SAA/CoSA/NAGARA 2018 recap: Session 601

“When everything you do in your repository is a high priority, how do you prioritize the core archival practice of processing?”

This was the premise of a panel titled “Prioritizing Processing When Everything is a Priority” anchored by several archivists. The first speaker was Pam Hackbart-Dean (Southern Illinois University) who analyzed the results of a survey concerning how processing decisions are made, who makes them, what factors influence processing decisions.

Significant barriers to processing include the usual suspects: staffing, unexpected acquisitions, changing department plans, changing administrative priorities, and lack of expertise in unusual formats. Processing can often get backburnered because it is less urgent than the other fires that come up in an archivists’ daily working life. Of particular interest to records manager was the survey finding that retention schedules rarely factor into how processing decisions are made.

Jamie Martin (IBM Corporate Archives) spoke next from the corporate archivist perspective. She noted that business archivists are unique from other archivists in that they provide answers, not records. The questions they receive from in-house are often quite complex, and the answers are needed within an hour. In this kind of setting, a more comprehensively processed collection is easier for the researcher (i.e., the corporate archivist) to navigate and deliver a very quick answer. Jamie talked about how she develops 1-3 year processing plans for the records at her repository.

Jessica Geiser (University of California Riverside) talked about how there was no centralized processing prioritization plan when she arrived. Since students were the main processing personnel, she assessed the backlog by applying a scoring metric to each collection, on a numeric scale by level of complexity/difficulty. This resulted in a large spreadsheet that designated which collections could be reasonably processed by student workers based on their score and which would be delayed because of size or special needs. It also set expectations for when collections would be processed.

Joanne Archer (University of Maryland) discussed how processing priorities at her institution were determined by a number of data sources documenting patron use and interest. The user data her institution used to develop processing priorities were subject specialists’ and curators’ assessment of research value, reference statistics (RefAnalytics), circulation data (Aeon), web analytics (Google Analytics), and speaking with users and public services staff.

After the panelists spoke, the session transitioned into breakout sessions for the remainder of the panel time slot. We broke into four different groups:

* Understanding our users
* The value of tools
* Project management and administration
* Managing unprocessed materials and backlogs

The large number of attendees at this session was testament to how many people find this to be a continuing issue that vexes large numbers of archivists. However, I think this session would have been improved by two things:

The workshop was dominated by academic archivists, and as the corporate archivist pointed out, different settings have radically different demands on archivists and what archivists are expected to produce (records? answers? both?). As a result, I wish there had been more institutional diversity. For example, I imagine that being a local records repository would be exceptionally challenging for processing priortization.

Finally, although this was a session identified as part of the annual conference “RIM track” it was hard to detect any emphasis on records and information management in this session. With the exception of the survey result showing that retention schedules rarely impact processing prioritization, there was no discussion of how retention scheduling or appraisal intersects with processing.

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