Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review of Managing Congressional Collections

Managing Congressional Collections

My review of Managing Congressional Collections by Cynthia Pease Miller. (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2008).
Published in Metropolitan Archivist, Summer 2009.

Managing Congressional Collections, a project of SAA’s Congressional Papers Roundtable funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, assists archivists who preserve the manuscripts of members of Congress. A senator generates approximately 100 boxes of archival material a year. These papers are historically significant, yet are often underused and poorly understood by researchers and repositories. Holding “tremendous, and often untapped, historic value,” congressional collections simultaneously document national, regional, and local public policy issues, displaying complex relationships between senators, representatives, and the people they serve (2).

Author Cynthia Pease Miller, former assistant of the House of Representatives, staff archivist for three senators and a Senate committee, and founding member of SAA’s Congressional Papers Roundtable, steers readers from acquisition to outreach. Chapters also focus on administration, transfer, processing, and reference. She offers advice on calculating space, personnel, and budgets; offers ideas for sustainability and external funding sources; and proposes cost-saving strategies. She also discusses access issues regarding classified, declassified, and reclassified documents.

Appendices include a chronology of advances in managing congressional collections, network information, a sample deed of gift, a congressional office staff list, guidelines for file disposition, frequently asked questions, and a bibliography.

The manual’s publication is well timed in an election year and after Congress’ resolution urging members to save their papers for public use. Beginning with the establishment of a Historical Office in the Senate in 1975, scholars, librarians, archivists, and administrators have advocated improving the management and use of these records of enduring value. House Concurrent Resolution 307, included in the volume, was passed by the House on March 5, 2008 and the Senate on June 20th. The resolution states that congressional papers should be properly maintained; that each member should take necessary measures to manage and preserve their papers; and that they should be encouraged to donate their papers with a research institution that is properly equipped to preserve them and to make them available for use. While the resolution does not define the content or scope of the papers, it states the members’ belief in the manuscripts’ value “as indispensable sources for the study of American representative democracy” and in the importance of preserving documentary evidence that results from national service.

Managing Congressional Collections benefits all archivists, who encounter in their collections similar difficulties that congressional manuscripts present, as they “epitomize every management problem associated with twentieth and twenty-first century records,” including high profiles, elevated donor expectations, significant costs, and obstacles to access (5). Congressional papers are the fabric of our democracy, the primary sources of our nation’s history. As archivists, we must rise to the challenge of preserving and presenting congressional documentation.

Annotated Bibliography of Archival Description Part 6 of 6

This post is part of an annotated bibliography about archival description. Please click below to read further:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Pitti, D. (2005). Technology and the transformation of archival description. Journal of Archival Organization 3(2/3), 9-22.

Pitti, Associate Director, Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia, suggests liberating archival description from the limits of traditional media through technology by integrating the functional strengths of markup and database technologies. Traditional archival description has employed a “single records-oriented apparatus,” such as the finding aid, which describes all records with a common creator, which can be complicated for mixed-provenance records. Pitti notes that by developing semantics and structures for records and their complex interrelations, flexible, dynamic, and sustainable descriptive systems can be created which are more useful than traditional finding aids.

Yeo, G. (2008). Custodial history, provenance, and the description of personal records. Libraries & the Cultural Record 44(1), 50-64.

Yeo, Lecturer, Department of Information Studies, University College London, argues that traditional methods of description do not capture the complex provenance of personal papers, such as those of Sir Richard Fanshaw (1608-66). Archivists need to reinterpret traditional binary distinctions between “organic” fonds and “artificial” collections with more complex relationships of the records; fonds are groups determined by context of creation, while collection is determined by custodianship. To assess the challenges of description, Yeo surveyed 120 description projects at 46 UK archival institutions by University College London graduate students from 2003 to 2007. He found that their provenance lacked information about the nature and historical development of the collection and its custodial history.

Works Cited

MacNeil, H. (1995). Metadata strategies and archival description: Comparing apples to oranges. Archivaria 39, 22.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Annotated Bibliography of Archival Description Part 5 of 6

This post is part of an annotated bibliography about archival description. Please click below to read further:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 6

Millar, L. (2006). An obligation of trust: Speculations on accountability and description. American Archivist 69(1), 60-78.

Millar, an archival and information management consultant and educator, considers the role of archival description for organizational and social accountability. Comparing the answerability of traditional post-hoc archival description to continuum-based records management, she finds that while they are suitable for their fields, neither ensures the wider accountability of institutions to themselves or to the community at large. She envisions blending the accountability strengths of the post-hoc and continuum-based models into a larger, more holistic framework. This description architecture will support expansive institutional and social accountability to ensure the integrity of records of enduring value and the larger spectrum of functions of the organization responsible for creating and preserving those records.

Peters, V. (2005). Developing archival context standards for functions in the higher education sector. Journal of the Society of Archivists 26(1), 75-86.

Peters, Research Archivist, Glasgow University Archive Services, discusses a research project, which used records of Scottish higher education institutions and made the results available on GASHE (Gateway to Archives of Scottish Higher Education). Believing that archival description based on traditional principles of provenance and original order is limited, Peters borrows from records management practices in which the fundamental relationships of records are their functions and activities, rather than their creators. Description of function is more helpful for archivists and researchers, rather than description based on a single, static arrangement, such as administrative structure, which cannot fully preserve the context of the records. This functional provenance approach allowed records of Scottish institutions, dating back to 1215, to be described seamlessly with current records.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Annotated Bibliography of Archival Description Part 4 of 6

This post is part of an annotated bibliography about archival description. Please click below to read further:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 5
Part 6

Hedstrom, M. (1993). Descriptive practices for electronic records: Deciding what is essential and imagining what it is possible. Archivaria 36, 53-63.

Hedstrom, Associate Professor, School of Information and Library Studies, University of Michigan, questions whether traditional approaches to description are applicable to electronic records. She suggests using the challenges of digital records to define the purposes of creation; to reassess description’s objects, agents, and timing; and to develop approaches that exploit technology while aligning with archival practice. Description’s essential purposes must allow users to identify, access, understand, authenticate, and interpret meaning. Unfortunately, digital environments focus on data structures and content, not contextual information adequate to support the records’ use as evidence. Hedstrom assesses that the gap between existing practice and the potential for electronic data will narrow with the possibility of exploiting metadata in automated systems, so archivists can capture, rather than create, descriptive information.

Hurley, C. (2005). Parallel provenance: (1) What if anything is archival description? Archives and Manuscripts 33(1), 110-145.

Hurley, a thirty-year veteran of archives programs in Australia and New Zealand, notes that through description, archivists create a single perspective of provenance and a fixed internal structure for the collection. Hurley views provenance as more than simple relationships between units that tell stories of context and structure. He argues that the dynamic relationships and formation of records and the functions in which they took part cannot be properly described within the narrowness of the internationally standardized idea of archival description. Instead, he suggests a parallel provenance that contextualizes alternative narratives about the records into a single ambient description with multiple provenances that enriches the evidential meaning of the records.