Minimal Processing: What is it, and why should I care?


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Workshop for the Southern California Technical Processes Group

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  • Originated as a research study in 2005 by Dennis Meissner and Mark Greene to determine how archivists processed their collections. The attention to item-level description was staggering: Arrangement is still often at the item level (68% sometimes, usually, or always arrange items within folders). Spending far too much time removing staples and paperclips, then sorting and describing at the item level. The resulting article was a call to revamp traditional archival processing.MPLP approaching 10 years old. “Good processing is done with a shovel, not with tweezers.”
  • Studies have shown that an acid-free container with a closed lid, low relative humidity, and low temps are the best things you can do for a collection for its long-term preservation. With most modern collections, good environmental controls provide a long shelf life for archival collections.The idea behind MPLP is really about “letting go” – letting ourselves accept that archival processing is ITERATIVE, and can never be objectively defined as perfect. A base-level description for EVERYTHING is more acceptable to our patrons than hidden collections behind locked doors.
  • The response to Greene and Meissner’s piece was mixed, but it definitely struck a nerve. Between about 2005-2008, MPLP was seen by many archivists as more of a method or set of techniques, instead of a call to action. Nearly every conference or workshop you could attend as an archivist included discussion of “MPLP,” inevitably leading to heated debate about how much time archivists should be spending removing staples and paperclips. Other concerns included burdening public services staff, exposing messy or potentially restricted material, and anxiety about doing “sloppy” or sub-par processing work.Gradually some archivists, instead of fixating on paperclips or throwing up their hands, took the spirit of the piece and started documenting new approaches to making collections accessible. Over time, and in just the past few years, Greene and Meissner’s article has become widely accepted as a transformative piece that has shifted archival processing into a new era. While MPLP is something of a catchphrase with the potential to be misunderstood or trivialized, in California it appears to have made some positive gains in why it might be useful today.
  • NGTS survey, December 2011. “For your institution or processing work, what is most important about MPLP?”
  • The influence of MPLP is more than just what to do with staples and paperclips. The emphasis shifted from perfection in descriptive and physical control to a “good enough” or “golden minimum” amount of effort to permit the maximum amount of access to users. Some of the earliest case studies inspired by Greene and Meissner came out of bigger institutions such as Yale, Princeton, and Minnesota Historical Society. From these came multiple tiered approaches to archival processing.
  • Fast-forward a few years, to just last month. The UC Heads of Special Collections have approved this document, which was a collaborative effort between all locations of the UC system, to create guidelines for “efficient” archival processing. Full disclosure: I was a small part of this project.I’d like to use this document as a guide for this presentation about the importance, and state of, minimal archival processing.
  • The goal should be to gain collection-level information for every collection. More detailed work can begin once holdings are minimally accessible. Unprocessed holdings should be considered OPEN FOR RESEARCH – potential or known restrictions excepted.Do the minimum amount of work necessary to make a collection usable – anything beyond this should be justified by value or funding. RESIST THE URGE TO HANDLE MATERIAL AT THE ITEM LEVEL.Consider new ways to consider a collection “processed.” The amount of work to achieve the “golden minimum” varies per collection, and sometimes within collections.All of these things should happen at the same hierarchical level. If you arrange at the series level – describe at the series level. Variation can be justified through surplus funding, students, or volunteers.Keep track of how much time you are taking to process. Use your processing plans effectively and see how long it takes to process to certain levels.
  • The SAA-approved standard. The minimum required elements. Can describe at any level – as a whole – ie a collection-level finding aid.This is the minimum recommendation for finding aids, which can be made available online through the OAC and Worldcat. I will explore more about how to create these records in the second part of my presentation.
  • So I’m sure many of you have been wondering: if we tell people we have all of these collections that aren’t processed to the level we’d like, what will we do when they start asking to see them?Note potential or known restrictions in the collection-level record. When a user requests these materials, you can review them for possible restrictions on demand. We will talk more about this, but more attention can be paid during the accessioning process to determine what needs to be restricted well before you get to fuller processing. The general idea is to communicate with users what to expect, and to err on the side of providing access.I’ve shared a copy of our policies and procedures for providing access to unprocessed and minimally-processed collections. We have encouraged our public services staff to be comfortable with what unprocessed materials look like, and how to instruct patrons to use these materials. Our goal is to get the researcher within a box or 2 of what they want. Place cards help with keeping track of material removed from boxes – we also provide cotton gloves for unsleeved photographs.Please feel free to use and re-purpose these documents for your needs. I have been called on to review material a few times since we created these policies and we have had no patron complaints.Public services and patron feedback will help you determine what to process at a higher level of detail or physical control.
  • Here’s what one of our unprocessed collections looks like in the OAC. We indicate that there are possible restrictions. If someone wants to see this collection, we can show them preliminary inventories and review specific boxes for what they’d like to use. I review only what someone is interested in seeing. Some reviews have resulted in there being no restrictions, so the collection is made available!
  • The emphasis on access through efficient processing calls on us to pay greater attention to the accessioning process. As Brooke mentioned earlier today, this is the first phase of controlling holdings, by creating preliminary inventories and summary information about new acquisitions. There is growing interest in the importance of accessioning in the prevention of hidden collections. Here are some suggested accessioning approaches.Using the DACS single-level minimum as a guideline, create a collection-level record immediately upon accessioning. You may consider incorporating the preliminary box listing into the finding aid – this will ensure that these new materials are not added to your BACKLOG. If the collection was already processed, just add a note summarizing the addition in the finding aid’s scope and content note. If this is difficult to visualize, don’t worry – I’ll be showing examples soon!In addition to this, put in energy up front to review accessions for any possible restrictions. The potential for restrictions based on the donor or department of origin should give you enough information without the necessity of reviewing every folder. Then you can add this information in the Access note in the finding aid.And finally, you can consider doing some processing during accessioning. Christine Weideman wrote about this in her piece “Accessioning as Processing.” If the condition of a collection is such that you can easily and quickly determine series, or if there are existing and easy to transcribe folder titles – you can get new accessions minimally processed to a level that is acceptable for public use.
  • The key to efficient archival processing is to find the appropriate level for description, arrangement, preservation, and appraisal based on the collection’s research value and condition. This list from the UC guidelines illustrates how you might distinguish different processing levels. Minimal effort includes…Low effort includes…
  • Moderate includes…And these final two levels are more typical of what we would call “traditional” archival processing. Intensive and Highly Intensive should be reserved for the most significant treasures of your repository!
  • How do you know what level of effort a collection warrants? There are a number of resources out there for performing archival appraisal and determining levels of control. Here are some suggestions.
  • For the Moderate level of effort, you can expect to perform folder level of physical and descriptive control.
  • Determining a processing level is not an exact science, but assessing the collection’s value and condition will help you make decisions about how much work should be invested in processing it. For each of these columns, assign a value. For user interest, consider how frequently you expect researchers to seek material on the topics in the collection, or if you have a built-in audience for the materials. For quality of documentation, think about how unusual, extensive, or detailed the scholarship or work has been on this topic. Determine if the collection has particular interest to your institution or repository, and finally, consider if the materials are significantly rare, unique, or precious.When you add up these numbers, you will have what the UC Guidelines call a “value score.”
  • This table provides suggestions for multiple levels of control based on the value of a collection. As you can see, collections of low value do not warrant intensive levels of processing. The value charts are most useful when comparing collections to determine processing priorities. While there is no magic formula for choosing your level of control, this chart can help you figure how how much effort you might want to give to a collection.So for example, if you have a value score of 13, you should consider minimal, low, or moderate effort. You can go to our previous charts to see what these levels of effort entail.
  • So how long should processing take, using more efficient methods? Again, there is no exact science to processing, especially the rate of processing – which is very subjective and dependent both on the processor and specifics of each collection. These rates per linear foot are based on labor allocations appropriate to archivists, processors, volunteers, interns, and staff. If possible, you will want to DELEGATE processing tasks that are more repetitive or simple, and then review and edit the final finding aid.By barriers to access, we mean anything that might impede user access before a collection can be used productively. For example: disorganization, poor housing, poor description, preservation issues, and the presence of special media or fragile formats.All of these assessment tools can be used before processing even begins, and incorporated in your processing plans.
  • I mentioned before the importance of tracking your processing to help with future processing projects, in addition to funding requests. Tracking processing is recommended as a programmatic activity that is incorporated into processing workflows. You can create processing benchmarks based on value scores, which can be tweaked or confirmed by tracking what actually takes place. This information can be used to justify staffing, financial resources needed, in discussions with donors, and when preparing grant applications.Inside the UC Guidelines, there is a simple spreadsheet that can help you track these elements.
  • Minimize physical arrangement (or re-arrangement) of files. Trust that USERS will have the patience to examine the contents of a box or two. Leave folders in their original order, and avoid alphabetizing or another order. It is not necessary to bring all the folders in a series physically together – the finding aid can be used to bring them together INTELLECTUALLY.Do not work at the item level. Keep to the established level of control in your processing plan. Never arrange items within folders – describe the contents of folders as you find them. “And related materials”Folder, but do not sort, clumps or piles of unfoldered material. Just put all the loose items together and describe the grouping as a whole – glean what you can from what you see.Tolerate larger aggregations of related materials. A file unit may consist of multiple folders.
  • For example, here’s how a moderate level of arrangement might look in a box, compared with an intensive effort.On the right, an archivist spent time to sort chronologically and also here by topic. In a moderate arrangement effort, the archivist can keep the related materials together without having to sort items individually.
  • For description, here are some efficient processing techniques. Again, every collection should have a MARC and minimum DACS EAD record. Notes and titles, in all levels of control, should be rich and detailed enough to enable discovery through keyword searching.
  • Uniform (materials all alike) materials can be described at the box/series level with little impact on users. Levels of description may vary within a collection, especially those with series that have more value and warrant more detailed arrangement and description. That doesn’t mean you need to do the same level of arrangement/description for the remainder of the collection.Remember: descriptive details must truly help a user get to a relevant box. You can be just as effective describing multiple folders of related content together. For example…
  • How many of you have photographic collections? [Skip if none raise their hands]I want to spend a few minutes talking about efficient processing for photographs, which can be among the highest used and most valuable materials in a repository. Many photograph collections warrant a higher level of processing. Some would be good candidates for more efficient processing, such as: family snapshots and portraits, unidentified portraits, repetitive files of negatives and/or contact sheets.
  • Of course, this is just a guideline – you may have photo collections that warrant only the most intensive level. These may be the best candidates for supplemental institutional or grant funding, due to their uniqueness and value.
  • AV materials pose a wide array of unique processing challenges. When considering efficient processing, there are a few tips that can assist with streamlining processing to provide increased access to these resources.Consider allowing users to view the originals on a case-by-case basis, if you have the equipment and the condition warrants it. Delay reformatting until users request it, and have the researcher pay the expense of reformatting (create user copy from master). A restriction note in finding aid can indicate archival originals. Listening, viewing, or converting should not be part of appraisal. Just look at the item and see if it has any information. If it looks interesting, the researcher can bear the onus of further identification based on your item description. Context is useful with AV identification, and will guide users in the right direction. If you do create lists of items, keep them as item inventories – do not create series or topical arrangements. Avoid describing the format – users could care less! They just want the information. You can keep track of available formats in the accession record. Preservation is a major concern for these unique materials. However, don’t waste resources and time rehousing these items – their housing will likely outlive them. Proper climate control is your best insurance policy in times of financial strain, to avoid deterioration. Finally, outsource large reformatting projects. It’s usually not worth staff time and equipment to do a large project in house.
  • Best practices for efficient processing and description for born digital materials is still emerging. The rule of thumb is: provide as much access online as you might provide in the reading room. Use existing finding aids as the descriptive and structural guide for both physical and digital collections – the concept of value is still useful here. If a finding aid describes material at the folder level, then provide access at the folder level. We are working on a project like this right now at UCI. A faculty member left behind thousands of research files that relate to his book, many of which he did not create. We are describing these in bulk based on his existing file structure, and will make each directory available as a whole – just like we would make a box of folders available in the reading room.
  • Minimal Processing: What is it, and why should I care?

    1. 1. Minimal ProcessingWhat is it, and why should I care? Southern California Technical Processes Group Workshop Audra Eagle Yun, MLIS, CA Archivist, Special Collections & Archives UC Irvine Libraries October 25, 2012
    2. 2. MPLP and the Era of Minimal Processing “The most important guideline [for levels of description] is always to prefer the acceptable minimum—within and across collections—and make each new situation argue for any additional investment of time and effort.” “[A] sign of professional maturity would be for us to own up to the limitations we work under and accept that the golden minimum recommended here (or doing “good enough” rather than insisting on perfection) is all we can realistically accomplish.”Greene, Mark A, and Dennis E. Meissner."More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing.”American Archivist. 68.2 (2005).
    3. 3. Physical and intellectual control“We should be paying more attention to achieving basic physical andintellectual control over, and thus affording research access to, all our holdings,rather than being content to process a few of them to perfection.” Photo credit: EiraTansey,
    4. 4. Much Ado about Paper Clips…?EARLY RESPONSE• “We’ve already been doing this – it’snothing new!”• MPLP as a method or techniques to use• Shifting the burden of review toreference service staff• Exposing material that is “not ready” forpublic use• Fixation on whether to remove fasteners• Forcing archivists to perform sloppy work• Airing our “dirty laundry”
    5. 5. What is most important about MPLP? • “[MPLP gets] materials into the hands of users more quickly and efficiently.” • “ offers a way to work through our large backlog of manuscript collections...” • “[MPLP] provides a philosophical and practical approach to processing that favors efficiency, thus allowing more ready access to material.” • “It allows me to focus on the practical preservation of materials [to] increase access, and whittle down my large backlog while ensuring the long term stability of the item or material. Putting valuable source materials in the hands of researchers as soon as possible instead of languishing in a backlog.” • “It allows us to consider material "finished" rather than deferred or backlogged, at a point where we have provided basic housing and description and minimized threats to preservation. The state of description and housing may be far from ideal, but we dont have to consider the collection "unprocessed" and, most importantly, can open the material to researchers in good conscience.” • “[MPLP gives me the] flexibility to process the collections at different levels of description.” • “[MPLP allows me to spend] the right amount of time to provide adequate access to a collection. Let the researcher spend time looking at the collection instead of the curator spending time to itemize the collection.”
    6. 6. A Tiered Approach to Processing: Early ExampleLevel 1: Bibliographic record (unprocessed); institutional records are accessionedas processed.Level 2: Box level control -- intellectual control with no physicalreorganization. Collections under 100 linear feet are re-boxed in document cases,since they are easier to recall/manage than record cartons.Level 3: Box and folder level control -- may include some folder level and somebox level description in the same collection. Keeping use statistics allowsarchivists to determine what to process further.Level 4: Folder level control: Traditional processing, paid for by grants or externalfunding. Susan Hamson, Columbia University, speaking at MARAC 2008.. Notes adapted via
    7. 7. Guidelines for Efficient Archival Processing In the University of California Libraries, 2012
    8. 8. Core, Recommended Principles1. Aim to provide access to all holdings.1. Always look for the “golden minimum.”1. Analyze the work necessary for each collection and be flexible in the amount of work applied.1. Arrange, describe, and preserve materials in harmony.1. Measure and compare processing rates to ensure processing is carried out efficiently.
    9. 9. Describing Archives: A Content StandardSingle-level minimum • Reference Code Element • Name and Location of Repository Element • Title Element • Date Element • Extent Element • Name of Creator(s) Element • Scope and Content Element • Conditions Governing Access Element • Language and Scripts of the Material Element Single-level descriptions can describe archival materials at any level
    10. 10. Providing Access • Barring donor or legal restrictions, all collections should be presumed open for research. • Determine potential restrictions during accessioning. • Review requested unprocessed materials on demand. • Assess your institution’s tolerance for risk. • Devise public services and reading room policies to account for use of unprocessed or efficiently-processed materials. • Track use, and allow user demand to guide processing priorities.
    11. 11. Significance of Accessioning 1. Create the minimal collection- level record as part of accessioning. 1. Prepare for access of unprocessed materials during accessioning. 1. Perform some processing during accessioning.
    12. 12. Suggested Levels of Control
    13. 13. Suggested Levels of Control, continued
    14. 14. Processing Levels
    15. 15. Processing Levels, continued
    16. 16. Value
    17. 17. Levels, based on value scores
    18. 18. Processing Rates
    19. 19. Processing Metrics • Repository • Collection/series title • Value score • Condition •Processor(s) • Processing start date • Processing end date • Total processing hours • Processing level • Average processing rate • Funding source (if applicable) • Notes
    20. 20. Processing Techniques: Arrangement
    21. 21. Processing Techniques: Arrangement
    22. 22. Processing Techniques: Description
    23. 23. Processing Techniques: Description
    24. 24. Photographic Collections
    25. 25. Photographic Collections, continued
    26. 26. Material: streamlined processing • Consider use of original AV material • User-requested reformatting • Avoid viewing, listening, or converting as part of appraisal • Onus of identification on the researcher • Item-level inventories more useful than hierarchical arrangement • Avoid description of format • Climate control is highest priority, not housing • Outsource!
    27. 27. Digital: the final frontier?