What Makes a Collection Unhidden?

By July 26, 2012Blog

It’s very easy to make a collection hidden. Much too easy. If you can ingest a collection, you can hide it. In fact, that’s probably what you do. We don’t even have to delve into backlogs (I mean yes, we must, but here, conceptually, we needn’t just now); being hidden is the default status of an acquisition.

This fact (okay, and the backlogs) is just one reason why the CLIR-funded Hidden Collections projects and similar efforts are so very important. An archive starts in the hole. It helps for someone to toss down a flare and a ham sandwich every so often. Or cheese. Or hummus on a gluten-free wrap.

Because I’ve been thinking about processing audiovisual collections a lot lately, and because I have nothing better to do with my time besides deconstruct the meaning of single words (though I do also enjoy decoupage and carving stamps out of potatoes) I’ve been contemplating just what it is that makes a collection unhidden.

Essentially, I would say that an unhidden collection is one that is able to be discovered and subsequently accessed by users, preferably in a way that decreases the mediation of the archivist. Discovery means the creation of some record of the material that can be searched or browsed, whether a finding aid, publicly accessible catalog, or other mechanism. Access means the ability to call up the material (or facsimile thereof) in person or (if available) online, and, for lack of single encapsulating sensory term, consume it (i.e., read, listen, watch, smell, etc.)

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In 9th grade I began collecting pennies in the lefthand pocket of my Green Bay Packers Starters jacket. By 10th grade I had several dollars worth that I lugged around with me everywhere, always very careful about how I removed my jacket and how I hung it or set it down. It seemed worth it for the one or two times someone was short a few cents and I could “humorously” pull out a handful of pennies to help. It was really worth it the one time I needed 50 cents to get a Dr. Pepper from a vending machine and had to trade someone for quarters. Harpo Marxx aspirations aside, there was a cost and a weight to carrying these un-utilized assets.

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This all makes sense.

Well, not the pennies.



Except that not all materials in archives can be accessed — in person, online, or otherwise. I’m not just talking condition here, but the fact that a large portion of audiovisual materials are entirely inaccessible simply because there is no means of playback within the institution.

This, of course, impedes that idea of access. Frequently, due to the lack of annotations or other knowledge of the content, it even impedes the creation of a descriptive record that would enable potential access. In other words, the creation of a record for unknown audiovisual content promotes neither direct discovery nor access. The collection remains hidden until both aspects are fulfilled, which means that in many cases reformatting is a precursor to description as a precursor to becoming Unhidden.

(I really wish that the word were something stronger like Unbound, but unhound sounds like getting rid of a dog, and I don’t want to let go of my guy:

In order to unhide audiovisual collections they need to be transferred to a state where they can be described and accessed. This means that the initial pass of unhiding needs to gather data that supports planning for reformatting or other means of access, after which descriptive documentation can take place if it does not exist already and the content can be consumed upon request. Without a technical reckoning of the collection, realistic planning for budgeting, staffing, workflows, and timelines cannot take place. You can get a penny for your thoughts, but not for shelves full of unknown, inaccessible assets.

Joshua Ranger

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Megan McShea says:

    Great topic! We’re working on this very concept now at the Archives of American Art, with particular attention to finding aids, with the help of CLIR’s “Hidden Collections” program.

    Being a manuscript repository with loads of significant audiovisual recordings in our collections, finding aids are a great tool for us to reveal our AV gems within the collection’s context, which sometimes can help people understand what recordings are.

    It’s just that there’s never been much guidance on how to describe AV materials in finding aids. So that’s our focus. I’m looking forward to sharing our work when we’re a bit further along with it.

    • Josh says:

      Megan, that sounds like a great project and one that will help the field a lot. I’ve been seeing more and more that the lack of documentation on various methods or approaches to dealing with audiovisual collections has blocked projects from getting funding or buy-in to be done properly. Your efforts (and getting them published and presented) will support everyone. I hope you’ll start putting out periodic progress reports and that there is some budget to speak at conferences. Please keep us updated so we can spread the word as well, and feel free to contact us if you ever want to discuss the project.

      • Megan McShea says:

        Thanks, Josh. I agree, and I plan to do all those things as we have documentation to share. I’m so glad to be part of what seems to be a growing dialogue on this important subject. Now, please excuse me as I hungrily devour your white paper.

  • […] cans filled with foul-smelling acidic film! But this particular project is part of a larger goal of “unhiding collections”, as media collections consulting firm AV Preserve has put it. As they have said, “in order to unhide audiovisual collections they need to be transferred to a […]

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