Minimally processing to the max: The intellectual arrangement of ACLS’ records

For most of you, the concept of “minimal processing,” its longer, slogan-like synonym “More Product, Less Process” or its acronym “MPLP” does not conjure adversarial thoughts. Why would it? Outside the archival community, nary a person knows they are impacted by a new wave of arranging and describing manuscript collections. But within the arena of archives, I dare you to mention any of the iterations above and leave the conversation unscathed or at least without having to endure a lengthy diatribe detailing the advantages and drawbacks of this new technique.

In truth, I think minimal processing is a great idea especially when working with collections like that of ACLS. This project uses the model of minimal processing that does, in fact, affect researchers.

This post focuses on the intellectual arrangement of the collection. The last post detailed the process of physically controlling the materials.

What is Minimal Processing?

I’ll spare you the archival history lesson (please refer to the Reading Materials page on the left sidebar for more information), but for a long, long time item-level processing dominated manuscript collections. This meant that an archivist handled every piece of paper or object, made preservation efforts for all potential issues, and would compose detailed descriptions of the content, scope, history and possibilities for cross-referencing in the collection’s finding aid, a road map to the collection. Thus archivists became experts in each collection s/he handled because of the sheer amount of time spent processing it. While this is a romantic notion, one that encouraged me to pursue a job in the profession, reality is much…busier.

We don’t live in a paperless world. Ask any archivist! World War I brought a boom in records and the voluminous era of the 1950s didn’t help either (Reto Tschan, 176). Since then, we have produced so many paper documents with the help of Xerox machines and printers into the mainstream. This is to say, modern records keeping is filled with, well, records! For archivists, this poses a major challenge.

How is it possible to keep up with collections–processing and access–in a timely manner?

Spoiler alert: It’s not possible.

In 2005, well-known archivists Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner published their findings of a multi-year study that focused on the ways in which the archives profession could get out from under the massive backlog that had accumulated while we maintained an item-level focus and the world produced a flurry of paper documents, tipping the scales in favor of quantity.  What they found is that every single institution carried a backlog of collections they could not process in a timely manner. That wasn’t the question. It was assumed, although they did reveal percentages of backlogs.  They remarked, “These large backlogs are hurting the archival profession in the eyes of our researchers and resource allocators (212).”

Instead, their central question was: So what are we going to do about it?

Rather than “tripling (254)” the number of  archivists in every institution in order to maintain traditional modes of processing , Greene and Meissner suggested a new concept called “More Product, Less Process,” at once a proclamation and instruction to the profession. This concept gave archivists license (and freedom) to move away from an item-level focus and toward a modular model. “We have been applying traditional approaches to a new problem…(211)”. The authors based their model on the notion that archivists have the freedom to decide the level of processing per collection as long we meet minimum levels.  And we need to shift our collective thinking:

[The archival profession needs to] own up to the limitations we work under and accept that the golden minimum recommended here…is all we can realistically accomplish…we could take comfort in the fact that we will be revolutionizing access to our holdings (255).

As an archivist, this means that with every collection I arrange, preserve and describe, I first evaluate its size, scope and the way in which researchers are likely to access it. After that, I create a plan that best suits the needs of the collection and those who will use it for research purposes. Sometimes it may have an item-level focus. Other times, it will have a broader, minimal focus. Which brings me to ACLS.

Why choose Minimal Processing?

In some instances, archivists do not choose to employ a minimal processing technique. Sometimes, the collections makes that decision.  The size and character of ACLS’s Part II collection is a quick indicator that it could probably hold up to minimal processing. For example, a large collection of personal papers, say of Waldo Leland, would likely be arranged and described at an item-level because collections of personal materials often have nuanced categories in which the materials fall and relate to one another. Further, Leland’s professional life spanned a long period of time and touched numerous professions, so his correspondence, drafts of reports and speeches and even memorabilia will probably be viewed by a range of researchers.

ACLS, as an organization, has broader categories into which the materials are contextualized: financial records, presidential files, reading files–each of these categories encompass large swaths of records. Moreover, ACLS developed these categories long before I came along, which maintains the original order of the records and offers a more organic transition from the creator (ACLS) and their records.

My work does not include handling every piece of paper, re-foldering all documents or removing every paper clip (for preservation purposes, I remove large attachments such as butterfly clips and some big paper clips). Instead, my work is a faster-paced. There are a few aspects to the collection, as it stands, that have allowed me to adopt this strategy:

  • Good physical condition: For the most part, folders remain in tact and not overstuffed, different types of paper are all standing the test of time, and like materials sit near each other (photo upper left).
  • Clear and accurate labels: This is a true gift! ACLS employees from the 1950’s-1990’s excelled at concisely and informatively labeling folders and boxes. In my daily work, I don’t have to spend much time searching through folders to understand the contents within and how they relate to nearby folders. This saves me time and ensures a more accurate folder label (photo bottom).
  • Cashing in on caches of triplicates: Archivists are masters at spotting reams of identical photocopies, pamphlets or objects. Masters! When I think of organizational records, I often presume that the rate of triplicates is higher than the average collection (as a result of the function of the records). ACLS’ collection has proven me wrong. I save 2 copies of materials, when possible, and discard additional copies. Thus far, I have seen a low rate of triplicates, which allows for a speedier processing job (photo upper right).

How does this impact the ACLS Collection?

The most important aspect of minimal processing of the collection is at the intersection of physical control and intellectual arrangement. For the ACLS collection, it’s a simple adage to commit to memory:

Intellectual Trumps Physical

Traditional collections are physically organized in a way that is complementary to the intellectual arrangement. For instance, chronological files ranging from 1980-1990 will appear sequentially in boxes, let’s say 20-50. This makes sense both physically–the boxes appear next to the other and intellectually–we know that these files are chronological and should be read that way.

This collection will be arranged intellectually, but not physically. This is a direct result of its size. So, as an illustration, for several decades, ACLS kept handy records called Reading Files. They are chronologically-arranged documents of the important work generated for each month of each year. These files are beautiful! I processed files from 1974, 1975 and 1976. But, I didn’t yet have access to the files from 1977. So, instead I worked on materials from another category, Presidential Files, before I found boxes for 1977 and on. This means that physically, the boxes will contain Reading Files, then Presidential Files, then Reading Files again. And, in fact, there are far more overlaps than that example offers.

But fear not! The finding aid, the guide to the collection, is arranged intellectually. So, when researchers are looking for all Reading Files, s/he will have no problem associating the physical boxes, no matter their location in the collection, with the contents of those boxes.

Why does this matter?

Minimal processing allows me to process this large collection in far less time than an item-level job, which in turn, delivers the materials to the researcher more quickly. Rather than spending time sitting in our storage facility, the material history of ACLS can be used by researchers. Intellectual arrangement is privileged over physical organization to facilitate speeding up this process, while ensuring my control over the collection.

For those of you pursuing primary research in manuscript repositories, you have inevitably faced a minimally processed collection. In this situation, the onus is on the researchers.

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3 thoughts on “Minimally processing to the max: The intellectual arrangement of ACLS’ records

  1. Pingback: What I’m reading this week | Documenting the Humanities

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