Processing Guidelines

The Harvard Library Joint Processing Guidelines provide a high-level approach to making archival material accessible in an open, efficient, and sustainable way. The Guidelines are structured around different functions (Accessioning, Processing, Assessment, and Communication) that we feel must operate in tandem in order for a processing program to be successful. The Guidelines are meant to be broad and adaptable to local practice. Repository specific procedures, conventions, and workflows should supplement the thinking behind the Guidelines.

The Joint Processing Guidelines Working Group conducted a survey of Harvard repositories in January 2017. The survey revealed that most repositories have a backlog of undescribed archival collections, and many have finding aids or lists of material that are only available onsite at the repository. Our goal as stewards of unique archival material should be to make as much of this material open and visible to the user and research community as possible. In order to reach this goal, archival professionals need to embrace a model of practice that opens more collections to research with adequate description and processing.


Using an efficient processing approach can move our collections from accessioning to the reading room with more speed. Efficient processing describes a practice in which each archival collection is analyzed and assessed in order to perform the appropriate amount of work necessary to make that collection useable and forms part of a programmatic approach to processing. Good accessioning practices and careful use assessment can allow repositories to then focus more detailed descriptive work on institutional priorities.


Traditionally archival processing has been seen and understood as one of several separate archival functions. What is increasingly clear to those who manage processing both at repositories across Harvard and throughout the profession is how processing practices cannot be improved, streamlined, or made more efficient without a shift in our understanding of what we mean when we say “processing.”


Processing, the analysis and description of archival material in order to make it discoverable and comprehensible to users, cannot continue to consist of siloed practitioners tackling single collections in a vacuum. Collections must be considered holistically across an entire repository, work priorities must be strategically determined, and decisions must be made about what to process as well as how to process different collections.


Developing a sustainable descriptive program at an archival repository includes rethinking traditional archival activities and taking a more integrated approach; doing more work at accessioning; repurposing donor-provided description where possible; communicating frequently with curators, research services staff, and other archivists in order to build expertise that will aid in prioritizing work; and appraisal skills that will allow all collections to be accessible to research use as quickly as possible. We believe this work is scalable both up and down - that small repositories can also manage to work this way as well as large repositories.


We aim to provide guidance on developing a thoughtful and efficient program of practice: expanding our ideas of “archival processing,” setting priorities, planning descriptive work, utilizing clearly defined levels of processing, and using efficient practices. The effective management of archival processing requires a deep familiarity with and flexible use of these practices. However, a repository cannot effectively perform efficient processing without also reviewing accessioning policies, determining which collections may receive the most use from a repository’s user base, gathering data from multiple sources to make decisions and back up our professional knowledge that one size does not, in fact, fit all.


The Guidelines also touch on the importance of all repositories responsibly identifying and managing Harvard University records, acquired both through direct transfer from University offices and mixed in with faculty papers donations. In addition to these Processing Guidelines, archivists should also familiarize themselves with the General Records Schedule (GRS) to fully understand the scope and user access restriction periods applied to Harvard University records where they appear in both manuscript collections and record groups.      


Widespread adoption of the underlying philosophy and use of the suite of practices and tools that make up the Guidelines relies on a combination of local implementation, structured guidance, training, and feedback provided by the JPGWG, and support from SPARC and Harvard Library leadership.


Our work is heavily influenced by the “Guidelines for Efficient Archival Processing in the University of California Libraries”; Dan Santamaria’s Extensible Processing for Archives and Special Collections; Chris Weideman’s “Accessioning as Processing” and the beta version of the revised Principles to Archival Description for Describing Archives: A Content Standard. We used methods adapted from the Agile philosophy to guide our work including the development of personas and user stories to address our user’s needs.


We believe archival work must focus as much as possible on providing users with access to, clear description of, and transparency about our interventions in archival collections. Promoting the scholarly and general use of archival materials is the defining reason why we are dedicated archival professionals. We believe adoption of these guidelines across Harvard will result in increased use of our collections and a richer experience for our research community.