100 Collections Processed: Rapid Maximal Processing

Written by Holly Mengel on May 18th, 2011

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Today is an exciting day—we have completed processing our 100th collection!  And we are feeling a collective sigh of relief emerging from our lips as we become more and more certain that we will complete the project by August 31!

So … 100 collections!  Over the next few weeks, I plan to write a few posts about what we have learned via the project.  With a hundred collections that range across 5 centuries, 4 “types” of collections, and too many topics to name, we have enough data to really talk about lessons learned!

Today, though, I want to talk about what minimal processing has meant during the project.  Thus, the first thing I am going to talk about is the term “minimal processing.”  Over the last few months, I have reread Greene & Meissner’s orginal and follow-up articles.  Their second article, which reinforces and further explains their first article states that an archivist must examine the resources available and then use them wisely to carry out the ethical/moral responsibilities of the profession:  to make collections available to researchers.  I have also reread Rob Cox’s Maximal Processing, or, Archivist on a Pale Horse.  Cox’s goals match Greene & Meissner’s (to make collections available to researchers as quickly as possible), but one of the main differences in their philosophy seems to be with regard to description.

The PACSCL/CLIR project’s current approach blends Greene & Meissner’s “minimal” physical work with Cox’s “maximal” descriptive work.  Like so many other institutions, we have created, from two amazing philosophies, a workflow that works for us.  We have borrowed liberally from both Greene & Meissner who state that MPLP does not require or recommend a cookie cutter approach to processing, and Cox who states, “the term maximal processing is intended to frame our activities in terms of our highest aspirations—to provide the maximum support for our researchers—to emphasize what we can accomplish rather than lament what we cannot,” (Cox, page 147). If we are not minimally or maximally processing collections, what ARE we doing?

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Rapid Maximal Processing:

I am going to argue that we are doing “rapid maximal processing.” We are looking at every collection individually and determining, on a case-by-case basis (as recommended by Greene & Meissner), how we can provide the maximal support for our researchers (as recommended by Cox) using the available resources (which, in our case, are bare bones).  We have determined, for the most part, that we want our resources to go towards description, not physical care of the collection,  and so, we ask ourselves:  What series need more attention, what series need less?  If we do a little more with the series that we anticipate will receive the most research, what sacrifice is made when we necessarily do a little less with a series that we think provides less unique or helpful information?  Most importantly, are we using our available resources–2 hours of student processor mind and body power for each linear foot–to efficiently create the most useful and accurate guide we can?

Description in a Rapid Maximal Processing setting:

Courtney and I have seen description for the PACSCL/CLIR “Hidden Collections” Processing Project as one of the most important final products of the project.  Again, we tend to lean towards Rob Cox’s Maximal Processing where he encourages his staff to “seldom skimp on description–the Velcro of the archival world,” (Cox, page 145).  Greene & Meissner, however, state that the narrative segments of finding aids are less desired than the container lists by researchers—and that “extended narratives are created not for the users, but for the archivist authors,” (Greene & Meissner, page 213).  I believe that this may  be true, but I am not sure that the archival author should be ignored here—writing a concise and well thought-out biographical/historical note and the scope and content note is a way for an archivist to organize the knowledge and collection information that they absorbed while processing the papers and to share it with the researcher, other archivists and reference staff.  I feel that this is particularly important when the bulk of processing is done by project staff who move on after the processing is completed.

Even with brief exposure to a collection, it is amazing how much the processor learns—and as a researcher, I would want to know where the gaps and the strengths of the collection exist.  We have found that a well-structured scope and content note reinforces the logical structure of the physical and intellectual arrangement.  When training our processors, we tell them that the container list needs to have some sort of arrangement and as they organize the collection, they should think about writing the scope note.  If they cannot explain the arrangement they are imposing or that already exists, it is almost certainly not legitimate.  We also remind them that the only reason to write a finding aid is so that a researcher can find the material listed therein.  Having the processors justify their description is an important part of processing, especially in a rapid maximal processing setting.

Project Accomplishments … and what we could do better in a future project!

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Student processors (who deserve so much credit in this project) have processed institutional/corporate records, personal papers, family papers, and artificial collections ranging from the 17th to 21st centuries at an estimated average rate of 2.5 to 3 hours per linear foot.  100 collections in, the project has processed 2,443 linear feet in roughly 6,000 hours.  At a traditional processing rate (8 hours per linear foot), this linear footage would have taken 19,544 hours … which is about 9 years of dedicated processing work for a full time professional archivist.

There is no question that, with possibly 3 exceptions (to be addressed in a forthcoming blog post), the collections processed by this project are significantly more accessible to researchers despite the limited amounts of time spent on them.  As I have said in every public statement (written and verbal), 2 hours per linear foot is too short a time to be allotted to collections wholesale!  The amount of time needs to be assessed, along with the level of processing, on a collection-by-collection basis.  For the PACSCL/CLIR project, every collection could use more work.  This project is ideally a first step, although in many cases, it will almost certainly be the only step taken. Despite this, I hope that archivists and users will be able to identify the true gems in each collection.  At that point, archivists can re-evaluate their available resources and make educated and use-based decisions about the best allocations for their resources.

Researchers will need to work a little harder, in many collections, to try to find the desired material—but at least they have access to the collection! Reference staff may have to work a little harder to help researchers, but again, they have access to a finding aid that will hopefully provide a framework within which to work.  In the end, though, if we look at the results of the project through the researcher’s eyes and the staff’s eyes, everyone wins!  The gains absolutely outweighs the sacrifices.  And when I think of what collections we would have cut to spend more time on a select few—it is like Sophie’s Choice!  I love them all!  If we did not work at the speed we did, the unavoidable result would be that some of these amazing collections would be sitting on shelves and researchers would be unable to use them.  Whenever I regret the speed at which we need to work, I remember that more than 100 collections will be available to the public by August 31 and I accept the limitations with a smile.

Sources:

Cox, Robert S.  “Maximal Processing, or, Archivist on a Pale Horse,” Journal of Archival Organization, 2010 November 24.

Meissner, Dennis and March A. Greene.  “More Application while Less Appreciation:  The Adopters and Antagonists of MPLP,” Journal of Archival Organization, 2011 February 26.

 

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