Chronicles of NARA

As it turns out, my relatively recent move has placed me within easy reach of our region's National Archives and Records Administration branch in Seattle. This branch serves government agencies and the public in Idaho, Oregon, Washington state, and to a lesser degree, Alaska. Curiosity got the best of me, and before long I discovered that they offer volunteer positions in a number of areas within the archives. Given that my current line of work is not as near to the archives profession as I might desire, I decided that volunteering was a good way to keep my head in the archives field while simultaneously getting to know how an archives works from the inside.

Having an MSIS degree helped the application process quite a bit. The average, untrained volunteer usually performs more of a customer service role: helping researchers with their needs and questions, watching over the research room, and so forth. Volunteers with a little more training, such as library students from nearby UW, may take on more intellectually stimulating tasks such as describing holdings or creating products such as finding aids. The latter is where I have fallen in.

I am currently committed to about four hours per week. In the grand scheme of things, four hours a week is not much, but I have certainly gained from what I've done so far. My initial sessions were focused on grasping the current state of information generation relating to the branch's finding aids and beginning the process of generating such materials for public use. The ultimate goal of my current work is to produce easy to understand finding aids that represent the various record groups held by the Seattle branch down to the folder level. This work puts me more in the realm of education projects rather than in the core of the archive's management operations, but the overall experience I have had thus far is rather illuminating.

I took the opportunity to perform a quick, informal information audit. The information management situation at the Seattle branch is not unlike many such environments I have encountered in similarly sized organizations, especially my experience in the military, and I imagine that the scene in other branches is not too much different. With respect to finding aids and inventories of the holdings, I have already encountered obsolete or inadequate paper inventories, disparate electronic systems for maintaining inventory, and a parent organization that is implementing a completely different electronic system that does not completely fulfill the branch's needs.

From what I have seen so far (and I expect that there is plenty that I am as yet unaware), resources for finding records within the local holdings are thus: Washington DC's current initiative, ARC, Microsoft Access databases on the local area network, hand-generated Finding aids, and accession forms with the originating agency's inventory records but little other descriptive or location information. As you might guess, there is quite an ecosystem here, replete with version control, data synchronization, and controlled vocabulary problems.

The ARC database is probably the best organized information asset of those available. As the archivists enter the requisite information into ARC, quite a bit of quality control goes into the process, from rechecking the actual holdings, to enforcement of controlled vocabularies, to detailed review of insertions. Unfortunately, ARCs emphasis is at the series level and above, which does nothing to help the agency keep its holding inventories organized or make them available to public search. For that, the archivists use an Access database; well, they use Access as a glorified spreadsheet: one monolithic table containing a plethora of columns, many of which are rather cryptic in appearance; no relational structures for data integrity; no attempt at enforcing controlled vocabulary; and no explicit workflow procedures. Additionally, though the database does address units of inventory below series level, it does not contain a box/folder level item list. To further complexify the situation, a copy of this database (not a view, mind you, a copy) is used to keep additional information for education-related projects. This indicates a potential rift between the archivist's operations and the public-centered education and research activities, but I have not had the time to feel out the details here. Regardless, the overall feeling is one of great information disunity – an old metaphor something along the lines of one hand not knowing what the other is doing.

My first instinct (from a Web applications developer's perspective) is that the whole database scheme must evolve to one of a centralized network application. Instead of different copies of the database being manipulated separately, the same data should be presented with different views, as appropriate to the work that is being done. Once the existing data is being maintained properly, the schema could be extended to incorporate box/folder level lists which could then be used to generate finding aids with little effort. Even better still, this data could be used to populate a Web application that could be linked through ARC to provide the detailed inventories to researchers, thus taking advantage of our increasingly network-centric research culture.

Unfortunately, there are a number of factors working against this plan: four hours a week is not much time to implement such a scheme, funds are short, and the organizational inertia against such change is apparently formidable. For the time being, I have decided that I still have a great deal to learn about the nature of the branch's holdings, how to describe and index them, and the overall information and political structure within the organization. These, coupled with the urgency imparted to me for improving and creating useful finding aids has convinced me to take the path of least resistance for the time being. The materials that I generate will have an immediate impact not only on my own education, but in helping the branch's customers in their work. Normally I would feel that greater internal information organization is more of an imperative in that it prevents duplicate work, and thus lost time, but in the near term this situation is an exception. From what I've been told, the Internet has taken quite a bite out of the number of customers that the research room sees every day. In order to restore awareness in the public of what the archives has to offer, it is important that the products that describe the holdings measure up to the more stringent expectations of information seekers that have become accustomed to full text indexing and search. Although a folder index is not the same as searchable text, it is a number of shades better than a standard inventory form without annotations or understandable descriptions.

Walk first, then run...