Mark Greene - On More Product, Less Process

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Announcer: Welcome to this edition of GSLIScast. On April 15, 2009, the Simmons Chapter of the Society of American Archivists sponsored a webcast with Mark Greene, former SAA President and Director of the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming. Perhaps best known for co-authoring, "More Product, Less Process," Mark's book is about the implications of using that theory and other aspects of archival work, like appraisal, reference and digitization. And now Mark Greene on "More Product, Less Process."
Mark Greene: Stephanie has referred to tonight using the word "lecturer" although I don't really intend that this be so much a lecture as a combination of a brief presentation and I think a longer question and answer period. Beth had suggested that you might be interested in having me talk a little bit about some of my thoughts on how MPLP, the basic precepts of it might be applied to other kinds of archives administration. So, I'll start off the evening by doing that for a few minutes. And during that presentation, please feel free to interrupt with questions. Following the presentation, I will throw the evening open to questions on any topic whether it relates to MPLP to SAA, archives profession generally, if time, issues relating to within the profession, getting your first job - any aspect of being an archivist I'm certainly happy to respond to. I don't know whether my expertise is vast, but my experience is relatively vast and I'll be glad to use as much of that experience as I can and answer whatever questions you might have.

I'm going to take it for granted, unless you all tell me by a raise of hands otherwise that most of you at least are familiar with MPLP either through having read the article or having discussed its basic contents and courses. So, I won't start by rehashing the article itself and the application of More Product Less Process to processing itself, what I'd like to do instead is talk a little bit about how basic precepts can be applied to other aspects of archive administration most specifically, the appraisal, the reference, to electronic records and to digitization.

And I will keep this relatively brief, partly because it's six o'clock your time and the last thing you want to do is listen to another full fledged lecture and partly because, as I said, I would like to have as much time for questions and answers as possible.

But, to give you an idea of my developing thoughts on the matter of MPLP's broader application, I've been an appraisal archivist for much of my career. During the eleven years I spent at the Minnesota Historical Society, it was my full time job. There are relatively few people in the profession who have the opportunity to be an appraisal archivist forty plus hours a week, it's usually just a part of a larger set of responsibilities. But, as the acquisitions curator, my responsibilities were focused on appraisal, donor relations and collection development for one of the nation's larger state historical societies.

And so for over a decade, I got to place a great deal of time, energy and thought into appraisal as practice and also to think about its theory. And since my time at MHS, in my subsequent positions I've had responsibility not only for appraisal at the more micro level, but also appraisal at the more macro level, which is to say collection development.

And so my thinking about MPLP in relationship to appraisal is informed by a fairly extensive amount of experience in appraisal. And it's also informed by having taught appraisal workshops for a number of years and, therefore, having interacted with a large number of archivists who are interested in appraisal, who do appraisal to one degree or another in their jobs, and for the most part who, I must say, are by and large afraid of appraisal.

I think part of the reason they're afraid is that most of them haven't had a chance to do it very much. It's also a topic that, while it is now frequently covered in graduate school, it's a difficult topic for which to provide any hands-on experience. It's much easier to give you a practicum doing processing for reference than it is to give you a practicum doing an appraisal.

In part because of the way the processing has traditionally been done and in part because so many archivists have a very limited experience with appraisal, and in part because there is a certain amount of trepidation attached to appraisal, many archivists do appraisal during processing.

And because of the way processing is done, they do it at an item, occasionally at a folder level. Therefore, appraisal takes a long time and helps to slow processing down even further.

It also, however, focuses appraisal at the item level, and reinforces the tendency on the part of many archivists to want to make sure that they have reviewed every document in a collection in order to be certain that no document of any "significance" has been missed.

As with processing, however, appraising 20th century and 21st century collections, whether paper based or electronic, the size of those collections in addition to the fact that with the advent of copy machines, less and less material in a collection is completely unique.

These two things have meant appraisal, like processing, has to be pushed towards a more macro application that is done at a series or at worst, folder level, and done much more quickly than most archivists feel is or should be the norm.

Just as there has been a tendency with processing to want the ease of the finding aid, for example, to write extended or detailed essays that convey every last piece of information the archivist has gleaned from a collection. So, too, archivists have been inclined to want to research and consider and rethink their appraisal decision so that they can be 100 percent certain they've made no mistakes.

Unfortunately, the only way to be certain you've not made any mistakes is in fact to read every document, assess those individual documents against one another and against all the other material in your repository. And that, like processing to [inaudible 11:00] have it, is a luxury that if we ever had it, we no longer possess.

So, appraisal, like processing, needs to be pushed up the chain towards a serious level, needs to be done more quickly and with a willingness to accept some imperfection in the results.

That's a particularly difficult precept for many archivists primarily because their inclination is to see themselves as preservers, as savers, as protectors of material. And the possibility that they might overlook an item, or two items, or five items in a collection that some researcher somewhere, someday, somehow might find of use... The possibility that they might overlook such items is many of my peers and colleagues talks about.

It's a fact of life for me that that kind of imperfection is part of what the 20th Century, the latter half of the 20th Century, and our potentially limited resources has forced on us as a reality. And not accepting that reality is another reason for the massive backlogs that Dennis and I are documented in the surveys that we conducted for the article.

One of the many things I urged on archivists who are either beginning to do appraisal or want to take their appraisal experience to the next level is to do more and more appraisal on site. That is, in people's homes and offices, in the storage facilities, rather than hauling back to the archives every box and planning to do the appraisal back in the repository during the processing of a collection.

That enforces a certain speed on the process, but it also ensures or helps ensure that the archivist has a conversation with the record creators about the material at the time they're doing the appraisal. And that dialogue is probably more important to helping to ensure good appraisal decisions than taking the time to do an item-level read of material within the collection.

Because the creators know the collection better than the archivist knows it, information we can get from the creators will go a long way to ensuing not only that we make not only the right appraisal decisions, but that we provide the right kind of description to the collection once we get to that stage as well.

Let me wander on into reference.

We touched on reference in the article arguing basically that MPLP by design lifts some burden from the processing back to the reference staff in that minimal processing would often require the reference staff to pull more boxes for a patron than might otherwise be the case.

Our argument is grounded on the belief that in the long run, it makes more sense to have the reference archivist..., and I realize often this is all one person - reference archivist, processing archivist, appraisal archivist....

It makes more sense to pull additional boxes for those collections that are actually used than to put additional time into more detailed processing of every collection given that many of those collections will never be, or at best be very infrequently used. Makes more sense to shift the burden onto those collections that get used frequently.

And to do that requires shifting - at least temporarily shifting - some of that burden off the reference staff. Once you have a track record, you know that a collection is a popular one, you can re-shift part of that burden back to processing by de-processing the collection down to a more detailed level. But again, focusing your time and attention on a collection that you have already identified as one in which your client base is equally interested.

There was one study done probably about 15 years ago looking at use of collections in an archival repository taking as its hypothesis that archives would be like a library in that many studies have indicated that in a typical library collection, 20 percent of the collection is used 80 percent of the time.

That is, there's a very small portion of the total collection used very heavily. The rest of the collection, 80 percent of it, is pulled only 10 percent of the time.

And this one study which was done, I believe, in Wisconsin indicated that indeed in an archival setting, the ratio is quite similar. It was only a single study. You can't extrapolate intensely from that. But, it is suggesting that it makes sense to place your resources carefully and to focus them on those collections that most warrant sources.

One of the things that we've have done at the American Heritage Center and let me take a step back and say that the HCS repository of about 70,000 to 75,000, went through about 8000 reference requests a year. First ones signing off. We have about 3000 separate management courses.

In order to apportion the burden of minimal processing reasonably fairly between processing and reference we decided that in instances where a researcher asks for information on art collection, and the collection was processed immediately for the question to be answered we would go about providing an answer for that question in one of two ways. If the collection was two feet, two cubic feet or less, the reference staff [inaudible 21:26] pages would be cast with creating a file list of boxes efficiently able to answer the researchers' question. If the collection was larger than two cubic feet, we would ship the order back to our processing department, either to the archivists or their student workers, and creating a folder list of that merger question.

If collection was truly sizable you would inform the researcher that it would take a certain amount of time for us to be able to provide a request or try to answer the request. Most of our researchers, the vast majority of them have been very understanding of this response in part because we do our best to educate them the fact that had we not done this minimal processing in the first place, they would never know we have the collection to begin with. But, they couldn't ask the question, much less receive an answer. So, if the answer takes some additional time, the time it would take us to create a file folder with, that is not so much a burden as it is a benefit.

Our reference archivists have reported back to me during the roughly, in-roughly year now that we've been operating a scenario where every one of our 3000 collections has at least a catalog record online. That they have yet to encounter a researcher who has been anything more than what he put out, by the fact that there was a delay in responding to their question. We've not incited any researchers to tantrums. We've received no death threats, we've never had to call security. This trade off seems to be working pretty well, both for our archivists on one hand, but more importantly for our patrons on the other.

Let me say a very brief word about electronic records in MPLP. I'm not an electronic records archivist. I'm in no position to go into any great detail about dealing with electronic records, but to say that the relatively few studies that have been done now, a couple that I'm aware of so far have come out of England, that have tried to deal with significant quantities of electronic records generated by private individuals, that is electronic records that are manuscripts repository not acquired.

I indicated that despite early talk of our being able to use search engines and other types of software to be able to do appraisal, electronic records have to be item level. They're finding that as a practical matter, both appraisal and description of large quantities of private electronic records have to be done at folder or the series level, just as we're finding is true for paper material.

That has to do with the sheer quantity of the material and with the speed necessary to make these decisions in order to acquire and describe collections. You cannot have them lag in the background.

I'm one of those archivists who has believed for a long time that by and large purchase of electronic records were likely going to mirror approaches to more traditional formats in the broadest conceptual sense, understanding that there are many technical differences, but that questions of how to approach appraisal, how to approach processing, even how to approach reference are going to be more similar than different through the ways in which we've approached those activities in the paper and magnetic tape world.

And these few studies out of England seem to bear that out when it comes to appraisal and description.

Let me then jump on to digitization. Here too, I think we're facing a situation where our inclination to focus on items, being high resolution scanning and providing extensive metadata for individual items within our collections, has put us in a hole that we're going to have to dig ourselves out of if we're even going to begin to respond to the [inaudible 28:09].

For a long time, archivists were in a position that our patrons were simply asking for something unrealistic when they asked for us to provide more [inaudible 28:28] say to them, digitization is very expensive, we don't have the resources, you're going to have to live with what we can give you, rather than looking at our processes and asking whether there weren't ways we could change our approach to digitization to begin to give our patrons what they told us they wanted.

There are now, I believe, three reported projects in different parts of the country that have been experimenting with what's essentially mass digitization, digitizing at lower resolution, providing metadata at the folder or the series level, and providing, therefore, much more material much more quickly for access by many more patrons.

There's no question that it's possible to do this, there's no technical barriers. In some aspects it's actually much easier to do it this way than to do it the way we've always done it. The question is, whether what we've always taken as archival principles, which is to scan items at the very highest resolution but that they never have to be scanned again or to provide ultimate metadata so that each individual item can be zeroed in on by any give patron.

That those archival principles it turns out are really not the principles that our patrons really care about. What they care about is having access to as much material online as possible. And if that material is not at the highest resolution, ninety nine percent of our patrons don't care. And even the one percent who do care can still get a high resolution image if they ask us for it.

The fact is that in some cases, we've put ourselves in a position to have to digitize an item more than once. In fact twice - once, at low resolution to make it quickly and easily accessible to our patrons; and the second time, if and only if one of those patrons asks for a high resolution copy. If such a copy is requested we can then create it and we can create the item of metadata that would go with it.

But as with processing, as with reference, it makes more sense, it seems to me, to place the resources into those specific items that are actually requested by our patrons, rather than placing immense amounts of resources into every item on the mistaken assumption that every item is going to be equally attractive to our patrons. By making more available more quickly and giving high resolution digitization on demand, I believe we can satisfy all of our patrons, more of our patrons, with the same resources that we have.

Rather than simply having to seek grant funds in order to do every digitization project we can think of, we can begin to do digitization using existing resources, and providing not only minimum material online, but sufficient material so that real, in depth research can be conducted online. Oh let me stop again. Oh somebody is getting up.

Martha: I haven't thought this fully out, so excuse me if it is kind of convoluted. So, you've said basically that doing low resolution is more important than doing high res. And that's great for getting stuff online. But, a lot of places have just so much material. How do you choose even to put something low res online and how do you prioritize? Because in one of my classes we were just talking about whether you put the things that are more used online or you put the sexy stuff online that are going to draw people into your website? And kind of get yourself more advertising that way and I was just kind of wondering if you felt that putting the stuff that was interesting online was more important than what was actually used more if that makes sense.
Mark: Well, I think the answer to that question has to be based on the answer to the more fundamental question which is, "What is the purpose of your archive?" If the purpose is simply to attract browsers to your website, then it makes more sense to put neat, sexy stuff up. If your purpose is to support research, it makes more sense to put the more heavily used collections or your collections, that your best educated guess is, would be heavily used if they were highly accessible. I'm not posing that, even though it probably sounds like I'm posing that as a black and white, good answer bad answer. I don't really mean to. If the repositories have different missions, they serve different kinds of clientele, they have resource allocators who value different kinds of results, then based on those factors, you're going to assess the material and make the decisions within the particular context of your repository.

So, there isn't any universal answer to that question. On my repository, because of our mission, our clientele, and what our resource allocators value, we would focus on placing collections online that we know are going to draw researchers. We do thousands of research, whether those are middle school students or undergraduates or Ph.D. candidates, it doesn't really matter to us. But, we'd much rather have people coming to the site to do that than simply coming to the site because we've got some neat pictures up.

However, I can easily imagine a repository's governing board, however mistakenly, counts simple hits to the website as one of the e-rewards for their repository curator or director. In which case, you put up on your website what's going to attract the most browsers. In the end, that's going to generate more support for your program, you're going to be able to push forward your mission better. So, it's very situational. I'm not sure that's the answer you were hoping for but, is that an answer that makes sense?

Audience Member: Hi, I just wanted to know whether you thought, in your experience, kind of to follow up on Martha's question, in a sense which comes first; digitization or use? And by that I mean, does digitizing something create the use? Is it more used, in other words, if it's accessible? And, how does appraisal or secondary appraisal. So, does the archivist, in a sense, start to have a lot more control over use? Does that make any sense?
Mark: Oh, yes, it absolutely makes sense. Accessibility provides the opportunity for use, but just because you put it there, doesn't mean though... you still have to apply judgment based on your knowledge of the collection itself and your clientele as to whether a particular collection, once made accessible, is really going to be found attractive and useful to the audience that you most care to serve. Now, it is that the corollary is more black and white; if it's not accessible, it can't be used. If it's not accessible online, it can't be used online. So, there is absolutely a judgment called for. I will say that, here at the AHC, we are trying to keep our foot in sort of both sides of that equation. Part of what we are digitizing is material that is already popular in our reading room. And so we are highly confident that it is going to be popular when it goes online. We are also, however, trying to identify a few collections that have not become popular in our reading room.

In part we think because they weren't intellectually accessible until relatively recently. And digitizing those in the hopes that putting them online will generate popularity. But, we know if that latter case, we are as apt to be wrong as we are to be right. And does that answer your question?

Audience Member: I've got a question about an article you wrote at the presentation in 1992 to the SAA meeting that was in Montreal on access restrictions to private papers regarding appraisal. It's an article I had to read and I've got a question and I thought you would be the best person to ask because you wrote it.
Mark: Almost nobody has read that article.
Audience Member: Well, I did. And my question is, have you noticed since 1992, if there's been a change in the profession in regards to how archivists have treated third party privacy rights? If it's more or less intended towards the archivists making these decisions beyond what donors have put implied in the restrictions of their collections? Or if it's toward the institution, or if there's been any change at all?
Mark: That's a really good question, unfortunately I don't have a really good answer primarily because there's been relatively little written. In fact, there's only been, so far as I know, two or three articles in one book. One book out of Canada written on the subject. And the book from Canada written by Heather McNeal was much less focused on material in private manuscript collections than in government records. But, those very few articles, while they all argued that archivists should exceed donor wishes when necessary and impose restrictions on collections when it affects privacy can't necessarily be taken as a broad indication of the profession. However, through an odd set of coincidences, I've begun research on a follow up to that article. One of the things that I am planning to do is post a survey to try and gather a much wider range of opinion from the profession about exactly that question. So, while I don't have an answer for you yet, I am hoping to have one in maybe a year.
Audience Member: I was wondering what your thoughts were on audio visual material? Because a lot of times the different formats are a little difficult to use. And you have to reformat them just to play them. And there's often very little description on aiding material. So, how should an archivist go about appraising and describing those materials?
Mark: I take a pretty radical line towards AV material, in most circumstances. That radical line is that, by and large, if it's not identified, it's not worth bringing in. The reason it's not worth bringing in is because the chances are next to nil you're ever going to have the resources to sit down and listen to, or watch, all of the unlabeled audio-visual material that has been offered to you over the course of however long your repository has been going. In fact, at the Minnesota Historical Society, in conjunction with our AV curator, we actually adopted a formal policy that read very much that way. Basically, if it wasn't labeled we weren't going to acquire it.

Now, there are exceptions to every rule. If the creator is significant enough, if you have enough circumstantial evidence to make a good, educated guess about what that AV material may contain, that may be sufficient to warrant acquiring it.

But, much like photographs, unlabeled audiotape and videotape is a blurb on the market. And we as repositories simply don't have the resources to put towards trying to identify them.

An awful lot of archivists will say, "Well, but, it might be important. And, one day, we might be able to have a volunteer or a student worker or whatever." I've just never known it to happen. The ounce of unlabeled, therefore, unused, therefore, collectively unusable audio-visual material piling up in archives, based on the dozens of archives I've visited and the hundreds of archivists I've talked to, is pretty staggering, and why? Why clog the shelves with it?

Since we've already gotten off the track of MPLP, which is absolutely fine, let's open this up as far as you can think to open it. If you'd like to talk about SAA, if you'd like to talk about the archival profession, if you'd like to talk to me as a hiring manager. Anything is game.

Audience Member: Since you mentioned hiring manager. As a graduating student, and you seem to have your finger on the pulse of the community, far more than I do. What is your sense, outside of New England, what the job situation really is. Because, here in New England, it seems a little frozen. And not just because of winter. But, it seems very difficult. There're not a whole lot of jobs that are open in this area. Do you think that's sort of a nationwide issue, right now, or are there jobs to be found for those of us who are graduating and willing to move? That you know of? Are they hidden somewhere?
Mark: [laughs] I'm afraid, the job situation, at the moment, is not great. The main reason it's not great is because so many repositories are being hit with hiring freezes. There are a number of repositories, I know of, that are looking towards laying people off. Many more who had been hit with furloughs where people have to take a certain number of days without pay every year. All the forecasts I've heard are that the current economic crisis is slowly beginning to lift. And depending upon how quickly that affects the states and the states funded and locally funded repositories where most of your jobs are going to [inaudible 49:48]. That's going to have a lot to do with how quickly the job market thaws.

I'll give you one example. We have a job posting right at the moment, it's an entry-level position, but [inaudible 50:05] that it may be frozen within the next two weeks. So, I'm afraid, I can't be anything but very cautiously optimistic that, within the next nine months or so, things are going to begin to look a little better.

Audience Member: Cautiously optimistic; it's OK. [laughs]
Audience Member: I'm Mark. I'm going to be a cheerleader. Most of these people, at least 25 of them here, are going to be going on in the next year or two to find their first job. So, can you give us a little bit of a synopsis of how SAA can help them? What are their options professionally? How can they continue to grow as archivists? And any other pearls of wisdom that you can give them, I think that would be very helpful. Thank you.
Mark: Boy, that's a fairly tall order. Well, let me start by saying that the worse the job market, the more important it is to keep up your networking. And if you haven't started networking, then start it. One of the most important things SAA provides is to have a chance to network. A chance to not only meet other students who very shortly are going to become your peers in the profession, but to meet people who is not responsible directly for hiring are going to be part of search committees in repositories all over the country.

One of very best ways to begin to make peoples acquaintances within SAA is to get involved in the sections and round tables. Each of you has probably begun to identify particular aspects of the archival profession that interest you more than others. There's probably a section or a round table that fits your emerging interests. Those groups are small enough and they are eager enough for volunteers that it's very easy to connect with people by simply wandering into their meetings during an SAA conference and raising your hand when the chair asks for interest in becoming the next newsletter editor or web master, or in helping to generate ideas for a session proposal.

You could never consider yourselves too inexperienced to be a part of those kinds of activities. Even helping to come up with session proposals is an activity that benefits hugely from having the perspective of recent graduates or people who are still graduate students.

Students and recently graduated students make up about a quarter of the membership of SAA. Therefore, they make up a large portion of people who attend meetings. Therefore, it makes a great deal of sense for them to help shape the conference [inaudible 54:33].

You have things to give to SAA, already, and have, therefore, everything it takes to begin to make connections particularly within those subunits. But, even outside of those sectional round-table meetings, one of the great things about this profession, as far as I'm concerned, is that virtually everybody in it is approachable. There isn't anybody I've ever known in the profession that you couldn't walk up to, at a conference, and introduce yourself to and have a conversation with.

And, as frightening as that may seem, it really is both possible and mutually beneficial. The more people who know who you are, the more people who can introduce you to the next potential employer. The more connections you can make, the better, and the best way to make connections is at meetings.

That includes NEA meetings, of course. The regionals work very much the same way. It's just that at SAA you have an opportunity to connect to people all over the US.

The other important thing about attending meetings is that it's a way of extending your education. No matter how good a graduate program is, there's only so much it can cover in the two years, or so, that you're in it. Being able to show an employer, a potential employer, that you've been attending professional meetings during your time as a graduate student is one way of indicating to that employer that you have already made a real commitment to the profession and that you've made a commitment to extending your education beyond your graduate school days. So, in those few particular ways, you may be involved in SAA and being able to attend meetings, if that's at all financially feasible, can pay real benefits.

Audience Member: OK, well, I don't know if you have any closing words of wisdom, but I think we're tapped out of questions here. [laughs] But, I'd like to thank you for taking the time and meeting with us in this Skype way and your patience with the process of getting to this point. So, thank you very much.
Mark: I have no great words of wisdom to close with, but let me simply close by saying: if you don't go up and introduce yourself to anybody else at the next SAA, please come up and introduce yourself to me.
Audience Member: Will do [laughs]. OK, thank you.
Mark: Thank you very much for having me. [applause]

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Transcription by CastingWords