Institutional Records and Original Order

I recently finished processing the HIAS Communications records. For me, this functioned as a bit of a crash course in the processing of institutional records.

Of course, when processing institutional collections, the processing goal is to arrange the materials in an order which reflects the organizational structure. But what do you do when no original order—let alone structure—is present in the unprocessed boxes? This is the reality I encountered with the first batch of HIAS Communications boxes I had to process.

With no clear structure or order to work with, I instead created a structure, and organized these materials as subject files.

As I got deeper into the Communications boxes, a subtle order became apparent. Most of the records I processed were created between 1970 and 1995. During that time, there were three heads of the Public Relations/Affairs Department: Barbara Wachtel, Brenda Schaefer, and Roberta Elliott. In later boxes, their files were frequently grouped together, and I began to recognize their handwriting, and retroactively identify how each woman marked and organized her own papers.

Upon seeing this emerging order, I realized that arranging the files according to Department Director would have been more faithful to the original order. However, because of the constraints of our project, which has tight deadlines and schedules and is “minimally processed” (MPLP), it was too late to go back and recreate that order. Instead, I represented this order by marking down Barbara Wachtel, Brenda Schaefer, or Roberta Elliott’s name on folders containing their files. This was a way to recapture their files intellectually, even though the folders were physically arranged in A-Z subject order.

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Finance boxes just waiting to be surveyed.

With Communications behind me, I am beginning to dig into the unprocessed Finance boxes. This time, I understand much more clearly the importance of the initial, quick survey of the boxes, and will be able to group them intellectually before processing begins. I now know to wait and see what sort of order emerges from these boxes before making the decision to impose one.

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