Making archives more discoverable through SNAC

Post by Mike Muehe, Carolina Quiroa and Irene Gates

Since March, several Historical & Special Collections (HSC) staff members have been working on a new, remote project: editing records related to the Harvard Law School Library’s (HLSL) archival collections in SNAC. SNAC (Social Networks and Archival Context) is a free, online resource that compiles reliable biographical and historical information about persons, families, and organizations, and connects these entities to related archival collections. Entities’ records function as access points, leading a researcher to relevant archival material across multiple repositories, and to the multitude of relationships the entity might have with other individuals, families and organizations. Felix Frankfurter’s record, for example, is associated with 500+ archival collections, and he is associated with 600+ other entities. Harvard Law School has its own record, as do courts, such as the Supreme Court. For legal scholars who rely on archival research, SNAC is worth exploring.

SNAC trains volunteer editors to manually clean up and enhance previously ingested data. There are volunteers working on the project from archives, libraries, and museums across the country. HSC’s Mike Muehe, Carolina Quiroa, and Irene Gates attended a full-day training hosted by the two National Archives and Records Administration employees working exclusively on SNAC, Jerry Simmons and Dina Herbert, as well as Kit Messick from the Getty Research Institute.

 Once we completed the training, we began working on editing records independently. Editing typically involves identifying preferred and variant names for records, writing a biographical history, and editing demographic information, including gender, nationalities, languages, occupations, and subjects, further illuminating the life of the record holder. Most importantly, it also includes reviewing and editing the relations between, and archival sources attributed to, this entity. The relations represent connections between the entity and other individuals, families, or corporate bodies, such as workplaces and universities, creating a web between them all. For archival sources, a key part of the process is ensuring that users are linked to the most relevant online resource about the item(s) or collection(s), such as a finding aid or catalog record at the host repository, or a digitized version of the material if it exists.

A screenshot of Zechariah Chafee’s biographical information, from his SNAC record. Captured 6/24/2020.

What proves most fascinating about this revision process is compiling a person’s relevant archival material into one resource, saving researchers time and highlighting a repository’s items associated with a person that might otherwise get overlooked. Some repositories might have an entire dedicated collection while others might have merely a postcard. Additionally, the connections drawn between entities paint a larger contextual picture of the entity and the time they lived; seeing one’s ties to other people and places illuminates their creative or professional impact well beyond the confines of their own individual papers or collections.

A screenshot of some of the archival resources associated with William Hastie, from his SNAC record. Captured 6/24/2020.

After finishing our edits, we send records to Houghton Library’s Betts Coup for review, who helpfully points out necessary corrections to make before publication. The editing process is slow but rewarding, especially when working on records of less well-documented entities, who may only have a few archival collections associated with them, or may not even have an existing record. For example, the problematic underrepresentation of women and BIPOC in archival collections and in archival description is reflected in existing SNAC records. Prioritizing underrepresented entities in SNAC is something that we as editors can intentionally do. Much work remains to be done, but for now, we invite you to look at several newly-edited records of individuals whose papers are held at HLSL: Zechariah Chafee, Clarence Ferguson, Paul Freund, Henry Friendly, Henry Hart, William Hastie and Cecil Poole.

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