‘Speed archivists’ make quick work of organizing Philly area collections

Some of Philadelphia’s historical repositories have gotten a breath of fresh air, however briefly. For two years, the Hidden Collections project has swooped into selected archives to straighten out some messy collections.

 

A lifelong correspondence between a father and daughter in the early 19th century. A box containing a bird’s nest and a collection of owl pellets. A wire recording from the 1940s of the Academy of Natural Science’s Howard Pilsbry talking about mollusks.

 

What does it all mean? That’s not for Jennie Marrone to find out. She and 17 other free-lance archivists aim to process 125 collections in just two years. To do so, she has learned to move fast.

“It’s not hectic. Nothing in archives moves too quickly,” said Marrone, who is studying history at Temple University. “You just dive in and try to organize based on what seems most logical from an archival perspective. It’s not rushed, but there are very firm deadlines.”

An unprocessed collection means it is inaccessible to all but the most intrepid researchers. It normally takes about eight hours to sort, itemize, and catalog one linear foot of documents. So, for an 80-foot collection, time adds up fast.

The Hidden Collections projects used a minimal processing system called “More Product, Less Process” to cut processing time to less than half.

Holly Mengel, a project manager of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections, said that benefits understaffed institutions.

“A lot of repositories have only one staff member. By the time they are done doing reference, administrative, and keeping things going, they don’t have time to process,” said Mengel. “There are places that haven’t processed in five or six years, because they simply don’t have the time to do it.”

The Hidden Collections project was funded by a half-million dollar grant from the Mellon Foundation. The More Product, Less Process system is not for everyone. Some institutions did not want the Hidden Collection archivists to touch their shelves because the processing would be incomplete.

For example, speed-archivists did not have time to listen to Pilsbry’s hourlong lecture on mollusks. They just noted that the recording exists.

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