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A challenge from the Superintendents

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

When I first approached the Archdiocesan Superintendent of Schools records at the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center (PAHRC), I was concerned to say the least.  In fact, I was panicked.  The collection, which documents the administrations of three superintendents spanning a period of thirty years, is all of 9.2 linear feet, which is small compared to most collections.  One hopes that a collection of this size can be dealt with quickly.  However, given that half of the collection consisted of loose, unsorted papers stuffed in document boxes and the other half processed by no less than 8 different LIS students at Villanova University in the 1960s, I assumed we would never meet our processing deadline.  Little did I know upon the terror of first viewing the Superintendent records that it would be the first collection my partner and I completed processing in well under our 4 hours per linear foot limit.  When all was said and done, MPLP processing allowed us to transform twenty-three boxes of disarrayed records into an accessible and usable collection at a swift processing speed of 2.6 hours per linear foot.

My biggest concern while processing this collection was how my partner and I could responsibly process 9 boxes of loose, unsorted records and somehow meaningfully interfile those records into the arrangement we imposed upon the collection.  We did not have enough time to view every loose record individually.  Item-level review is not a luxury afforded to MPLP processors!  Therefore, we could not be entirely sure that we were spot-on with regard to chronology.  We also realized early on that some of those unsorted records were bound to be interfiled within the wrong series, since we were not processing at item level.  Bearing in mind Greene and Meissner’s principle of processing “good enough,” we allowed ourselves to become comfortable with the idea that a few records may be misplaced, which seemed well worth the sacrifice if it meant that the majority of those loose records would finally be given an intelligible arrangement and made accessible to researchers.  When faced with a predicament such as this, it is important to remember that whatever has been done according to the MPLP methodology can be undone.  Those potentially misplaced records would not be buried and lost forever and could very easily be repositioned according to a more refined arrangement at a future point in time!

MPLP is not a final solution.  MPLP is a step in the right direction, though not without its imperfections and limitations.  With MPLP, one should always assume slight imperfections, and collections that have been processed minimally should indeed be revisited and refined when more resources become available.  While easily corrected imperfections are a real possibility of MPLP processing, access is an absolute certainty.

More Pragmatism, Less Protocol

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014


More Product, Less Process is a great way for putting our workflow into perspective in archives. Some tasks do not require a lot of detailed attention, and a cursory run-through along with some healthy description should suffice for making archival materials accessible. Other tasks may require a bit more work, but in the grand scheme of things will not suffer from the prioritization of other duties. MPLP is ideally suited for these types of situations, but when one is confronted with a stack of papers with no obvious relationship or readily determined content, more work is necessary. So what do we do when a collection contains records of both types?

Griffin4Such was the case with the Martin I. J. Griffin Collection at the Philadelphia Archdiocesan Historical Research Center. Griffin was a Catholic historian during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and thus has some interesting research files. Some of these files easily fit into categories and can thus be minimally processed, but others are almost unusable without further item-level description and conservation. Examples include scrolls of brittle paper and assorted research files, all of which are written in Griffin’s cryptic handwriting, and these materials cannot be described further due to the time restraints of MPLP. We thus have a collection that is mostly processed, but I cannot call it complete until the miscellanea is dealt with.

Of course, we cannot simply abandon our working model every time we come across materials that areGriffin3 not suited to MPLP; we must press on! But in retrospect, what is best for such a collection is a synthesis of MPLP and standard item-level processing. Since there are two types of needs for these hybrid collections, we should use a hybrid working model. This type of synthesis does not come naturally in an administrative environment, however, since schedules are often designed around predictable processing rates.

Where does this leave us? I’m not sure, but I know that we must approach collections pragmatically, and address each collection’s specific need. MPLP, traditional processing, or both, we need to use whatever method is appropriate. This does not mean that processing projects will necessarily be designed to accommodate such circumstantial decision making. Nevertheless, within the confines of established procedure we can certainly try our hardest to act in the best interests of collections and vocalize our dissatisfaction when this proves insufficient.