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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