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Ready for Research: Enhancing Access through Archival Finding Aids

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The following is a guest post by Emma Esperon, Archivist, and Aliza Leventhal, Head, Technical Services, Prints & Photographs Division.

Navigating large collections can be so challenging that archivists create finding aids–contextual and structured description documents—to lower barriers to research. We’d like to take you behind the scenes to see the ingredients that go into creating these finding aids. There will be some tech talk.

Over the past year, archivists in the Prints & Photographs Division (P&P) converted 45 documents available only at the Library into online finding aids that represent more than 2 million photographs, architectural drawings, and graphic artworks. These documents, created in the 1980s through the 2010s, were available on paper in the P&P Reading Room.  P&P staff have also published finding aids for recently processed collections in order to describe the scope of collections, to outline the major sections, and to list the folders or items for keyword searching. As a result, access has increased for a total of over 3.5 million visual materials. Finding aids have become a major access tool for P&P collections and are well worth learning more about.

Telework requirements due to the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020, and the division’s 6 archivists and 8 technicians pivoted quickly to convert these paper indexes to collections into formal online finding aids. Processing technicians transcribed information from scanned pages into structured data in Excel spreadsheets. Archivists took the completed transcriptions and normalized the data, such as dates, and eliminated inconsistent formatting in order to encode the content in XML.  They also leveraged the Library’s “Excel to XML code template” to create online EAD3 finding aids.

Screenshot showing columns of data, including Level Type, Level, Container Type, Title, etc.
Screenshot of metadata for the Frances Benjamin Johnston Photograph Collection finding aid in the Excel view of the “Excel to XML code template,” compiled in 2021.
Screenshot showing metadata with angle bracketed labels
Screenshot of metadata for the Frances Benjamin Johnston Photograph Collection finding aid in the XML encoded view of the “Excel to XML code template,” compiled in 2021.

P&P staff also performed data quality checks, including line-by-line technical reviews of XML code, comparing spellings with online sources, and having a reference librarian review the finished finding aid. After archivists and technicians began to work onsite in July 2020, additional checks compared the physical collections to the contents list of the finding aid to resolve any questions about folder titles and to keep container numbers in synch with the physical collections.

Opportunity for innovations

While working with the legacy collection finding aids, both paper-based and some Microsoft Word and Excel source files, archivists developed creative solutions to account for varying levels of description and additional resources. Archivists honed their skills in rapid coding by using Excel’s formula and autofill functions to mass generate XML code and quickly create encoded lists and appendixes. Archivists also used software to extract metadata from catalog records and incorporate it into container lists in online finding aids, reuniting data from different series of a single collection into one centralized finding aid for the entire collection. These data manipulation skills were also useful for cleaning up inconsistent data and concatenating fields in order to create clean code en masse.

More to come

During this intensive experience of converting paper documents and internal Word and Excel documents to online, widely available archival finding aids, P&P staff applied lessons learned to improve the local policies, procedures, and workflows that create finding aids as well as enhance the long term sustainability of these valuable access tools. Through this effort to improve access to picture collections and build staff technical skills, we produced many new online finding aids, increasing access for researchers all over the world.

To become better acquainted with the world of archival finding aids, please take a look at some favorites among P&P staff members:

If you are already familiar with P&P collections, you will appreciate that the item-level descriptions for 12 architectural collections (called ADE UNITs) are now consolidated in 12 finding aids for such popular DC regional architects as Chloethiel Smith and Donald Drayer. You will no longer have to come into the Library of Congress to see what kinds of drawings are available for a particular building. This conversion project also provided online access to two of the largest collections in P&P: the U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph collection (1.2 million items) and the New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph collection (total of 1 million items).  Finally, information about the popular Frances Benjamin Johnston Photograph collection and the National Photo Company collection (online finding aid coming soon) is now gathered into full, one-stop collection descriptions.

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  1. Thanks for such an enlightening post! I’m glad to know I was on the right track with the types of excel tracking sheets I maintained at my own collection. Concatenate is the best!

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