Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018...6:08 am

Opening the Drawers of the Harvard Theatre Collection

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This post, by Project Archivist Betts Coup, continues the series “Behind the Scenes at Houghton,” giving a glimpse into the inner workings of the library’s mission to support teaching and research.

When processing a collection, the ultimate goal is to make the materials discoverable by researchers and easily accessible by library staff. When I started working at Houghton Library in February, I began a project to improve accessibility to materials in the Harvard Theatre Collection’s flat file cabinets. While these materials are often oversized and unwieldy, they are also special. For example, a group of seventeenth-century works I processed called the Daniel Rabel ballet drawings (MS Thr 1775) are some of the oldest and most rare in the Collection.

To give readers a sense of the scope of the project: there are seven rows of large flat file cases—which we call case ranges—nearly full of oversized materials. This is 980 drawers! Some of the materials form parts of collections that have already been processed but which had not been included in the finding aids.

In other cases, materials form part of subject- and format-based collections known as the Theatre Collection Series (TCS). These are intentionally assembled collections of theatre materials organized by type, such as theatrical portrait photographs, scene photographs, organization photographs, caricatures, ballet drawings and many more. An additional number of the flat files contain items or collections that needed descriptions. My task is to process all the materials in these  flat files, whether by adding materials as accruals to existing, already-processed archival collections, describing the TCS collections, or processing and cataloguing collections for which we don’t have formal records of their acquisition or donation.

Some of the 980 drawers that house part of Houghton Library’s Theatre Collection.

Prior to beginning the overall project, I carried out a couple of smaller test projects in order to estimate how long it would take to get through all seven rows of flat file cases, what we call case ranges. First, I measured the time it took me to fully process one-drawer or multi-drawer collections. Next, I carried out a survey of all the flat files to understand exactly how many drawers I’d be processing. Based on my results, I estimated getting through all the drawers in 14 months.

Unidentified production, scene design – painter’s elevation; trees, T.T. Gill Scene Designs, circa 1900-1930 (MS Thr 1779). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

I met with the Harvard Theatre Collection curator, Matt Wittmann, and assistant curator, Dale Stinchcomb, to go over my survey and discuss strategy. We decided I’d start at the first case range and work my way through to the last case range. I asked Matt and Dale to set processing levels for the collection based on research value. Collections with a rank of 3 would be catalogued to the individual item or file level, providing the most detailed description. For collections with a rank of 1, I would write a collection-level description, which would still give a sense of the collection even without granular description. Level 2 is somewhere in between, usually including descriptions of groupings of materials. In the end, though, because most of the collections are already in good condition and have been housed in appropriate folders, the preference is often for level three description, as it isn’t time consuming to provide a higher level of detail.

A question I considered was what to do with unprocessed collections that included materials in flat files as well as materials in boxes—for example, standard-size papers like correspondence, eight-by-ten inch-sized photographs, and generally items that will fit into easily stored document boxes or record center cartons. In some cases, these collections have box-level descriptions already, which are used to provide high-level access to the materials. Boxes containing the TCSs are already on-site, and we formulated a plan to recall boxes that might be at Harvard Depository (our offsite storage facility) and label them with newly-assigned collection numbers and box numbers. The boxes are mentioned in the extent and processing notes of the finding aids and in the bibliographic records in Hollis so users are aware there is additional boxed material in each collection.

We are fortunate to have student workers who are currently assisting with providing file-level lists of the materials in TCS 28 and TCS 29. These lists will be integrated into the finding aids upon completion. We will hopefully be able to continue this kind of work throughout the project. Also, I should mention that another goal of the project is to make sure that materials in the flat files are in fact oversize and appropriate for the drawers. Smaller items which are not well suited to flat-file storage, such as eight-by-ten inch photographs, are being removed and boxed, and are awaiting end processing.

“The Mother of Us All,” scene design – seven sketches in pencil and pastel, David Hilberman “The Mother Of Us All” Designs, 1947-1965 (MS Thr 1781). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Since the start of the project, new challenges have come up, mostly relating to making materials easy for staff to find and retrieve for researchers in Houghton’s Reading Room, and then return after use. In order to manage locations, the range of drawers holding a collection is listed in the catalog record, as well as in the “Physical Location” note in the finding aid. Furthermore, we are piloting a project to use the location management aspect of ArchivesSpace, our internal archival collection management tool, and have linked locations down to the file level for all of the collections I have processed. This will help staff members to more easily find, retrieve, and return items requested by researchers, and will also be useful when we introduce a feature we’re developing for the catalog that will enable users to request archival materials straight from the finding aids.

So far, in the past three months, I’ve worked through most of the second case range, plus a few additional collections that were part of the timing assessment prior to the start of this stage. I’ve also published 42 finding aids!  In addition to TCSs 28 and 29, this includes the flat file materials for TCS 41 (photographs of theatre organizations), and TCS 42 (theatrical photographs by photographer), and multiple others. Upon completion of this project, researchers and staff will have unprecedented access to oversized materials in the Harvard Theatre Collection.

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