Today I (Arlene) was working on rehousing a collection as I was working a shift on the reference desk. Rehousing is archives-talk for taking photographic slides out of carousels and other types of trays and placing them in polypropylene slide holder pages. Not only does it reduce the space the slides take up, it makes the slides much easier to view for our researchers.
But that’s not where I was going with this. As I was moving the slides about I got to thinking about one of the twin pillars of archives: original order. (The other is provenance). See, these slides were taken by/belonged to a couple who used to travel worldwide and took a lot of photographs on their trips. And they’d sometimes do slide show presentations on their trips, sometimes by topic, whether it be general travel, gems & minerals, wildlife, geographic area, and so forth. And the slides came to us as they were organized for the slide shows.
So what’s the original order? If you wanted to go back to first principles, you could argue that the slides need to be in order as they were taken. Not always easy to determine since the slides aren’t labeled that way, but you could probably get close by gathering together based on what can be deciphered from the slide holders: usually a month, year, the processing store, and occasionally a number. This would mean that the slides would end up roughly grouped by each individual trip. Or you can argue that the order is the order created and maintained by the creators/owners of the collection: as they arranged them for the presentations by subject.
Okay, so which method is respecting original order? In this case, I’d argue the second. Here’s why: it’s the order that the creators/collectors found useful and meaningful and it’s the order in which they deliberately chose to organize the slides and to maintain the slides. Some of the original context to each image might be lost, but we can save some of that by making sure the dates of the images are provided in the description, so somebody looking for a 1985 trip can easily see which sections of the collection they need. And if the description details the overarching subject arrangement (as it will) researchers who are searching for images on specific subjects will also have an easier time than they would if we’d rearranged by date, which not only would remove the added context the creators provided by arranging by subject, but would require much more extensive description from us on what trips occurred on what dates and what places were visited and what images were taken, and so forth.
So respecting the arrangement schema developed by the creators, lessening the amount of time required to describe the materials, and still having sufficient information for researchers who might not be searching by subject, the second option wins. Original order provide context that is impossible to provide in any other way: there’s a reason we don’t just throw things in the air and file them as they land. Even though we do get tempted once in a while. Rehousing can be really, really tedious. Which is why we tend to do it when we have the highest possible chance of being interrupted, like when we’re on the reference desk.