More Product, Less Processing?

I’ve been reading a fascinating article by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, ‘More Product Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing‘ (PDF). I wanted to offer a summary of the article.

image of scalesThe essence of this article is that archivists spend too long processing collections (appraising, cataloguing and carrying out minor preservation). This approach is not working; the cataloguing backlog continues to increase. We are too conservative, cautious and set in our ways, and we need to think about a new approach to cataloguing that is more pragmatic and user-focussed. The article was written by archivists in the USA, but would seem to apply to archives here in the UK, where we know that the backlog is a continuing problem.

I think the article makes the argument well and with a good deal of conviction. The bottom line is that we must rethink our approach unless we are to continue to accrue backlogs and deny researchers access to hugely valuable primary source material.

However, there are arguments in support of detailed cataloguing. For digital archives it is extremely useful to provide metadata at the item level,  enabling such useful resources as With this detailed list, researches can see digital resources described and then access them directly. It could be argued that if a collection is to be digitised, providing this sort of level of metadata is appropriate, and in general it is the more valuable and highly used collections that are digitised. But for born-digital collections, this level of detail would be totally unsustainable.

Also, I wonder if the work that volunteers do should be taken into account – they may be able to help us catalogue in more detail, whilst trained archivists continue to create the main collection or series-level descriptions. I remember a whole band of NADFAS volunteers cataloguing photographs where I used to work. Furthermore, I was speaking to an archivist recently who said that they had taken the time to weed out duplicates (something this report criticises)…and then sold them on eBay for a tidy profit, that helped them fund their very under-resourced archive (they had the rights to do this!). So, maybe there are factors to take into consideration that support a detailed approach, but I think a bold approach to examining this whole area in UK archives would be very welcome.

Some of the points made in the report:

  • Archivists spend too much time cataloguing, not necessarily doing what is necessary. We think in terms of an ideal that we have to reach, although we haven’t actually articulated what this ideal is, and really examined it.
  • We are too attached to old-fashioned ways of doing things, which worked when we had smaller collections to deal with, but are not appropriate for large 20th century collections.
  • We give a higher priority to serving the needs of our collections rather than the needs of our users.
  • We need a new set of guidelines that focus on what we absolutely need to do.
  • We need to discuss, debate and examine our approach to cataloguing, and not be defensive about our roles.
  • We tend to arrange collections down to item level. In particular, we carry out preservation activities to this level. We accept the premise that basic preservation steps necessitate an item-level approach.
  • We often remove all metal fastenings and put materials into acid-free folders. So, even if we do not describe collections down to item level (maybe we just describe at collection or series level), we go down to this level of detail in our preservation activities.  Yet, with good climate control, metal fasteners should not rust, and as yet we do not have strong evidence of a detrimental effect of standard manila folders if the materials is stored in a controlled environment.
  • We often weed out duplicates throughout a collection, which requires processing down to item level. Is this really worth doing?
  • The various sources of advice about the level of detail we process archives to are inconsistent. Some sources advocate description to series level, but preservation activities to item level. NARA advocates preservation in accordance with intrinsic value and anticipated use, so, for example, new folders should only be used if current ones are damaged, and metal fasteners should be removed only if ‘appropriate’ – meaning where they are causing obvious damage.
  • We seem to believe that we need to aspire to ‘a substantial, multi-layered, descriptive finding aid,’ a reflection of ‘slow, careful scholarly research’.  But in reality, maybe we should adopt a more flexible approach, taking each collection in turn on its merits. Some may justify detailed cataloguing, but many do not.
  • We should take the position that users come to do research, and that we do not have to do this for them in advance.
  • We should ‘get beyond our absurd over-cautiousness’ about providing access to unprocessed collections, and make them available unless there are good legal or preservation reasons to restrict access or the collection is of extremely high value.
  • We have very inadequate processing metrics. Attempts to quantify processing expectations have resulted in wildly differing figures. Figures given in various studies include 3, 6.9, 8, 12.7 and 10.6 hours per cubic foot. Other studies have come up with between 3 and 5.5 days per foot.
  • One major study  by an archive centre revealed 15.1 hours were spent on each cubic foot, far more than the value that was placed upon  what was accomplished. The study gave ‘an improved sense of the real and total costs involved’.
  • The Greene/Meissner study looked at various projects funded by NHPRC grants (National Historical Publications & Records Committee), and found an average productivity figure of 9 hours per foot, but with highs of around 67 hours per foot.  It also conducted an email survey and found expectations of processing times averaged at 14.8 hours, although there was a high of 250 hours!
  • Grant funding often encourages an item-level focus, rather than helping us to really tackle our substantial backlogs. There should be more of a requirement to justify meticulous processing – it should only be for exceptional collections.
  • The study recommends aiming for a processing rate of 4 hours per cubic foot for most large 20th century collections, using a series-level approach for description and preservation.
  • Studies show a lack of standardisation, not only in our definitions but also around the levels of arrangement, preservation and access that are useful and necessary.  We do not have proper administrative controls over this work. We tend to argue for each of us having a unique situation, that does not allow for comparison, and we do not have a common sense of acceptibile policies and procedures.
  • Whilst we continue to process to item level, a substantial number do not make catalogues available through OPACs or Websites, arguably prioritising processing over user needs.

The report concludes that maybe we should recognise that ‘the use of archival records…is the ultimate purpose of identification and administration.’ (SAA, Planning for the Archival Profession, 1986).  Maybe we should agree that a collection is catalogued if it ‘can be used productively for research.’ And maybe we should be willing to take a different approach for each collection, making choices and setting priorities, rather than being too caught up in a ‘love of craftmanship’ that could be seen as fastidiousness that does not truly serve the user.

The question seems to be how much would be lost by putting speed of processing before careful examination of all documents in a collection.  Maybe this does require defining good cataloguing? Maybe we believe that our professional standing is tied up with undertaking detailed cataloguing…more so than the ever increasing growth of backlogs, where the papers are entirely unaccessible to researchers?

Greene and Meissner state that there should be a ‘golden minimum’ for processing, where we adequately address user needs and only go beyond this where there are demonstrable business reasons. They also believe that arrangement, description and preservation should all occur at the same level of detail, again, unless there are good reasons to deviate from this.

What do you think…?


  1. There could also be more onus put on the donor (public or private) to provide detailed finding aids (multi-level or otherwise) when they donate or transfer their materials to the archive. This would be another way to share the amount of work necessary to make the materials accessible post-acquisition by the archives.

    In the case of electronic records, improving the quality of creator metadata/description that is, for example, produced along with the records (digital objects) at the time of their creation, and later extracted and transferred with the digital objects, would be an enormous aid to expediting access to these records. In this case, item-level description would be “easy” to obtain through metadata extraction, and archivists (and/or the creators) could supplement this lower-level description with higher-level descriptions (e.g., series).

    Why not re-use as much metadata/description from the creators as well as improve/modify traditional archivist processing practices post-acquisition as well as encourage users to contribute description? :)

  2. I think it depends on the collection if the MPLP approach would work. I’m currently processing a collection that contains meeting information. The date of the meeting is included in the finding aid and that’s usually what the user would need to know to navigate this collection efficiently.

    However, I also processed a collection over the summer that I had records with personal information, I had to check each record to flag them so we could restricted their access.

    Archives are so unique there is no one size fits all approach and MPLP is just one of them, archivist need to make the judgement call of how they want to tackle a collection on a case by case basis.

    That said most archives have a huge backlog of documents and MPLP can help alleviate this problem especially since many archives budget’s today are being cut.

  3. Jane, thanks for a really interesting article and Anna thanks for alerting me to it via Twitter!
    I have to say I don’t recognise many of those points as behaviour/actions I know in any archives I’ve worked in or in any archivists I know. Maybe there was a time when priority was always given to the needs of the collection to the detriment of the needs of the users but it’s not something I recognise from my experience.

    In terms of being ‘over cautious’ in granting access to uncatalogued material, I’m not sure about this. I think we should be cautious in giving access to uncatalogued material, not least due to data protection issues. However I also think from experience that most archivists use their common sense when it comes to this and would decide whether to grant access depending on the collection and the enquiry, rather than giving a blanket rule covering all uncatalogued material.

    I would definitely agree that item level cataloguing is not always the best approach but I’ve never worked anywhere that applied one rigid ‘one cataloguing approach fits all’ to their collections. I don’t think this means a lack of standardisation, rather that it implies a flexibility and awareness of the different natures of collections, depending on how well they are organised, the types of information they contain etc. My current project involves me doing file level cataloguing of the records of a women’s teaching union (roughly 370 boxes of material). There is so much material in there that would not be obvious at a series level description as the subjects covered are far wider than the remit of the organisation. Therefore detailed file level cataloguing is done for the benefit of all users, particularly those who may not expect to find material of interest to them in the collection of a women’s teaching union.

    The point that Anna makes about short-term project work is very important too as the archivist builds up so much knowledge about one particular collection and unless this is conveyed in the catalogue this can be lost. On this point I’ve also found that project blogs can be a great channel for giving more detailed information on a collection and on my current project it has generated a great deal of enquiries about a collection which (until the project is complete) is not available on the online catalogue.

  4. I’m not sure I agree with the MPLP approach. Yes, some of the processing elements such as taking out rusty pins and weeding duplicates could fall by the wayside and no one would suffer, but to me cataloguing to item level is sacrosanct. Good cataloguing is the cornerstone of resource discovery. The richer our descriptions, particularly when they are online, the more likely people are to make the trip in to see the archives themselves – which is increasingly going to be seen as a big ask as more and more is available online. We have to give them a good idea that it will be worth their while.

    Usually an archive is only catalogued once and, with so many short term contracts around, the cataloguer quite often moves on afterwards. It’s important we put everything we know about the archive into the catalogue as the archivist won’t be around to answer the detailed questions about it a year or two down the line.

    I currently work in an institutional archive which wasn’t catalogued when I arrived, although stuff was roughly organised by series. It meant we could answer straight forward questions about the institution’s history but not the more leftfield enquiries we got from some researchers whose interest in our institution was only tangential. A minimally catalogued collection will only ever be of use to people who know they want to use it (e.g. historians of the institution) whereas most archives, whenopened up with good cataloguing, contain all kinds of information that no-one would have guessed was there.

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