Our Mission: The Missions of AID, Part II

Today’s post is written by Alan Walker, a processing archivist in Research Services.

Earlier I described to you the Overseas Mission records of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and our project to transform them from the unfortunate and inaccessible state in which they arrived at Archives II.

These records have proven a time-consuming challenge for three reasons: 1.) the disarray and lack of documentation for the accessions; 2.) the large quantity of temporary records found in the accessions; and 3.) the physical condition of the records and their containers.

We process the records for one mission at a time. This involves surveying the contents of each accession for that mission. Very few of these accessions arrived with any sort of documentation as to which offices within the missions created them. Add to this the fact that you will frequently find records of many different offices in a single box. Oh, and did I mention that you will find a bit of records for one office in one box, and then in another accession you’ll find more records for that office? These then need to be arranged and consolidated back into their original order. Two such missions, those for Guatemala and India, have proven particularly monstrous in terms of the sheer volume and disarray of their records.

Records from different offices in a box.jpg
Records from multiple offices share a box.

During the surveys, we have found tremendous quantities of records that never should have arrived at Archives II at all. These are the project case files described in the earlier post. We laboriously identify which boxes (or folders within boxes) of an accession contain such records, then mark them with the appropriate USAID disposition authority gleaned from the USAID records schedule. Finally we consign them to a list of records to be disposed of, and note the cubic footage and their date of disposal in our project spreadsheet and in our Holdings Management System (HMS), our internal records-tracking information system.

1,300 cubic feet of temporary records, and counting
1,300 cubic feet of temporary records, and counting

All of the original boxes are encrusted with dust (from decades of storage at the Washington National Records Center or at USAID), many are crushed or torn, and many were the victims of zealous personnel who not only taped the boxes, but then wrapped them in kraft paper (or in some cases clear plastic sheeting), taped them again, and then for good measure tied them with twine or applied nylon strapping.  And all of that tape is disintegrating.

As each mission’s records are surveyed, we identify the series they will become. As lead for this aspect of the USAID project, I compile a listing of the series to be processed. Each listing contains the provision series title, with dates; and the constituent accessions and their current shelf locations, with notes on what is found in each accession. I then assign this listing to another staff member who can then “hit the ground running” with the processing.

As we remove the records from these sad receptacles, we also perform the necessary holdings maintenance on them: replacing worn folders and removing the metal fasteners. So far we have filled 10 FRC boxes with the familiar paper clips and Acco fasteners (the two-pronged devices that affix papers onto a folder). That’s a lot of metal (and weight). Doing so protects the records, reduces bulk, and eases the researcher’s task. A necessary undertaking, and one that takes time.

About 30 pounds' worth of fasteners removed so far
About 30 pounds worth of fasteners removed so far.

Next comes the intellectual aspect of the processing. Do the records need a folder list? If so, we compile one. Records created after 1962 are usually arranged according to the USAID filing  scheme , but those records predating 1962 will frequently need a folder list created. Some of these records date back to the mid-1940s, predating the existence of USAID, and so must be reallocated to Record Group 469 (which contains records of foreign assistance agencies prior to November 1961, the date of USAID’s establishment). This shows that a processing project is never really completed; it only takes a hiatus. We undertook the systematic processing of Record Group 469 back in 2009.

Finally we update the physical information about the new series (number and type of containers, shelf locations, etc.) in HMS, and create the ARC description for it.

We are on track to “complete” our processing of the mission records by the end of 2012, and barring any complications, we will. You can now see what an involved process it is, for the records you use, to be transformed to that state where they accurately reflect the activities and mission (of the mission!) and are preserved physically and intellectually for generations to come. It’s what we do, and we strive to do it superbly.

Look for more posts about USAID Headquarters in the next few weeks.

4 thoughts on “Our Mission: The Missions of AID, Part II

  1. Wow, next time I think my personal archiving projects are overwhelming, I will re-read this post!! Thanks for sharing. I know it’s a lot of work for you guys to preserve the records, and as a genealogist and history buff, I’d like to say thank you!!!

  2. Thanks for part two on this topic, Alan! I’ve really enjoyed the post.

    The Text Message is awesome!

    I should know the answer to this, but is there a way to find out, from HMS or elsewhere (short of looking at all of the dossiers – YIKES!), how much cubic footage of temporary record material is processed out?

    I would be interested in knowing this by RG, series, accession/transfer into the National Archives of the United States, and perhaps other units of aggregation. And I would like to know this over a period of time, mainly over the period of the records, but also maybe if there was different staff members processing records over time.

    There is probably an American Archivist article somewhere in this issue around the “more product, less process” movement by Greene-Meissner, as well as the nexus between records management and archives.

    BTW – Has the NARA CFO come down to check out the 10 boxes of fasteners and asked about the recycling value? It might be worth something at the local recycler and could be put in one of the NARA funds.

    Thanks again! This is awesome!


  3. Alan,

    You brought back sweet memories of processing the records of RG 469. The records of USAID and its predecessor agencies (ECA, MSA, FOA, ICA, and TCA in 469-speak) are a beast to process and describe. Kudos to the RG 286 processing team. I miss you guys, not to mention the work.

    And to get up on my soapbox – let’s talk about the unfortunate decision that led to those missions being in two separate record groups…but that’s a gripe for another day.

  4. Alan,
    As the team lead for USAID’s Development Experience Clearinghouse (https://dec.usaid.gov) I was very interested in your post on USAID’s records in NARA. The Development Experience Clearinghouse is the online repository for program and project-related documentation from USAID. We are always looking to add to our collection of materials online. I’ve met with Alfie Paul when I and another colleague, Jim Harold came to visit NARA last year. I would be very interested in any reports or lists that might be generated by NARA’s work on them. Thank you so much for the blog article.

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