OMG, How much stuff?!?!: A Lesson in Accessioning and Appraisal

Posted on by Cailin Trimble

The Archives has recently acquired the SMWM collection. In 1985, architect Cathy Simon founded SMWM, an architecture, planning, and urban design firm based in San Francisco and New York. Karen Alschuler joined the firm in 1991 as an Urban Design Principal. The firm’s award-winning portfolio consists of educational projects including work for the University of California Berkeley, Davis, and Santa Cruz campuses, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Bard College; public projects including the San Francisco Ferry Building and Main Library; master plans for Stanford, Harvard, Brown, and NYU; and urban planning projects for San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point district, Boston’s Central Artery, and the Transbay Redevelopment in San Francisco. In 2008, SMWM joined the San Francisco office of Perkins + Will.

Ballet Pavilion ModelIn January 2013, Waverly and I met with donors Cathy Simon and Karen Alschuler to discuss the process of physical acquisition. They estimated having 3000 items in storage, some of which were cataloged, but a large portion of which were not. Our primary concern was how much was worthy of permanent retention and would we have the space for it?

 

That February, we began the physical review and transfer of records. This turned out to be quite the undertaking. Together with Cathy and Karen, EDA staff reviewed 5000 items over the course of 15 months. The term ‘items’ includes cartons containing paper records (personal, office and project), photographs, slides, CDs and floppy disks, and material samples; as well as presentation boards, framed works, rolled drawings, and models of all sizes.

On the morning of day one, Waverly and I met Cathy and Karen at their secure records storage facility to start the process, none of us knowing quite what we were getting into. They had asked for 150 items to be pulled from storage. Over the course of the day, we carefully sifted through boxes, separating items and folders going to the Archives from those to be destroyed. Cathy and Karen posed many questions about the kinds of records the Archives considered worthy of preservation, and we asked them to identify significant projects and important records unique to their design process. At the end of the day, we had only made it through about 130 items, the Archives keeping about a third of what we had seen.

 

We continued to meet about once a month to go through a batch of assorted items. Cathy and Karen quickly realized the size and scope of their stored materials and became much more ruthless in their decision-making. By the end of the process, we had put together a team of 6-8 people enlisting everyone from the Archives that we could, as well as the Perkins + Will office manager.

We would begin the day by doing a quick survey of materials, weeding out boxes labeled with unwanted projects, record types, and materials. Then we would each start on a pallet. By this time we had figured out what to look for and we knew to ask whether records from unfamiliar projects were worth keeping. On one of our last days we reached a personal best and got through over 900 items, taking about the same number as we had on our first day, demonstrating just how much we had all learned about the appraisal process.

 

The SMWM collection presents a great opportunity for us as it contains a significant amount of born digital records. This has motivated Collection Archivist Emily Vigor, who recently completed her Digital Archives Specialist certificate, to move forward in creating a digital processing plan for the Archives. The Archives is moving into the digital age! And we need to if we are to keep up with today’s design firms.