(Re-) Articulating Accessioning

Accessioning is a core function in the archival enterprise, but one that is significantly less discussed and examined than other elements of work in archives. Stewardship responsibilities and collection management needs surfaced as top of mind concerns in our recent Research and Learning Agenda for Archives, Special, and Distinctive Collections, with accessioning specifically called out as an area of need for further work. Recognizing the role accessioning plays in larger discussions about backlogs, collection control, and optimal access to collections, and “in light of the lack of baseline physical, intellectual, and administrative control in our backlogs” the Agenda stated that “a clear reconceptualization of goals for and approach to accessioning is in order.”

To help address this need, we asked two colleagues in Accessioning Archivist roles at RLP Institutions with strong commitments to accessioning to reflect on their work as part of our Works in Progress webinar series last week. In their presentations, Rachel Searcy from NYU Libraries and Rosemary K.J. Davis from Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, shared valuable reflections drawn from their experience building and working within accessioning programs. I’ll summarize a few key points here but urge readers to watch the recording of the webinar to benefit from the nuance and insight of their full presentations.

In her presentation, Rachel Searcy described her work building an accessioning program at NYU, as part of the creation of a unified archival technical services department serving their three main archival repositories. She describes the program as a reoccurring loop of “applied theory, daily practice, and reflection.” Through this ongoing practice, they have come to believe that the longstanding definition of accessioning as “establishing legal, physical, and intellectual control” is insufficient for their work and goals at NYU. She describes the traditional definition as both ambiguous and restrictive, and states that it doesn’t help us think critically about the goals of accessioning and what a baseline of success looks like.

Accessioning Definition, Rachel Searcy, 2018.
Accessioning Definition, Rachel Searcy, 2018.

Instead, she puts forward an alternate definition for accessioning which they use at NYU: “Activities we carry out to examine, stabilize, and document information about archival materials upon their arrival, thus confirming our stewardship of the collections.” She also suggests a new framework to complement this definition, one that encompasses the activities laid out in the tradition definition of accessioning but does a better job in supporting exercising professional judgement in practical decisions, especially when faced with new problems. Rather than thinking about establishing the three controls, she suggests four goals as a framework:

  • stabilizing materials
  • establishing administrative control
  • documenting knowledge about materials
  • facilitating access and collections maintenance

Her presentation walks through this framework and gives specific examples of decision making and actions at each phase.

In her presentation, Davis lays out the history of accessioning at the Beinecke, from the homegrown systems of the 1960s forward to their formalized and robust accessioning program today. She also considers the full range of activities that Accessioning Archivists are called upon to do including arranging shipping and packing, interacting with donors and dealers, dealing with legal and financial paperwork, and physically stabilizing material, alongside initial arrangement and description work that builds the foundation for any processing and research to come. She lays out the need to recognize and support the emotional, physical, and intellectual labor involved in this work, and the emotional, temporal, and institutional investment that requires.

Identification of Accessioning Duties and Types of Labor, Rosemary K.J. Davis, 2018.

In the webinar, Searcy recognizes accessioning as something that is relatively invisible when done well but which can cause significant and long-term problems when done poorly. Both institutions can trace the decision to make institutional investment in an accessioning program to large-scale barcoding, survey, or baseline processing projects which could be thought of as retrospective accessioning, and which really illuminated the lack of control they had without robust accessioning. But the benefits of intentional and careful accessioning work do not start and end with collection management. Davis makes the point that when the work of accessioning is robustly supported by an organization, everyone wins, and that “acknowledging the complexity that undergirds even the most seemingly mundane decisions is crucial to understanding how we can more consciously evolve toward practices that not only better serve patrons, donors, and local communities, but are also ultimately better serving ourselves as archivists who want to grow and gain joy from our work every day.”

You can learn more from watching the full webinar and reading the accompanying notes, as well as reading Rachel’s recent article in the Journal of Archival Organization.

I’m happy to also note the increased attention accessioning has been receiving in the past few years, with sessions dedicated to it at the past two annual Society of American Archivists (SAA) conferences, and an upcoming book from SAA on accessioning in their Archival Fundamentals series. Surely this is further indication that the time for us to devote renewed thought and energies to accessioning has come. What are your reactions to these articulations of accessioning, and what challenges and successes are you seeing in your organization related to accessioning? Let us know in the comments.