The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
How Much is Enough?
Modern archival theory and practice stems from traditions that are hundreds of years old. Archival collections were diamonds in the rough which required an archivist to polish into a shining gemstone before they could be admired and studied by scholars. Okay, maybe this is a tad overstated, but it does exemplify the archival ideal. In the twentieth century, most archives strived to create extremely detailed descriptions of their collections, often at the item level, and organized the materials into series and sub-series of related items. At the same time, archivists would go to great lengths to preserve the materials, often including removing staples or placing each individual document into is own folder. The result was beautiful collections with extensive finding aids that allowed researchers to quickly identify exactly what they needed. In many cases, the archivist even did the secondary research necessary to place the collection in context. Sounds great, right? The researcher doesn’t have to spend as much time in the archives and the archivist has the satisfaction of a job well done. Unfortunately, archives often grow exponentially. By the end of the twentieth century, most archives had a huge backlog of materials to be processed. While researchers could easily use the processed materials, they often had no idea that the unprocessed collections existed or were barred from using unprocessed collections for security reasons. In 2004, Mark A. Greene of the University of Wyoming and Dennis Meissner of the Minnesota Historical Society offered a radical solution of compromise in their paper More Product, Less Process: Pragmatically Revamping Traditional Processing Approaches to Deal with Late 20th-Century Collections. Their methods, often referred to as “MPLP” or “minimal processing,” advocated that archives adopt a more flexible approach and simply process collections at an “adequate” level. This would allow more collections to be opened to researchers in a timely manner and more extensive processing could always occur at a future time. The concept received much criticism, but it turns out that minimal processing wasn’t that radical of an idea. In fact, some archives, including our own, were already doing it. By the mid-1990s, the Smithsonian Institution Archives had realized that it would never be able to fully process all of its existing and future collections. For the last 15 years, we’ve been trying to balance the speed at which we can process our collections with their safety and usefulness. Since most of our collections are located off-site, it is particularly important to us that all of our materials are made safe to travel, will not need to be retrieved for future preservation work, and are described at a level that allows researchers to narrow their requests to the fewest number of boxes possible. This is considered our minimal level of processing.
For most collections, this minimal level of processing requires that all of the materials are foldered, each folder be labeled to briefly describe its contents, all materials are placed in archival quality boxes, and all materials be described at the collection level as well as the folder level. Most modern office supplies, such as paper and staples, are of a relatively high quality and are not as prone to deterioration when kept in a cool, slightly dry, environment such as the rooms where we store our collections; therefore, there’s less benefit to the laborious proactive preservation procedures generally undertaken in the past. That’s not to say that the minimum is enough for every collection. Older collections, non-paper materials, and messy collections often require more work to make them safe and usable and the archivist must assess each collection individually to determine what processing measures are necessary.
It would be hard to argue that there are advantages to less detailed description, but, in most cases, our basic description appears to allow researchers to sufficiently narrow down their searches (See a finding aid with basic descriptions here. An example of a more traditionally-processed finding aid is here.) More importantly, we’ve been able to provide researchers with information about significantly more collections than we ever could have otherwise. We currently provide finding aids with collection and folder level description on our website for 88.5% of our collections and the number of research requests we receive has increased about 250% in the last 10 years. Our methods may not create the ideal product, but we seem to be doing something right!