Caring for Collections: Accessioning and the Kathleen Cleaver papers

Kathleen Cleaver speaking at a Peace & Freedom Party rally at the University of Honolulu, 1968.

Accessioning Archvisit Meaghan O’Riordian talks about accessioning and the Kathleen Cleaver Papers.

Here at the Rose Library, we are committed to providing access to new collections we acquire as soon as possible. In archives jargon, this is known as “accessioning as processing.” Accessioning is: 

 …a rich hybrid of pre- and post-custodial work that requires physical, intellectual, and emotional labor. Duties can include appraisal, packing and transportation, archival description, legal and financial documentation, donor relations, documentation of archival decisions, preservation measures, and space management. Effective accessioning practices are foundational to ethical, transparent collection stewardship and have an impact on every facet of the archival lifecycle.1 

When we perform this kind of accessioning and complete some level of processing on material at the time of accessioning, what it means for the user is that access is granted much sooner. Traditional accessioning would mean that everything above would happen except for “archival description,” and that is the piece of the puzzle that makes a collection open for research. Collections would sit on our shelves for years until they could receive traditional processing treatment – usually considered to be file-level description and rehousing into archival folders and boxes – and inaccessible to our patrons during that time with no discernible end. Because the Rose Library acquires 850-1,000 linear feet per year, there is no way to know how long it would be, if ever, before a collection would be made available using traditional methods. 

Materials collected from the home of Kathleen Cleaver.

 So, the advantage of the choice we have made is that you can use our materials sooner rather than later. What is the disadvantage? Well, often these collections may receive less description than collections that are traditionally accessioned and later processed. Let’s look at the Kathleen Cleaver papers as an example. 

 This collection was packed at Cleaver’s home in Atlanta, Georgia, during the first week of March 2020. Because it was a local collection, we were able to complete some physical arrangement on the material at the packing site, as well as house the material in archival boxes that would be able to go directly on shelves and made available to researchers. Often material is sent to us in shipping boxes that are not ideal for long-term storage. As we unpack the material so that we can transfer it to better housing, if we did not pack it, we may also need to spend some time moving material around to be better organized. If we can not only pack it ourselves but go ahead and use our acid-free boxes, that saves a lot of time. 

Materials collected from the home of Kathleen Cleaver.

As we packed Cleaver’s papers, we also kept a general inventory of what was in each box, including content, format, and a date range. This way we would not have to spend time going through the boxes again once they were in our care in order to create a container list for the finding aid. In fact, we had local movers take the boxes directly to the Library Service Center (LSC) to be ingested into the pod there, which we would not do if we still needed to record information about the contents. 

 After the physical work was complete and an inventory was in hand, I was able to write what we call the “front matter” of the finding aid – all those notes before you get to the list of boxes – and use the inventory for the container list. Then the finding aid could be published, making it possible for people to request material from this collection. I was able to post the finding aid for the Kathleen Cleaver papers on April 24, 2020, just seven weeks after we acquired it. It ended up being 116 boxes, so if I were to wait until I had time to create a filelevel inventory before I could post the finding aid, a seven-week turnaround time would be inconceivable. 

 However, you can also see from the finding aid that most of the container list only notes what kind of record type is in the box (e.g., photographs, correspondence, audiovisual material, etc.) and a date range that is often approximate. While this kind of container list could be useful for a certain type of research or a certain type of user, there is no denying that some additional description of the contents of these record types would be beneficial to most people. Sometimes at accessioning we can provide file-level or even item-level information for the material. For example, I performed file-level arrangement and description for the Brian Lassiter collection at the time of accessioning. However, this is almost never possible for large collections given the amount of volume we acquire each year. Our position is that something like the Cleaver finding aid is better than years of inaccessibility. 

Kathleen Cleaver, c. 1960s.

 Additionally, we are just assuming that the Cleaver finding aid needs more detailed arrangement and description, but we won’t really know that until people start trying to use the collection. If most researchers are able to find what they need with relative ease, that is evidence that a box-level container list is sufficient for the collection. If it turns out that this is not the case, we can always return to the collection in the future to perform additional work on it. This is what is known as iterative processing. While the processing done at accessioning can be the last processing a collection ever receives, that is not always the case.  

 A good example of this is the Geoffrey Holder and Carmen de Lavallade papers. This is another large collection in our holdings that we were able to pack onsite in New York into archival boxes and provide a finding aid with a box-level container list very quickly afterward. We acquired this collection in March 2018. We hired a project archivist, Anicka Austin, to perform more detailed arrangement and description for the collection in August 2020 given the difficulty users had with accessing the collection. But at least they were able to access it during the 2.5 years between acquisition and hiring Anicka! 

 We are committed to opening material as soon as possible while also flexible enough to provide additional description when needed. We want all our collections to be available to our researchers while still responding to needs that they voice. If you have additional questions about archival accessioning, please feel free to reach out to me at meaghan [dot] oriordan [at] emory [dot] eduI also spoke about accessioning in the Rose Library’s podcast series Behind the Archives.