gives us a guide as to how to proceed. This includes an initial version of the collection hierarchy, the major processing tasks, and a cataloging plan. For this project, we also identified which sections would require MPLP, full level processing, or a mixture of both.
In the Dr. Hector P. Garcia Papers, for example, we started with personal and biographical files that needed to be broken down a bit more. We had biographical info such as obituaries and clipped articles about him, and then we had family records, speeches and events, awards and dedications – all this went into the personal files. We make these kinds of decisions along the way as a team and in communication with the client. A lot of dialog occurs as we go through the material.
What are some challenges you faced in the archiving process?
Garcia worked on many issues related to the Latino community, such as school discrimination, elections, and voting rights. He also fought against the “English Only” movement. Dr. Garcia was very much against the idea that everybody in the United States had to speak English and no other language besides English. That part of the collection was a lot more chaotic, so we had to sort things item-by-item.
We assign specific people to a certain part of the collection, so that they become an expert on that particular section. This way they can make judgement calls and spot duplicate content. We were also fortunate enough to have an archivist on our team who was fluent in Spanish to help the rest of us correctly file the substantial amount of Spanish-language materials spread throughout the collection.
So archiving sometimes focuses around concepts and not just personal data?
Yes, exactly. Things can be organized by concepts or even business functions. For instance, Dr. Garcia founded an organization called the American GI Forum, and we found a lot of material there. It was further divided into administrative files, programs, events, financials, and so on.
In this area, things were arranged very well, so there wasn’t too much that we had to do. We didn’t waste time breaking it down and reorganizing it again. But in other cases, we had items scattered over 20 different boxes, and we had to dive into more detail there.
In the end, we created a collection that’s leaner and easier to navigate. This enables researchers to target their search on specific parts of the collection.
Aside from MPLP, how else did History Associates help improve the process?
Many of our clients have too many responsibilities to allow them to focus exclusively on a particular processing project, but we can dedicate our full work day to working on their collections on their behalf. Plus, since we have a wide range of experience, we can get feedback from each other which allows us to find solutions faster. Collaboration is key. What we do is help them get through the backlog faster or – as in the case of the Garcia Papers – process large important projects quickly.
By assigning a team of trained archivists – in our case 4 to 8 people at a time – who are following the same approach to processing the entire collection, the archiving process moves much faster and in a more complete manner. Our goal for this project is to be finished processing by this summer with an additional digitization phase to come after that. By the end of the year, the collection should be back at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi.
As an added bonus, we have historians on staff too. In the Garcia project, one of our historians helped us develop the online exhibit’s structure and content – as well as select which items were going to be digitized – based on her research and insight. She really helped the client hone down their content.
Any particularly interesting discoveries while working on the Garcia Papers?
One of Dr. Garcia’s children, Cecilia Garcia-Akers, who runs the foundation named after him, let us know that Dr. Garcia had communicated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They were planning a meeting, and this occurred a month before King was assassinated. We found the actual telegram that was sent to arrange their meeting.
Also, there are a lot of artifacts in this collection, such as the three dimensional voting machine with metal levers that move in order to cast your vote. My favorite though was a photograph of Garcia with then-Governor Bill Clinton in 1972. Clinton was so young then, and had feathery 70s hair. It was a great find!
For more information about the Garcia Papers, read our related Stories from the Archives post.