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Recipe for Manuscripts Processing
First, create a manuscript collection: take files of old family records from the attic and basement, toss well in a large box with bundles of old letters from secret desk drawers, and sprinkle a few handfuls of insect parts on top. Bring this to the nearest curator, stir up family genealogy until the curators eyes begin to glaze, then sign on the dotted line and leave.
Processing that manuscript collection means reversing the steps above (except for the signing on the dotted line part).
The ultimate goal of manuscripts processing is to produce a finding aid, which serves as a summary and inventory of the collection and provides the interface between the collection and the researcher in the same way that a catalog entry informs a reader about a book.
Second and third passes are necessary to refine the categories, to arrange each category of materials in chronological order (very occasionally alphabetical), and to answer the many questions that usually arise. Like, Is this almost illegible penciled note really a Civil War spy communication in code? or Who in the Sam Hill is this guy whos got all these checks made out to him? Obviously, research is often necessary to compose a coherent finding aid that tells researchers the who, when, why, where and what of the collection.
Throughout all the passes, preservation of materials is a major concern. Each item is cleaned, clippings may be photocopied, scrapbooks may be taken apart and reassembled using stable materials, and single pages may be encapsulated. The curator also identifies materials that are not historically valuable (blank forms, cancelled checks, pages full of I will not hit my little brother any more). These are listed on a separation sheet and returned to the donor.
Once the collection is intellectually organized into categories (called series and subseries), it is packaged into acid free files and boxes. Its no easy task to reconcile the intellectual arrangement of series and subseries with the physical arrangement dictated by the various sizes and configurations of materials.
Then comes the final step of creating a finding aid, based on the extensive notes the curator has taken all along, which communicates to the researcher exactly what is in the collection and where it is. Then the curator takes a stiff drink, and opens the next box.
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