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.
The 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 http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb1837des-dca?page=3#id634580. 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…?