The archival function of accessioning is the means by which a repository obtains legal and physical custody of archival material. Good accessioning practices form the foundation for all further processes undertaken by a repository. It is of the utmost importance.
Legal custody of material is generally obtained through a deed of gift or acquisition agreement. At Houghton Library these are handled by the collecting curatorial department and the acquisitions team. Documentation is kept in internal files and through Aleph.
Physical custody is a shared practice between the collecting curatorial department and the accessioning archivist. It can amount to very detailed checking in of items to a more general acceptance of a donation at the collection level. Documentation is kept in ArchivesSpace.
In 2005, Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner published their article "More Product, Less Process," which called on the archival profession to account for its enormous backlog of inaccessible material. The article stirred many to adopt a new paradigm that included backlog reductive processing measures. Building on MPLP, Christine Weideman coined the phrase "Accessioning as Processing." This method of accessioning has been adopted as one strategy for backlog reduction. The goal is to provide baseline level access to collections as they are accessioned. Accessioning archivists are in an advantageous position to capture important documentation related to a collection's arrangement, condition, and content. While accessioning, and with a minimum of additional effort, a collection can receive collection level description, basic rehousing, and even some preliminary intellectual arrangement and description at the series or file level. In this way, collections never enter into a backlog or processing queue. Future user needs may then dictate whether more description is warranted.
The goal at Houghton Library since 2011 has been to provide access to all newly accessioned material. At a minimum a collection received a MARC record. Collections larger than 2 linear feet received additional description in a finding aid. Collections were still designated as unprocessed but for the most part were open for research. Beginning in July 2017 all collections will receive collection level finding aids, MARC records, and if larger than 2 linear feet series or file level finding aids. Collections will be marked as minimally processed and will generally be open to research.
What is baseline level access?
Providing good enough description at point of accessioning is a matter of judgment and will vary depending on the size, scope, and complexity of the collection. Finding the "golden minimum" for accessioning as processing is performing the minimum amount of work necessary to make the collection usable. Collections that are well organized (intellectually and/or physically) into discernible series are good candidates for finding aids with series level description. Collections that lack any discernible order should not be over-handled but rather described as holistically as possible, say by describing the contents of a box as is. Small collections or collections with less research value might only need a collection level description. Donor lists and dealer inventories should almost always be used as a basis for description.
Historic Record Keeping Practices
Beginning in July 1, 2006, the Manuscript Section has made accession records in MARC format for all curatorial departments. The previous database, HMA (Houghton Manuscript Accessions, an Access database created for the Manuscript Department circa 1999 from the original MARC-based BibBase), was frozen at that time. (Bonnie Salt completed a project to create MARC records for all earlier materials appearing only in HMA.) Until approximately 2006, the Harvard Theatre Collection maintained separate accessioning practices and files.
In recent years accessioning became a backlog-preventive measure. Since April 1, 2011, preliminary box lists for accessioned collections were posted to OASIS (pending curatorial review). Legacy box lists in Word and other formats were occasionally converted to EAD and uploaded into OASIS or ingested into ArchivesSpace.
Until June 30, 2017 every item, collection, or collection accrual entering Houghton received a MARC accession record; collections of approximately two or more boxes may have received a box list in EAD. Both of these records were derivative of the rules for full, standards-compliant Houghton cataloging of single items and collections.
As of July 1, 2017 accessioning is tracked in ArchivesSpace by creating an accession record for all incoming material, single items, aggregates, accruals, and so on.