The realization that having a checklist for keeping track of where we are with each of the collections we are processing has come a bit late to our workshop. Nine weeks into the project, with nine collections- about 500 record cartons-- physically processed, I'm thinking that we can't keep all of the pieces of the process on just our on-line tracking forms and written processing plans. It makes sense that we would have one piece of paper in one place--literally--for each collection that broadly outlines what has been completed in each collection and what remains to be done.

When our project group first started meeting, I was looking for ways to make sense of the work that lay ahead. Not having worked on a project this large and multi-faceted before, my head was buzzing trying to visualize managing different tasks at different times in different collections. A common denominator, though, was that each collection we worked on had the same basic steps: get lots of record cartons into our work space, keep them separate and accessible, keep track of where one student left off physically processing and another started up, verify that all processing steps were complete, and confirm that the processed collection went to the right storage shelf. Karen Spilman created a check-list after our first group meeting, with a list of processing components, a place for names and dates, and check boxes for when each processing task was complete. But in the updraft of the first weeks, we didn't use it, relying instead on a color coded activities spread sheet and our white board with student work assignments to keep track of the work going on around us. Val MacDonald created the spread sheet the first week of the project, and it works well rendering a snapshot of where each collection is at the end of the week. But neither of these tools allowed us to see at a glance what steps were complete, who completed them, and what remained to be done.

After completing physical processing of a particularly large and complicated collection, our project group--Beth Kaplan, Karen, Val and myself --got together for our weekly meeting. I said that it seemed time to try checklists to keep track of all of the distributed work at the end of each day. I had missed integrating several print publications into one of the collections, and I thought that having a checklist would help me remember to do some of the more peripheral things we need to do, like checking map cases and print collections for print materials for possible inclusion in the archival collections. Beth remarked about a book she had read by a surgeon--Atul Gawande--emphasizing the importance of checklists in preventing surgical errors. (Go to for more on Gawande and The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.)

Apparently, there is something about having an unwaivering routine that helps drive a process forward and insure that nothing is forgotten in the push to complete the task. So Val and I are reclaiming the checklist and redrawing it so that we can address some of the steps that didn't appear in the original mock-up. Click here to see what we came up with. I'll try to comment again in a few weeks on how it is working.

Here is a brief excerpt from the NPR article. While no one's life depends on our checklist being followed, our work is complex, and missing a step because of the complexity creates confusion. If having a simple project-tailored checklist makes our processing more efficient, we'll do it.

"Our great struggle in medicine these days is not just with ignorance and uncertainty," Gawande says. "It's also with complexity: how much you have to make sure you have in your head and think about. There are a thousand ways things can go wrong." At the heart of Gawande's idea is the notion that doctors are human, and that their profession is like any other.

"We miss stuff. We are inconsistent and unreliable because of the complexity of care," he says. So Gawande imported his basic idea [creating a pre-surgical check list] from other fields that deal in complex systems."

posted on Susan's behalf

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