Monday, March 2, 2009

Blog 5: MPLP

Greene, Mark A. and Dennis Meissner. 2005. "More Product, Less Process: Pragmatically Revamping Traditional Processing Approaches to Deal with Late 20th-Century Collection." American Archivist, 63.2 (Fall/Winter). Pre-print available online at:

Archival work is defined by the paradoxical challenges inherent to archival materials. One of the most pernicious of these paradoxes is the perceived binary conflict between preservation and access. Greene and Meissner's article responds to the problem of backlogs in archives. In these authors' view backlogs are due in large part to overly-fastidious processing habits that derive from object-level orientation. The article characterizes processing archivists and conservators as OCD housekeepers, needlessly terrorized by paper clips and staples. They are also depicted as hoarders whose concern for the materials' condition impedes access by researchers. It is no wonder, then, that processing archivists and conservators often object to the mantra of "More Product Less Process." The authors would have been well-advised to consult with some of the folks they chastise, if only to soften the blows and prevent (rhetorical) reprisals.

Lost in the instinctive ruffling-of-feathers, are some manifestly useful ideas, based on systematic observations, including feedback from archivists and patrons of archives. Bracing pronouncements can provoke fruitful debates about what kinds of practices can be modified and streamlined. The most important theme that can be derived from pragmatic archival theory, such as that espoused by Greene, is the responsibility of the archivist to act as a steward not just for collection materials but also of the financial and other resources allotted. As these resources dwindle, it is imperative that archives justify their existence and work at every level. It should be on the conscience of every archivist that he/she use time and materials wisely. In order to do this, stepping back and examining current processing practices may be in order both to eliminate waste and emphasize effective practices. Some habits may be kept and others relinquished as the overall workflow is streamlined.

Anecdotally, it seems to me that refoldering is perhaps too much maligned by Greene and Meissner. It is an important exercise in establishing both physical and intellectual control over the materials. In my personal experience, during the refoldering process previously unknown significant documents are discovered, sensitive information identified for restriction/redaction, and severely damaged objects in need of treatment are observed. With personal papers, often the vaunted "original order" means no order at all, so even if an alternative arrangement is not imposed, at least the processor could make useful observations in the course of rehousing that could inform the finding aid, much like the "preliminary" processing mentioned in the article (19). Lacking or otherwise uninformative finding aids, coupled with archival staff who also have no idea what's in all those boxes can be a greater impediment to access than the dreaded "backlog."

Returning briefly to the paradoxical nature of archives, we must remember that the purpose of archives is to preserve AND provide access to cultural heritage documentation. This is not an either/or proposition. It is important to recognize that preservation serves access, and use (via access) justifies preservation. And we cannot provide access to objects that no longer exist. So, the two are inextricably bound to one another, rather than competing.

No comments: