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The Taming of the Schuh...


The G.E. Schuh papers started out as five separate accessions University Archives accumulated between 2000 and 2009. The five accessions combined totaled 171 cubic feet, a large amount of material by project standards. Three of the accessions had box lists at various levels of comprehensiveness, from folder level details to broad - two or three word-- subject descriptions. One of the larger accessions--47 record cartons--had no box list at all. Each of the accessions contained one or more processing "opportunities": duplicate copies of talks and presentations, out of scope materials, unfoldered and undated materials, mildewed papers. In addition, several accessions contained duplicates of the same talks and presentations. Dr. Schuh was a popular speaker who regularly repurposed talks over time for new audiences. All of the accretions were going to be merged into a single collection, and we are processing all of our collections minimally. This meant reducing surveying time as well as processing time. Chances for having big pockets of duplicate materials lodged in the final merged collection loomed large.

At the same time that we were sizing up the accession contents, we had other situations to address. Processing began on the heels of hiring our student workers. None had processing experience before working on Harvesting Minnesota. We had limited time to train them on processing procedures before assigning them to work on the different Schuh accessions. We had to put them directly to work. The project supervisors, while not new to processing, were new to minimal processing, so trying to determine what to retain for the final merged collection and what to recycle required surveying time that we didn't have.

To buy a bit of time, we put students into different accessions and had them weed out- of-scope materials. Dr. Schuh was an exceptional saver of reports and print materials from the large numbers of organizations and associations he participated in. We had students weed these from each collection first. This gave us the chance to focus on helping students identify out of scope material, until they could distinguish what was Schuh's and what was of interest to him but that he did not create. What that meant was that we actually ended up going through each accession twice: once to remove what was out of scope, and a second time to remove duplicates within and among accessions and to folder, date and enhance folder titles. An added challenge was that we had different students working on different sections of five collections every shift. Keeping track of what had been done by each student entailed using post-it notes on record cartons with check boxes for stages of physical processing and box-listing, and space for student's initials and dates.

The two project supervisors stayed ahead--mostly--of the students by surveying for duplicates across the five accessions. For box- listed accessions, we looked at the lists to get an idea of where runs of the shape-shifting talks and presentations were located and pulled duplicate runs to the best of our ability.

After physically processing the accessions for five weeks (50.5 student hours per week and 13.5 staff hours surveying and processing for a total 342.5 hours ) we had each accession processed and box listed. We merged all of the box lists and assigned series essentially based on date. Specific date ranges represented Schuh's long-term affiliations with Purdue University, the University of Minnesota's Applied Economics Department and Humphrey Institute, and the World Bank. Once the box list folder titles could be compared, we had a fighting chance of identifying duplicates and removing them. Onel notable downside to this work arrangement is that we had to change box lists after removing duplicates, essentially undoing some of what we had spent time doing. We can't account for how much time we ate up this way, but without more intensive surveying time at the front end of processing, there was no other way to tackle identifying and weeding duplicates.

Efficiencies learned on the Schuh papers we have put to good use. We now have detailed checklists for all current accessions. We can consult these to ask follow-up questions about who processed what and get information about the range of time it took to get through a collection. Best of all, we were able, through intensive weeding to reduce the overall collection size from 171 cubic feet to 52 cubic feet.
It was a challenging way to cut our processing teeth. We had to invent record-keeping methods as we needed them and coach ourselves on how to be true to bedrock minimal processing standards while shaping an unwieldy group of accessions into a collection. The end--in this case a considerable reduction in collection size -- justified the means.
And we got some good one-liners out of the experience. Consider "On with the Schuh", "If the Schuh fits, put it on the shelf" and references to "Schuh boxes", "Schuh sizes" and "Schuh-ins."

We have larger and possibly more complicated collections lying ahead for processing. We'll attempt to improve on our experiences with the Schuh papers: for now we are pleased to put collection 1189 on the shelf.

Collection Size and Managing Student Work


It's proven to be tricky corralling everyone and getting projects to keep everyone busy while trying to maintain our forward momentum. When Susan and I began in the late summer, the students slowly trickled in. This gave us time to try to feel out our surroundings and get a system going. Each student was given a small collection to start processing. This repeated for a round or two while the G. Edward Schuh Papers were surveyed. This collection spanned 5 accessions and 176 cubic feet of material.
We fazed all of our manpower into weeding, processing, and box listing this single collection. The weeks of Schuh blur together now, however, eventually we found that tiny light at the end of the tunnel.

It was about at this point that we realized since we had everyone working on this one collection, we did not have quite as many collections surveyed and ready for the students as would have made us comfortable. So again we dished out a few smaller collections, essentially buying us time to get our sealegs back. Susan and I trained one of our particularly detail oriented students in the art of surveying collections, which has proven to tremendously help even out the work flow. After the Christmas break we
will be training one or two additional students on surveying in order to continue to open up our options when it comes time to begin a new collection.desks.JPGshelving.JPG

Another piece of the puzzle was the installation of our new shelving units. We have more than doubled the storage in our workspace, which will allow us to bring up the larger collections with less hassle. Here are a few pictures of what our space looks like with the new shelving and the rearranged desks.

We look toward December with the expectation of surveying and processing a few of the larger, more higher priority collections.



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

By the numbers


Here's how our project breaks down by the numbers:

1750 cubic feet of archives and manuscript material
54 archival collections
12 months
2 full time project staff members
5 students, each working around 10 hours per week
600 Paige boxes purchased
5,000 archival folders purchased
3 OXygen software licenses
$132, 976 project budget ($112,807 grant to the University; $20,168 in kind match)
and a partridge in a pear tree!

About the project blog


We set up this blog with two basic goals in mind: to share news about the project and to document our progress as we work to get control over and provide access to 1750 cubic feet of unprocessed archival records. Our plan is to post regularly and to include images of our workspace, some before-and-after pictures of specific collections, and a few digitized items from the collections themselves. A few of us will be contributing to the blog -- Susan Hoffman (our project archivist) and Valerie MacDonald (our project assistant) along with the occasional entry from processing coordinator Karen Spilman and myself. We're excited and more than a little daunted but ready to get started.

Recent Assets

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