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David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

A popular concern with colleagues around the state has to do with handling large collections. Sometimes that collection is new as discussed in Digital Windfall, and sometimes the collection has been sadly neglected for far too long. In either case if a historical organization is to preserve the collection, that collection needs to be made accessible to the public. For those less experienced in processing large collections, sometimes both the unknown and the magnitude can be daunting. What words would you use to coach someone through a large cataloging project? What tried and true procedures to guide you do you use?

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4 Responses to Coping with Collections

  1. I hope to get some good advice from this one. We have rather a large cataloging project on the back burner.

    I have two thoughts, however. The first is that if you can break the collection into chunks, either by classification, or by object type, you may feel a little less daunted by the task. The second is that someone has to be assigned to the inventory/cataloging project and not be expected to work on anything else. These project require concentration and continuity.

    I did work tangentially with such a project in South Dakota, and dedicated staff was the only way it would have gotten done. This does not have to be paid staff, but if it is a volunteer, it has to be someone fully trained, and who has a lot of time to devote to the cause.

    In addition, you have to allow enough time for such a project to be done. It would be very difficult to tackle a large collection in a year or so. I envision our full collection inventory (with minimal cataloging) to be a five-year project, minimum.

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  2. Todd Mahon says:

    I agree with Claudia regarding dedicated staff. We are in the middle of a collections project that is intended to deaccession items without sufficient provenance or identification.

    We muddled around for a while before we finally decided to reallocate staff time towards it. Volunteers are playing a role, but they are specifically designed ones.

    Also, doing this in digestible pieces is essential, especially for small organizations. The anticipation alone can be overwhelming.

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  3. Merlin Peterson says:

    Pope County started a comprehensive inventory project in 2006. One major goal was to computerize the catalog. I had tried to tackle this project for nearly ten years amid the distractions of the rest of my job description. Once we hired a dedicated staff person, whose time I guarded carefully, we have now made significant progress.
    The project is turning out to be even more complex than it looked, but by taking on manageable bits (Native American collection; farm machinery collection; spinning & weaving collection) we can show how valuable the project is. Photographing each artifact, noting its location, doing basic conservation care, and researching the correct name according to The New Museum Registration Methods handbook have resulted in much more detailed catalog entries. These extra steps have also extended the target date for completion of the inventory, but the striking value of the finished portion of the inventory has kept everyone enthusiastic and fully supportive of the task.
    Our collections staff person, Ann, works three days a week and has an all day volunteer one day a week and a two-hour volunteer one day a week.
    Again, the progress on this project is entirely due to assigning dedicated staff and limiting their distractions.

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  4. Karen says:

    We’ll be tackling our project by first digitizing the exisiting catalogs. This will be done by a full time dedicated staff person with plans t have it completed before we open May 1. After that, we have time each day dedicated to physically going through each room and cross referencing each individual item and completing the inventory. This will take us through 7 rooms of displays and leave us with the resource center… the books, the photos, the ephemera. I have to admit I have no idea how long it will take to complete this final phase and digitize the photos and papers but it should be something that we can approach a bit at a time and accomplish within reason.

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