Detail of "Round About Collage" by Bev Gold on display at Great River Arts, Little Falls, MN, 2018.
challenge history practical history pragmatic historian

Finding a Solution to Collections Backlogs

Detail of "Round About Collage" by Bev Gold on display at Great River Arts, Little Falls, MN, 2018.
Detail of “Round About Collage” by Bev Gold on display at Great River Arts, Little Falls, MN, 2018.

Pretty much every museum has them, unless they have a massive army of curators or registrars madly accessioning items as they come in the door. They are the dreaded . . . Collections Backlogs.

[Cue the offstage scream.]

The Museum Cataloging Process

With the downsizing of the Silent Generation and retiring Baby Boomers, both of whom amassed a good many items during the post-World War II pro-consumerism era, museums are being flooded with items being offered to their collections. Often, we hear, “I don’t know what to do with it, but it’s too good to throw away,” or “My children don’t want this stuff.”

When items, be it photos or three-dimensional artifacts or documents or books, are accepted for a museum collection, we have to catalog them before packing them away for long-term preservation. Cataloging, also called accessioning, is a museum’s form of creating a detailed inventory of collections items.

Cataloging involves noting an item’s history (also called provenance), age, condition, donor information, date received, size, and etc. Ideally, photos of the item from all sides will be taken for the catalog record. This data is entered into a collections software program. Each item is assigned an accession number that is affixed to the item in some way. The item may be gently cleaned during this process. Then it is packed away in an acid-free, lignin-free box with acid-free tissue or other supports, as needed, or otherwise stored as appropriate for the item’s preservation.

As you can tell from this description, cataloging is a lengthy process, which is why museums end up with backlogs of items waiting to be cataloged.

It’s relatively easy for a donor to drop off a collection that has dozens or hundreds of individual items. Not so easy to get all of that cataloged in a reasonable amount of time before another donation arrives. Now multiply this process by numerous collections donors per year.

These backlogs may last for years, with uncataloged items piling up while they wait, making the entire task more daunting.

Limiting Museum Collections

Museums have collections policies (or, if they don’t, they should) in order to decide what items to accept into their collections. These can be wide open in terms of location-based museums or very narrow in terms of a single-subject museum. County historical societies accept all sorts of county-related items, whether personal, business, government, or nonprofit-related information, from photos and documents to three-dimensional artifacts, including boats and firetrucks. A single-focus museum, perhaps a sheet music museum, will only accept items related to that mission.

Geographically-based museums can and do put further limits on what they will accept for their collections. For example, my museum won’t accept very large items or historic buildings (those are very large items, indeed!) because we don’t have space for them. If we already have examples of an artifact in the collection (say, typewriters or irons), we won’t accept duplicates. We also don’t accept items that are in really bad condition.

So, museums do have ways to limit what comes in the door. However, there are still important pieces of history offered to us – and a lot of it – that we can’t say no to and the backlog continues to build.

Practical Solutions for Collections Backlogs

The easy answer to the backlog dilemma is to hire more staff, but most museums don’t have the financial resources to hire more people. Some museums operate with all volunteers. Some have a few paid staff and some volunteers (my museum is in this category). Because cataloging is such a big job, it rightfully ought to be a paid position, but for museums to have adequate staff, we need more public support.

Some of our collections donors do provide financial support to the organization by becoming members or making special donations to care for collections. Taking care of people’s stuff is both a gift and a huge responsibility.

In any case, until buckets of money drop in the laps of museums, hiring more people isn’t a practical solution to our backlogs.

Given the tremendous task at hand and our limited resources, what sorts of pragmatic solutions can we come up with to handle our backlogs and keep them from getting out of control?

My organization was founded in 1936 and we started collecting in 1938. At that time, collections items were noted in a small ledger book. Each item was given an accession number (different from today’s accession numbers), a one-line (or a two-to-three-word) description, and the donor’s name. The exact date for the donation wasn’t noted, however, the year was written in the ledger and each item given in that year was listed beneath it.

That’s it. No dimensions, no condition report, no provenance.

Sometimes the provenance or description was typed on a label and pasted to the item. Yikes! We don’t paste labels to items now because that is considered bad form for the long-term preservation of a piece. However, before we get too judgmental about past museum practices, let’s think about that for a moment. The history of the item was put with the item, not separated from it. Labeling the backs of photos is an example of this and I regularly thank our forebears for noting who was who on the backs of photos.

Back to that sketchy early cataloging method. While this form of cataloging leads to confusion over which black dress is which when you have 2 black dresses with no accession number, perhaps we can learn from the simplicity of this early cataloging system.

Simplifying the Cataloging Process

Have we over-complicated our cataloging process to the point of impracticality? Could we simplify it in order to regain control of our collections?

~ What would be the bare minimum of information we would need to put in a cataloging record to be able to identify an item and its history?

~ Can we take 1 reference photo instead of one of every side?

~ Do we need to measure every object?

~ Can we get by with the date donated, item type (what it is), donor name, any history they provided, condition (only if in an extreme state), and one photo (with the item by a ruler for scale)?

~ Before cataloging, can we get accession numbers affixed and items properly packed in boxes, labeling the boxes to show items have not been cataloged? This would allow backlogged items to be protected, rather than stacked in piles, where they can become separated from the rest of a collection.

This would also allow museums to determine how much space items will take up in their collections rooms, rather than keeping them in a holding area indefinitely. Many museums have limited collections storage space, so it is important for us to know when we are getting close to running out of space.

~ Can we prioritize cataloging by immediately cataloging single-item donations? Or, by cataloging items that are super-significant to our history first?

Museum registrars and curators, what say you? Have you discovered any techniques that make cataloging faster and easier when your staff is limited? Please share your solutions and ideas for the rest of us so we don’t continue to drown in our collections backlogs.