Notes from Spring MARAC meeting: MPLP, Friend or Foe?

Next up in the discussion sessions at the spring MARAC meeting was one on the impact of the article “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing” (hereafter “MPLP”) by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner. This discussion was led by the unflappable Christine Di Bella and attracted an almost full house (as had Geof in the previous session).

My impression (correct me if I’m wrong, readers), is that there was a general consensus in the room that MPLP was, in many ways, just a restatement or validation of what most archives had always been doing. There seemed to be agreement that no archives processed every collection to some ideal micro-level; professional judgment is always used. There was some discussion about whether or not the true value of MPLP was that it gave some kind of validation or seal of approval to what many archivists thought was their own dirty little secret–that we don’t process every collection to the n-th degree. Several people said that they are now revising their processing manuals or processes to describe multi-tiered approaches to processing. People from the New York State Archives, the University of Maryland, the Beinecke Library at Yale University and Penn State described some of their strategies and processes.

What I found interesting was the reaction when people raised concerns about some of the impacts of MPLP–my impression was that these concerns were ignored or dismissed by the dominant voices in the discussion. People in the discussion (or immediately after it, in the post-meeting chat) raised what I think are four valid concerns.

  • Many of the preservation “shortcuts” that MPLP advocates, such as not re-foldering or removing metal attachments, are based on the assumption that an archives has adequate climate control. How are archives with these less-than-ideal conditions addressing this aspect of MPLP?
  • MPLP discourages the level of processing necessary to conduct “weeding” (the process of identifying and removing unwanted materials from a larger body of materials–hat tip SAA Glossary). For archives with limited space, reducing the bulk of collections can be essential. Are archivists concerned about potentially providing valuable shelf space and expensive climate control for materials that have no archival value? Are the efficiencies we are achieving in the short-term coming at the risk of long-term costs?
  • Using MPLP as a justification, some archives might choose to acquire and minimally process collections that they might previously have not accepted. Is MPLP allowing archives to be more acquisitive than they should be? If an archives is considering acquiring a collection, knowing that it will never do more than minimally process it, should that archives attempt to find a home for the materials where they will be more fully processed and described?
  • Isn’t MPLP just shifting the burden of reviewing and understanding archival materials from processing archivists to reference archivists and our users? (When this issue was raised in the discussion, it was met with what I thought was a somewhat callous response that showed a lack of consideration for our users–something along the lines of, “they just need to start doing their own work.” I think it is not in the long-term interest of the archival profession to show this kind of disregard for our customers.) Again, will the short-term efficiencies being gained in processing be offset by the need for more work in reference and the cost (on many levels) to our researchers?

I anticipate that the response to these issues will be the same–that MPLP must always be exercised within responsible professional judgment. But in repositories that are under pressure to get rid of their backlogs or take in more volume, is MPLP providing “cover” for exercising less-than-ideal professional judgment? The people in the audience of the discussion section seemed to want to dismiss these concerns as being trivial–of course everyone exercises good professional judgment, we don’t need to talk about this. But are we at risk of creating a new dirty little secret in the archival profession? Is MPLP just creating a new seamy underbelly of archives that people don’t want to talk about?

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7 thoughts on “Notes from Spring MARAC meeting: MPLP, Friend or Foe?”

  1. A few of us government archivists have been interested (read: amused) in the bandwagon mentality sweeping the archives world over MPLP because we’ve been doing this all along. I think that the timely reminder from Greene/Meissner was excellent and apparently needed since so many see this as a major paradigm shift, instead of the reminder it is of practical professional application.

    I share your concerns about pushing off what I see as the processing archivist’s responsibilities to the reference archivist. When dealing with personal/sensistive information, where does it make better sense to identify problem spots: during processing or when you have someone sitting in the reading room waiting for material?

    MPLP is not a panacea for the profession; rather, it is another tool for us to use. Archivists need to rely on their professional education, experience and knowledge of their users and institutions to best determine the methods they need to employ with any given collection. Not all collections are created equal and we should have always been cognizant of this fact. Some collections lend themselves to minimal description and processing. Other collections are minimally used when minimally processed, but used heavily once they’ve been better described. And, with heavy usuage comes the need for better preservation. I think it all comes down to using professional judgement and experience for finding the right balance for each collection.

  2. As I mentioned after the session, I was somewhat surprised by the attitude of “this is nothing new” expressed by so many. But at the same time, I wasn’t really surprised, because my experience is that those who disagree outright with what MPLP says are unlikely to join the discussion (or sometimes to even be aware that there is a discussion in the larger field around these issues). I visit institutions all the time that clearly have not been doing anything resembling MPLP now or at any time in the past – but none of them were at the conference, and I expect that’s often the case. (I would have liked to hear more from those who thought MPLP was old hat about how they’re providing access to their collections, because while it’s one thing to say you’re doing minimal physical processing, it’s quite another to have information about all your collections easily findable online.) I did feel gratified that so many people were interested in contributing to the discussion and really appreciated hearing about some of the creative ways places have taken MPLP and run with it. A big “thank you” to everyone who came!

    Since I felt that as moderator I couldn’t push my own perspective to the forefront, I’ll mention a couple things here. One important discussion you didn’t mention was that many people who are doing minimal processing talked about using user demand to determine when fuller processing is needed, and selecting collections for detailed processing from the start when they know demand will be high. Contrary to what you’re saying, this points to a real responsiveness to users. Also, while users rightfully have expectations for us, we do have to manage those expectations within the context of the resources we have. This is one of the fabulous points of the recent AA article by Max Evans, “Archives of the People, by the People, for the People,” that Dan S. from Princeton brought up at the session. In nearly every other realm, if people want something, they recognize that there’s a price (either financial or in terms of their own time or effort). It’s our responsibility to give users
    good choices so they can decide what the information is worth to them and how/what they’re willing to “pay” for it – not to do exactly what they want in exactly the way they want it everytime regardless of our resources. (I’m also disturbed by a myth I see being perpetuated that archivists aren’t responsive when it comes to reference and hide away with their collections all day. Frankly, most institutions I know – large and small – are extremely responsive to the day-to-day press of reference questions and patrons, which sometimes inhibits efforts in digitization, online description, outreach and long-term planning – things that would probably help more users more satisfyingly in the long run.)

    The most important point of MPLP is that we should provide a basic level of (online) access for every collection before we do extensive processing on a subset of those collections. I think that’s what gets lost when people fix on what it says about removal of paper clips or not being item- or folder-level appraisal or arrangement. Chris Prom of the University of Illinois has an interesting article coming out that analyzes how processing techniques affect collection access specifically in college and university archives. While I don’t agree with everything in his article, I do agree with one of its major points – that poor management and a lack of vision in institutions lead to poor collection access, regardless of levels of processing and description. So institutions that practice no discipline in acquisitions, or don’t understand the necessity of appraising materials before they enter their stacks, will continue to do so, regardless of what MPLP says. Institutions that can’t convince their administrators to give them a room that’s not next to the furnace or put in small dehumidifiers to control climate at least a little will experience preservation issues with their collections regardless of whether they take out all the metal or not.

    I wish there were a way to galvanize people to do better at that level, but obviously those issues are a bit harder to tackle, and require a whole lot more self-examination.

  3. I like the fact that Christine highlights a major point that is often overlooked and not much debated in the MPLP model: the strategy of “providing a basic level of (online) access for every collection before we do extensive processing on a subset of those collections.” I wish the ongoing discussion would focus more on that strategy than on the details of the techniques.

    I’m curious about whether anyone during this MARAC meeting discussion brought up the impact that the popularity of “MPLP” has had on the distribution of processing grants in the last 2-4 years. For example, recently a colleague and I were discussing her disappointment in being turned down for a processing grant to process one of her institution’s larger collections. It wasn’t the rejection per se that she lamented; it was the reviewer’s comments. I’m paraphrasing her, but her concern was that one (or maybe more) of her reviewers specifically noted that “the Greene/Meissner’s MPLP formula” was not specifically invoked in her project plan, and therefore this project was not a completely thought-through project. In other words, the grant proposal seemed to be rejected – even though it referenced various “levels” of processing in the plan – was not framed by (or did not explicitly mention) Greene and Meissner’s article.

    That’s a particular instance; but I wonder if others have had issues or problems in receiving grants or assistance from peer-reviewed funding agencies because they are not electing to either follow an MPLP approach, or specifically label their approach MPLP?

  4. I’ve a lot of respect for Greene/Meissner – innovative thinkers that aren’t afraid to rattle cages. Sure, there are numerous cage rattlers in the profession, but few that bring the depth of logic and thought that G/M do to bear on issues. For ex., I thought the brilliance of their Minnesota Method was its practicality and more importantly its applicability across a wide variety of institutions.

    Having said that, I think they are offbase with MPLP. I agree completely with those who think that the question of future access is its primary flaw, at least from the perspecitve of my corporate corner of the world. Corporate archivists do the preponderance of the research in their collections – its the nature of the business environment that we are our own users. So investment more time processing actually saves us more time than MPLP would. In addition, for us, the greater control we have over the collection, the more value we bring to the table: better content command means quicker reference turnaround and an improved ability to bring the full extent of the collection to bear on a request (deeper, more thorough responses). And it allows us to be more proactive – we can bring material to bear on corporate initiatives before somebody even thinks to ask us if we have anything on the topic.

    So at a time when backlogs are forcing archivists toward MPLP-like behaviors, I’m actually going in the opposite direction and finding ways to make our access to our collection more granular. That’s where real value lies for us.

  5. Of those four concerns you listed, weeding is an important issue where I work. As a lone arranger, MPLP is ideal. But I’m always concerned that my shelf space is filling up faster that it should be.

  6. I’m not sure my reading of MPLP prescribes a particular level of processing. What it gets at is levels of access. The idea that your entire collection is minimally accessible (“processed”) before more detailed processing occurs is central. And then the idea of triage for individual groups of records based on levels of access, material condition, etc. So if processing up front saves time and money in access downstream, I beleive MPLP would not only support, but encourage that processing.

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