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The Center for the History of Medicine, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, is one of the world’s leading collections in the history of health care and medicine, attracting researchers from around the world to consult its rare books and journals, archives and manuscripts, photographs and prints, and art and artifact collections. The history of medicine plays a critical role in informing contemporary medicine simultaneous to our understanding of the larger society within which medicine is embedded. This manual is designed to aid Center staff in its ongoing effort to deliver concise and consistent descriptive information about archival and manuscript collections to the public, as well as provide an overview of the Center’s Records Management practices.
Processing is a “collective term used in archival administration that refers to the activity required to gain intellectual control of records, papers, or collections, including accessioning, arrangement, culling, boxing, labeling, description, preservation and conservation,” though not necessarily in that order. Processing practices across Harvard repositories vary considerably, as does the granularity of products of description (finding aids, catalog records). Center practices can be summarized as seeking the middle ground. Rarely are our collections processed to Level III criteria (see section III.5), but rarely are collections accessioned by the Center in such a way as to deem them closed and unavailable for research when not governed by University or patient privacy restrictions. The Center seeks appropriate-level processing and description decisions, matching collections to levels of practice rather than imposing uniform practice on all collections. As well, the Center’s practices are aimed at access, not interpretation.
The creation and issue of this manual coincides with a greater movement among Harvard library leadership to adopt a shared IT infrastructure, collection management and cataloging software, and more uniform descriptive practices. The Center anticipates that the processing workflow outlined in its manual will be revised frequently in the coming years, not only to better standardize our own practices to our benefit (and the benefit of future Center staff seeking to understand how collections were handled), but to ensure that we are in compliance with University-wide requirements.