Bentley Historical Library Site Visit Report

ILS 603, H. Besser, Fall 1995
October 6, 1995
Group Members:
Eileen Fenton, Rachel Lewellen, Karen Spencer, Kathy Steiner, Deborah Torres
Also, Anne Frantilla (Bentley Historical Library Representative)

"The quest for knowledge rather than mere information is the crux of the
study of archives  and of the daily work of the archivist. All the key words 
applied to archival records -- provenance, respect des fonds, context, evolution,
inter-relationships, order -- imply a sense of understanding, of 'knowledge,'
rather than the merely efficient retrieval of names,  subjects, or whatever, all
devoid of context, that is 'information' (undeniably useful as this  might be 
for many purposes).  Quite simply, archivists must transcend mere information
and mere information management, if they wish to search for, and lead others
to seek, 'knowledge' and meaning among the records in their care."

				Terry Cook, Archivaria, Winter 1984-85.

Bentley Historical Library

The Bentley Historical Library, located on the North Campus of the University of Michigan, houses materials in two major areas reflecting a two-fold mission:

Open to the public, the Bentley serves a wide range of registered patrons including, for example, historians, genealogists, students, architects, designers, professors and railroad buffs. In addition to visitors in the reading room, reference staff responds to requests for information by telephone, mail, e-mail and fax.

Archival Institutions

The Bentley is an archival repository. Dr. Robert Warner in the introduction to archives class at SILS notes several ways that libraries and archives have traditionally differed -- useful in understanding archives (although there is convergence, driven significantly by technology).

Libraries collect published materials, such as books and periodicals produced in standardized formats. Archives acquire unique unpublished copies of documents and artifacts in a variety of formats, such as letters, diaries, maps, albums, scrapbooks, ledger books, and photographs. Libraries hold discrete items usually acquired by purchase, while archives hold information in groups, usually acquired by donation. In the past, libraries have placed a high premium on use and less on preservation. It has been the opposite in archives (although each are changing in this respect).

In addition, the handling methodology has been different in the two. Catalogers in libraries have worked to provide and improve access to material item by item, standardizing (particularly since automation) the process along the way. Archivists have also embraced technology, but it has taken a different form and raised different issues. In most cases, basic methodologies of arranging and describing archival material have remained true to long- standing tradition -- representing a set of related files as an organic unity in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

For the archivist, establishing intellectual and physical control over a collection requires knowing what the pieces are, where they come from, and how they fit together. It is, therefore, important to think in terms of the creator of the record when using archival materials.

Organization is based on provenance, which means that the person or organization producing the records determines their content. The archivist adopts the individual or corporate entity that created the records as the central organizing standard, keeping all the records produced by a particular origin or source -- a single provenance -- together.

A closely related principle in organizing material is original order. This concept provides an objective, rather than subjective, way of treating records: the archivist accepts the order and arrangement that come with the records whenever feasible. When relationships are maintained between documents and the activity that produced them, it becomes possible to understand context while considering the content of a collection. Understanding context is viewed by archivists to be as important as the content held in the individual items themselves.

Organization and Description

Bentley Historical Library Processing Room

Archival materials at the Bentley, with the exception of printed works (which may or may not be rare or unique items), are stored in folders and boxes in closed stacks. The size of a collection is usually described in feet (one foot of material represents approximately 3,000 paper items). Collections range from a few letters to several hundred feet of material (the papers of some Michigan governors are prime examples of the later).

Most holdings are described collectively rather than as discrete items, a principle derived from the preservation of provenance and original order. Collective description is also a practical way to deal with voluminous records, which because of their sheer size, preclude an item level approach.

As in many archives today, the Bentley's descriptive system provides information related to the creator and type of records, date spans, volume, arrangement, medium, donor, and notes access restrictions that might exist.

A finding aid to a collection includes this information, as well as a history of the organization or a brief biography, a scope and contents note (a narrative overview of the material), and a container list (describing contents of each box at the folder level). Finding aids are generally prepared only for collections more than one foot or box in size.

In addition, generating from the finding aid, holdings are indexed and cataloged in USMARC AMC format. Descriptive rules as outlined in Archives, Personal Papers, and Manuscripts (APPM) govern the way information, such as names and dates, is formed. Catalogers also refer to Anglo-American Cataloging Rules (AACR 2), Library of Congress Subject Headings, Art & Architecture Thesaurus, Thesaurus of University Terms, Library of Congress Rule Interpretations, Archival Moving Image Materials, Graphic Materials: Rules for Describing Original Items and Historical Collections, and other standard references.

Additional descriptive tools are often prepared, such as guides to collections or groups of collections (Guide to the Archives of the University of Michigan and Telltale Photographs: The Stoner Railroad Collection), bulletins (Detroit and the Great Migration 1916-1929), bibliographies (A Preliminary Bibliography of Resources on the History of Pacifism and Conscientious Objection in the Michigan Historical Collections) and books (Sources for the Study of Migration and Ethnicity.)

Records are entered into RLIN, the Research Libraries Information Network, and into the University of Michigan MIRLYN system -- accessible to researchers around the world in the networked environment. Until April of this year, cards were also prepared for the card catalog in the reading room. The card catalog has recently been frozen, however, and preparation for installation of MIRLYN terminals is underway. Until they arrive, researchers in the reading room continue to rely on the card catalog to begin research and to determine whether a finding aid exists for a particular collection. The card catalog is divided into five sections: printed works, manuscripts, visual materials, newspapers and maps.

Visual Materials

The archival approach to organizing photographs makes use of provenance and original order. Images created or assembled by an individual, family, organization or single source are not intermingled with other sources and retained in their original organizational structure and filing arrangement to preserve relationships. Photographs (and other media) are not separated out from the collection; their existence and location are, however, noted on the finding aid. Visual material, such as photographic collections or photographic series within a larger collection are not usually individually catalogued or indexed.

There are exceptions, however, such as the frequently accessed Stoner Railroad Collection. More often there is a general description of the photographs in the collection at the folder level. Thus, for example, a folder heading might be "family portraits" or "early childhood." Finding aids, whether they give item level descriptions or folder headings, are helpful because of the information contained in biographical sketches, histories, and box listings.

Visuals and the Electronic Environment

There is an interest in digitizing images (as well as textual material) revolving around two classic issues -- preservation and access. Some photographs, for example, are designated for restricted use because of their value and some because of their fragility. Other collections are comprised of negatives without contact sheets and are difficult to use. Digitization would improve access to such material.

The Bentley has developed a set of priorities in regard to the electronic environment. The first is the transfer of records in electronic format. As more and more records are created electronically, issues of long term access, storage and preservation become paramount. Procedures are being developed for identifying U-M electronic administrative records of long-term value that are presently controlled by the creating offices and transfer them to archival control.

Other projects currently underway include a revised and expanded WWW home page, an electronic exhibit featuring Olympic athletes from Michigan, and collaborating with faculty to provide coursepacks online. While textual catalog information is available on-line via MIRLYN and RLIN, finding aids are not, although the Bentley is participating in the Berkeley Finding Aid Project, which is developing an encoding standard for finding aids in the form of an SGML DTD.

Collaborative Projects

Collaboration and partnerships are central themes for many of the Bentley's electronic initiatives. An example can be viewed on the WWW, where the Library is a participating repository in the Michigan Historical Center for the Health Sciences SourceLink project. Other possibilities for developing virtual archives within the state are being explored. Also proposed is the development of online curriculum describing archival principles and methods for use in teaching archival students in the SILS program.

The Bentley is committed to supporting student projects. Staff members have identified textual and graphical holdings, including diaries, journals, maps, photographs, negatives, moving images, printed volumes, scrapbooks, and other archival records and personal papers suitable for exploring digital possibilities.

Suggested themes and topics include:

Possibilities that are primarily photographic include

According to reference archivists, the ideas are limitless. For example, former SILS student William Landis created an Historical Tour of the University of Michigan Campus using photographs and information housed at the Bentley. Staff is available to consult with students on a variety of topics and possibilities.