Boxes, Boxes, Everywhere: Centralizing Acquisitions at Northwestern University Libraries

By Brittan Nannenga, University Archivist, DePaul University 

(Previously Accessions Specialist at Northwestern University Libraries)

This post is a modified version of a presentation given at ARCHIVES*RECORDS 2019 in Austin, TX, as part of the session Do We Own This?: Transforming Acquisitions Practices and Workflows.” 

     In the fall of 2018, archives staff at Northwestern University Libraries admitted to a problem. To be fair, we had known about this problem for a while, but last fall it really came to a head, and we committed to doing something about it. The problem was that we had no formal process for archival collection acquisitions.

     To provide a bit of context, there are six different collecting units at NUL that acquire archival collections, annually averaging 180 collections totaling 1,100 linear feet. These six units are all led by a curator, have their own collection development policies and procedures, and manage their own public service points. The units are spread out between two library buildings on Northwestern’s campus: the main University Library and Deering Library. And the collections themselves are housed in the Main and Deering Libraries, but there are also two offsite storage facilities, one that is offsite from the libraries but still on Northwestern’s Evanston campus, and one that is about thirty miles away.

     These different collecting units all had their own methods for interacting with donors, managing transfer logistics, and what paperwork they were using to document collection gifts and transfers. Materials were also arriving at the library in a number of ways and were stored in many different locations throughout the four buildings, often without any examination from preservation staff or systematic method for keeping track of what was where. Boxes—and all of their related documentation—were quite literally everywhere.

     So in the fall of 2018, we setup a task force to examine archival acquisitions practices across the library and make recommendations for streamlining and standardizing workflows, with a focus on a solution that could be implemented with existing staff and resources. We first looked internally at the workflows in each of the six units. Then we reached out externally to colleagues at peer academic institutions, to find out about their acquisition workflows. Then we used all of the information collected from those observations and conversations to come up with a process that physically and procedurally centralizes archival collection acquisitions.

     The full Acquisitions Workflow that we came up with is a three-phased process, which begins with the initial communications about a potential acquisition, and ends with moving a collection to a permanent storage location. In the first pre-custodial phase, we created some Donor Guidelines for curators to use when gathering information about a potential acquisition. These are questions that can be given to a donor to answer or asked in conversation with a donor, and they pull out information about collection size, formats, condition, and logistics. We found that curators needed some questions specifically regarding born-digital materials, and so we included those as well. 

     We also created a Review Form where all of the information gathered from these questions could be documented and shared, so that any preservation concerns, format-specific needs, collection complexities, and packing/shipping arrangements could be identified and discussed amongst the staff or units that might be impacted by the acquisition—before the collection arrives.

     And then once those discussions take place, and a decision is made about accepting materials, the second acquisition phase begins. The important points to note from this part of the workflow are the two physical spaces that we setup to receive, examine, and treat collections: a staging room and a quarantine room. The staging room is a temporary intake space where all new acquisitions go when they arrive at the library, to be unpacked, reviewed, sorted, and rehoused as necessary. And the quarantine room is for collections that have preservations issues. 

     The final phase of the workflow is establishing control, by creating an accession record in ArchivesSpace, moving the collection to a permanent storage location, and recording the location in the accession record. We also designated one existing staff member to coordinate the whole acquisitions workflow, a full-time Accessions Specialist.

     We did anticipate and run into some challenges along the way: getting curators invested in and used to utilizing the Donor Guidelines and Review Form was one. Space needs for the staging and quarantine rooms, and the equipment costs for a quarantine room were the others. To address those challenges, we proposed the whole workflow to the curators first, and then their questions and feedback were taken into consideration before we finalized and implemented anything. And for the staging and quarantine rooms, we first came up with specifications for each room’s size and setup; and then a few potential existing spaces in the library were identified; and any implications for converting each of these potential spaces were considered. We compiled all of this into a proposal requesting what we needed with some suggestions for what spaces in the library we thought would work best. Finally, the equipment costs for a true quarantine room (fume hood, freezer, HEPA vacuum, etc.) were a challenge. We created a cost estimate, and it was decided that we could start with just a room for quarantining materials, and the equipment could be purchased later and on a rolling basis.

     The physical transformation that has resulted from the new workflow is initially the most apparent change. We went from having new acquisitions sitting on carts, shelves, and the floor, in different spaces in different buildings, and in very close proximity to processed collections, to having one dedicated, secure intake space, with enough shelves and pallets to accommodate one year’s worth of acquisitions, and a separate but nearby quarantine room to segregate anything that came in with condition issues.

      New acquisitions on carts and the floor, in different spaces, in close proximity to processed collections.


Secure staging room large enough to accommodate one year’s worth of acquisitions.

     The new workflow has also resulted in an intellectual transformation that impacts everyone involved in the lifecycle of the collection, from the creator to the end-users. The process has led to better accession records that not only prove a collection exists but also transmit vital collection information about creators, donors, and context. This in turn leads to better description during processing, as more of that voice and context gets incorporated, which ultimately leads to better access and discoverability for users.

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