Expectations vs. Reality


I was recently on a job that got me thinking about expectations versus reality when it comes to undertaking a large-scale project.  A smaller museum had contacted me about help for their collection and asked me to come on for ten hours to try and assess the situation, start in on it, and then give a timeline on how long this would take to complete.  So I broke it down into five hours on one day and five hours on another day. I was very nervous about how to best use the ten hours because I was unsure on the scale of this project. When I inquired about the size of the collection, I was told 10,000 items and then later that figure jumped to 50,000 items - I nearly had a heart attack because that’s a LOT of stuff!  And the staff was very eager to get items entered into PastPerfect.

So my plan of attack was to take an inventory of every item in the collection - it’s hard to really know what you have when you don’t know what you have!  So I wanted to get an idea of what we were really working with. Then I had wanted the staff and Board to go through and decide, based on their collecting policy, what items they were keeping and which items would need to go.  Then I would be able to go back through and begin entering each item into PastPerfect.

So Day 1 rolls around, and I go in and start to tackle making an inventory list.  You guys, I.was.flying. I have never typed so fast in my life! I stopped only long enough for bathroom breaks.  I was really trying to maximize my efforts and time since I knew that this was a very small window I was working in.  After five hours of banging out item after item into an Excel sheet, I got about 150 items in. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re trying to document the item, if it has an object id., if there’s a deed of gift, if it needs to be scanned/photographed, the condition of the item, and then any other little tidbits, it takes a while!

So when Day 2 arrives, I show up and there is a flatbed scanner waiting on me.  Again, they really wanted items in PastPerfect, like, yesterday!  However I was determined to keep working on the inventory list as I felt it was important to get a good grasp on what we were looking at as a whole and then go from there.  Thankfully, the cords to connect the scanner to the computer could not be located, so I was spared from having to fight that battle. I continued with the inventory and again, was typing like someone possessed, trying to get as much done in my remaining five hours as possible.  I was able to plow through about 170 more items. Unfortunately, even after my insane typing spree and successfully cataloging a little over 300 items, it was barely a dent in the overall project.  

After returning home, I wrote a final report as I always do, to summarize what we had talked about the project encompassing, what I was able to do, and my guidelines for continuing with the overhaul they were wanting.  I suggested a timeline of six months but noted that that is dependent solely on how many hours per week are dedicated to working on this project. 

I felt confident in my approach and the steps taken to get the project underway, however I can’t help but think that the staff who hired me may be disappointed in the progress made.  While I know that most archival jobs are going to take a fair amount of time and steps, others not normally exposed to these types of undertakings may expect a faster turn around. I tried to express the need to follow steps X, Y, and Z for this project and had even laid out a projected timeline in my initial proposal.  

So, this brings me to my real conundrum:  when starting on archival projects, is it better to follow what you know and execute steps according to that knowledge or is it better to bend to what staff or Board may want, despite your best efforts?  For this, I decided to stay the course and go with what I know. I guess if push came to shove, I would’ve had to really fight my battle or change course. It’s hard when you are the expert brought in to handle a task, but then the person that has hired you has different ideas of workflow and process.  Just stay the course and be confident in your knowledge and the work that you are doing!