Assessing collections with the HSP survey method

If your archives has limited resources and lots of collections that need attention, how do you decide which ones to focus on? In the HSP Archives Department, one of the main tools we use is the HSP collection survey methodology, which has become a model for collection assessment work at dozens of institutions around the U.S. In this blog post I’d like to give an overview of our survey method — how it works, how we use it, and where we’re headed with it in the future.

The HSP survey methodology uses a combination of qualitative and quantitative measures to assess collections. Each collection is rated on a 1-5 numerical scale for physical condition, quality of housing, physical access, and intellectual access, with 5 being the highest. A research value rating is determined by adding together separate 1-5 ratings for a collection’s interest and documentation quality. Surveyors also record notes that provide substance and specifics to help explain the numerical ratings.

As an example, the numerical ratings for the Beath family menu card collection, 1860-1913 (7.5 linear feet) look like this:

Beath collection survey ratings

The General Note and Conservation Note for this collection look like this:

Beath collection survey notes

Here are a couple of examples of what the different survey ratings mean. Before it was processed in 2010, the George G. Meade collection got a middling score of 3 for quality of housing. This photo is above average for that collection — closer to a 4 than a 3:

volumes in Meade papers box

By contrast, the Belfield papers got a 1 for quality of housing — as low as you can go. This image from the PACSCL processing project blog shows why:

Belfield papers box

Numerical survey ratings enable us to set priorities across all of our archival collections. Generally speaking, a collection that gets a high research value rating (7 or above) and low ratings for physical condition, housing, and/or access is a high priority for processing (and in many cases for conservation work). This helps us pick collections to include in grant proposals, feature in our Adopt-a-Collection program, and assign to staff members and interns. We don’t rely on ratings alone to make these selections, but they are a starting point.

Suppose we want to put together a grant proposal focusing on business history collections. Using database query functions, we can generate a list of candidate collections that have specific rating combinations and feature business-related keywords in their descriptions. If we want, we can factor in collection size, span dates, or other attributes as well. Then we can go through the candidate list and pick out the collections that are most appropriate for this particular grant. This stage usually involves staff discussion, poking around in the collections themselves, and considering issues that the survey data can’t capture. (Is a given collection likely to grow or shrink when it’s processed? Could we feature it in a publication or public program? Does it tie in with particular interests of the funder we’re going to pitch to?)

Querying the survey numbers usually turns up some high priority collections that are already on our radar, but there are often some surprises as well – collections that have lots of potential but haven’t gotten any attention since they were surveyed years ago. I used to think HSP didn’t have any sports history collections to speak of. Then I crunched some survey numbers and rediscovered a 100-linear foot collection that documents the development of a local tennis tournament into an international event.

The HSP survey methodology was developed by David Moltke-Hansen, who was HSP’s president from 1999 to 2007, and Rachel Onuf, who led a Mellon-funded project to survey HSP’s manuscript and graphic collections in 2000-2002 and then headed HSP’s Manuscripts and Archives Department until 2004. Since then, the Mellon Foundation has funded survey projects based on the HSP methodology by Columbia University, the University of Virginia, the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL), and the Black Metropolis Research Consortium (BMRC) in Chicago. Other institutions that have conducted collection surveys based on the HSP method include the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, the Chicago History Museum, and Penn State University (for a survey of Civil War homefront collections at small repositories around Pennsylvania). Each of these institutions has adapted or modified the survey method to some degree to meet its particular needs.

In 2009, the developers of Archivists’ Toolkit, an open-source archival collections management database application, added an assessment module based closely on the HSP survey method. This made it possible for HSP to begin shifting our collections management data from our old MS Access database to AT.

At HSP, we have attempted to make surveying an integral part of the accessioning workflow. This has not always been successful, mainly because of lack of time, but after a hiatus we are back to surveying regularly and chipping away at the small backlog that has built up. Currently, each new collection larger than 1 linear foot (and some smaller ones) gets surveyed within a couple of months after it is acquired. Cary Majewicz (HSP’s technical services archivist) and I do the surveying together as a team. Sometimes we invite other staff members or interns to join us, both to get the benefit of their knowledge and expertise and to help more people understand the survey methodology and its uses as a collections management tool.

Numerical ratings have an aura of objectivity that can be misleading. Inevitably, different people looking at the same collection will sometimes come up with different ratings. This is especially true when assessing a collection’s research value, where individual interests and biases most easily come into play. It’s important for surveyors to have a grounding in different areas of knowledge, be familiar with broader trends in historical research, and learn to set aside their own likes and dislikes as much as possible. Working in teams also helps to even out differences between individual surveyors. In the end, we see the survey ratings as an imperfect but useful tool. They’re not fully objective, but they do provide a consistent yardstick and shorthand for comparing different collections.

Over the past couple of years we’ve made a couple of small additions to the survey protocol. First, we added a numerical rating for “Recommended Processing Level,” to represent our five possible processing levels, from basic collection-level record (Level 1) to full-scale traditional processing (Level 5). (We developed this five-tiered processing schema starting in 2007 based on “More Product, Less Process” principles.) More recently, we started including a processing cost assessment as part of the survey record for all collections that get a research value rating of 6 or higher. This makes it easier to plug these collections into our Adopt-a-Collection program [link].

This fall, we’ll be exploring a new use of the survey method. HSP recently launched a pilot project to gather information about archival collections at small, non-professionally run repositories in the Philadelphia area, such as historic houses, small museums, and neighborhood historical societies. The project has the unwieldy name of Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR). Once again, the Mellon Foundation is the funder. (For more information on this grant, see our press release.)

HCI-PSAR surveying began this week at the Byberry Library in northeastern Philadelphia. We’ll be featuring reports on this work both on Fondly, Pennsylvania and on a new project blog to be launched soon. We expect that the HSP survey method will need to be further adapted to address the particular circumstances of non-professionally run institutions, especially given the lack of standard archival management practices. (For example, are materials even divided into discrete collections?) It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.

HSP Civic Engagement Collections: A new NHPRC-funded project

This month HSP begins a new 26-month project to process and conserve fourteen collections related to civic engagement in Philadelphia and beyond. Willhem Echevarría has already started work as project archivist, and in December he will be joined by Leah Mackin as project preservation technician. Previously, both Willhem and Leah worked on our Chew papers project and Digital Center for Americana pilot project, and we’re fortunate that they’ll be continuing on with this new initiative.

In this blog post I’d like to talk about some of the reasons I’m excited about the Civic Engagement Collections project and efforts surrounding it.

Citizens' Permanent Relief Committee flyers

Flyers from Citizens' Permanent Relief Committee records, ca. 1890s


Working with great collections
The project deals with collections documenting a wonderful variety of people and organizations. These range from Albert Greenfield (real estate broker turned banker, politician, and philanthropist) to Morris Milgram (socialist activist turned integrated housing pioneer and developer of planned communities). From Anthony Biddle, Jr. (elite-born diplomat and military officer) to Max Weiner (who helped launch a grassroots consumer protection movement in the 1960s). The project includes the papers of reformers across three generations: Herbert Welsh, who from the 1870s to the 1930s tackled everything from imperialism to forestry to civil service rules; Richardson Dilworth and Natalie Saxe Randall, who helped lead Philadelphia’s political reform movement after World War II; and John Fryer, psychiatrist and gay rights activist, who in 1972 helped persuade the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.

Organizational collections in the project include the records of the Citizens’ Permanent Relief Committee, a late 19th century philanthropic group that aided people harmed by natural disasters, famine, war, or political repression; and the Indian Rights Association, which played a key lobbying role from the 1880s to the 1930s around its paternalistic aim to “bring about the complete civilization of the Indians and their admission to citizenship.” There are also six decades of records of the League of Women Voters of Philadelphia, which promoted women’s political participation and took stands on issues ranging from child care and public education to the United Nations and the Marshall Plan.

I’m especially pleased that this project will enable us to digitize 160 hours of phonograph recordings from the Philadelphia Fellowship Commission, a pioneering civil rights coalition formed in 1941. To help promote its multi-cultural ideals, in the 1940s and 50s the commission sponsored a series of radio plays, stories, and interviews with people of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. The Civic Engagement project will make these recordings publicly accessible for the first time since they were broadcast.

Highlighting our 20th-century holdings
While HSP is rightly famous for our pre-20th century collections, the fact that we also have rich collections up through the late 20th century receives much less attention. For example, most of the applications to our research fellowship program (a collaboration with the Library Company of Philadelphia) focus on our pre-20th century collections. The Civic Engagement project – which primarily deals with 20th century collections — is part of our plan to change all that.

A related effort is our recently launched Greenfield Project, funded by the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation. This will endow a research fellowship in 20th-century history and create a web portal focusing on 20th-century collections and featuring related interpretive material. The Greenfield Project funding also covers archival processing work on the Greenfield Papers, which is part of the Civic Engagement project.

Max Weiner collection flyers

Flyers from Max Weiner collection on Consumer Education and Protective Association, ca. 1970s-1980s


Implementing “More Product, Less Process” (MPLP)
The Civic Engagement project is funded primarily by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the grant-giving arm of the National Archives and Records Administration. The NHPRC has gone farther than any other major archives funder in embracing MPLP principles. To get NHPRC funding for a “detailed” processing project, including any descriptive work below the collection level, a repository has to ensure that virtually all of its collections are or will soon be open for research and locatable online. This embodies one of MPLP’s key tenets, that repositories should provide a basic, minimum level of access to all their collections before giving intensive attention to a select few. HSP’s Archives Department wholeheartedly endorses this approach. For the first time ever, we will soon provide online collection-level descriptions for all our archival holdings, through a new online guide that will launch later this year.

Processing work on the Civic Engagement collections will be based on MPLP principles as well. This means that some practices will be streamlined to speed up processing and make more collections accessible more quickly. For example, collections may receive only rough arrangement below the sub-series level. Non-archival folders will be replaced only if they are damaged or do not fit in an archival box. And, yes, metal fasteners will be removed only if they are rusty or pose a hazard to users. Staff time for this project has been allocated based on an average of 2.6 hours per linear foot for processing work and 1.25 hours per linear foot for conservation work. HSP has five different processing levels that we use depending on the specific collection, and guidelines for this project are based on our Level 3 protocol, in the middle of the range.

Contributing to a regional effort
The Civic Engagement project is interconnected with a consortial processing project that HSP is participating in. The PACSCL Hidden Collections project, funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources, is processing collections at 24 institutions, including HSP. (PACSCL stands for Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries.) The two projects share the same processing methodology and were developed in close coordination with each other. HSP staff helped design the PACSCL project, establish its standards, and write its manual. PACSCL project staff, in turn, has helped to train HSP staff in the use of MPLP principles and Archivists’ Toolkit. Two collections in the Civic Engagement project (League of Women Voters of Philadelphia and the World War II collection) will be processed by PACSCL project staff at HSP, working alongside HSP staff. This type of interchange enriches our work and helps us see our tasks as part of a regional effort.

More on Confederate prisons

Archaeologists in Georgia announced yesterday that they have found the site of Camp Lawton, a Confederate prison camp near Millen, Georgia. You can read more about the project at Georgia Southern University’s Camp Lawton web site.

As you may remember, we processed a collection earlier in the Digital Center for Americana project that included images of Confederate prisons. Previously absent from HSP’s catalogs, the collection is now titled Sketches of Confederate Prisons (drawings) by Robert K. Sneden (Collection 3129).

I decided to check to see if Camp Lawton was depicted in our set of Sneden sketches. It is!

Here’s how Sneden sketched the camp in 1864:

For more on HSP’s collection of Sneden sketches, check out Cathleen Miller’s earlier post.

Our collection includes eight mounted wash and ink drawings, depicting not only Camp Lawton, but also prisons in Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Here are a few more:

Libby Prison, Richmond, Virginia

Prison on the South Common in Savannah, Georgia

Prisons in Salisbury, North Carolina (left) and Charleston, South Carolina (right)

One of our unknown gems

Early on in the Digital Center project, I worked on a description for the Robert Knox Sneden collection of “Sketches of Confederate Prisons.”  I discovered that not only did this collection have an obsolete call number, but it was not listed in either our OPAC or our graphics card catalog.  The only way to find this collection was by searching our Access database.  This still remains true, and will until we import our database into Archivists’ Toolkit sometime toward the end of the DCA project.  It pains me to know that little gems like the Sneden drawings are unknown to researchers, so I thought I could at least add a little plug for it here until it gets an OPAC record and is visible in our still-in-progress DAMS.

This collection consists of eight mounted wash and ink drawings of Confederate prisons by Robert Knox Sneden during his service with the 40th New York volunteers during the Civil War.  Each is captioned, identifying the prison, describing the site, listing the number of prisoners, noting how many deaths occurred there, along with the date when he was imprisoned there.  The watercolors are copies of original sketches done by Sneden while in the service.  They offer extensively detailed perspectives on the prisons, and suggest the difficult conditions within the walls of the buildings Sneden illustrated.

Sneden was a mapmaker with the 40th NY Vols., Army of the Potomac.  Sneden was captured by Confederate forces in 1863, and was imprisoned in the Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia.  His nearly 1,000 maps and paintings, along with his 5,000 page manuscript were edited and abridged into a book published by the Virginia Historical Society, “The Eye of the Storm.”