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PACSCL Hidden Collections Processing Project » Blog Archive » Keeping the minimal processing dialog going

Keeping the minimal processing dialog going

Written by Courtney Smerz on June 8th, 2010

Jack McCarthy brings up some good points about the challenges of minimal processing.  And it’s so great to get some feedback from an experienced archivist!  However, his blog post has brought to my attention a new concern; that our boot camp does not clearly express a crucial aspect of our methodology – that our processing plans are designed to be a starting point.

In fact, Jack’s concern about destroying important original order is already on our radar, and we work very hard to ensure that poor (and irreversible) processing decisions are not made.  That is why we create processing plans for every collection and why we do not treat all collections the same.  Sometimes, as in the case of Jack’s collection, we do advise our processors to separate materials by genre, other times we absolutely do not.  It all depends on our impression of each collection, information found in the survey, the collection’s custodial history, what the repository archivist has to say, and our time frame.  All of these issues are taken into consideration before we finalize the processing plan. In many cases, we work with whatever order is apparent to avoid separating materials in that manner, often advising our processors to resist the urge to over-complicate matters by trying to impose some complicated, unnecessary arrangement.  Before any arrangement decisions are acted on, the processors are instructed to read the entire processing plan and review the physical collection to form their own opinions.

We know, while we get it right a lot of the time, we are not right 100% of the time, and our processors are encouraged to talk to each other, repository staff, and us about the collections if they disagree with our proposed plan and they do.  In Jack’s case, if memory serves, we discussed his concerns and, for one of the folders in question, I felt he was correct; the papers should stay together and in the end they did.  In the other instances, I felt it was not as much of a concern for a few reasons: 1) At the moment we discussed the issue, he and his partner had not been able to identify a common link between the materials in the folder, 2) I did not believe that a decision in either direction would negatively impact the use or value of the materials for this particular collection, and 3) Holly had already seen the collection, created the processing plan, looked at the papers again, and stood by her decision.  In the end, I believe Jack decided to leave some of the folders intact and I am OK with his decision to approach the collection in this different way.

The bottom line is that nothing about our project is set in stone – it cannot be.  That is what makes training for minimal processing so difficult and why we are constantly looking for ways to make our training (and methodology, for that matter) better and stronger.  We can not provide an example for every potential scenario.  Nor can we allow our students to ponder every decision they will be asked to make, although we have them working in teams so that they can discuss issues such as this.  Minimal processing is tricky, especially at two hours per linear foot, and we know it.  That is why we create the processing plans and why we encourage and rely on our processors to express their opinions when they feel our suggestions are wrong or will negatively affect the collection in some profound way. By having these conversations, we hope that the best possible approach to processing can be identified and implemented.

Jack’s observations and concerns underscore the importance of keeping the dialog going; sharing our thoughts and experiences, as we as a profession continue to test the limits, and pros and cons of minimal processing.  His comments will certainly be taken into consideration as we move forward in our project, creating processing plans, guiding our student teams, and in future “boot camps.”


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