The Pros and Cons of “More Product, Less Process”

In the United States, the number of records being acquired by archives is increasing dramatically, but processing is not keeping up with acquisitions. Therefore, most archives have a huge backlog to contend with, that is only increasing every year. Yet, in response to this issue, too many archivists are digging in their heels and refusing to alter their detailed methods of processing, laboriously removing every staple and re-foldering every file while the work load continuously increases. As of 2004, approximately 60% of repositories have at least one-third of their collections unprocessed and unavailable to researchers, and 34% of repositories had over half of their holdings unprocessed. When archives have a small number of thoroughly processed records and a huge backlog, what they are subconsciously saying is that their users are not important. Higher priority is given to the nebulous needs of the future instead of the immediate needs of today. Thus, researchers Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner developed the More Product Less Process approach to help archives deal with their backlogs and meet the needs of researchers now.

More Product Less Process, or MPLP, was designed with four guidelines in mind: 1. Get collections into users’ hands faster. 2. Arrange materials enough to adequately meet user needs. 3. Only take the minimal steps necessary to physically preserve materials. 4. Describe materials sufficiently enough for use. These standards support the principle behind MPLP, which is that the needs of the user should outweigh all other archival needs, including those of arrangement, description, and preservation. As Greene and Meissner phrase it, archivists should meet the Golden Minimum: “What is the least we can do to get the job done in a way that is adequate to user needs?”

When archivists are beginning to process a collection, they should perform arrangement, description, and preservation work all at the same level of detail. If a collection is only arranged at the series level, then preservation should also only be done at the series level. Arrangement can be done using computers instead of physically, since researchers will be able to find what they are looking for if given access to this digitized arrangement file. Greene and Meissner also state that item-level maintenance should only be done for records that have an incredibly high value, are in poor condition, or get used very often. The storage facilities that most archives use today are more than enough to keep records from gathering mold or falling into disrepair; a staple won’t rust if the humidity in the storage area is kept under supervision, for example. MPLP asks why archivists are spending so much time doing insignificant preservation tasks if they cost an excessive amount of money, take too much time to complete, and don’t benefit the user.

One of the major strengths of MPLP is that it acknowledges the limited resources of archives. Virtually all repositories do not have the funding needed to process all of their collections at the item level in a reasonable amount of time. Since there is not enough money or employees to perform this work, archives have to choose between performing detailed description, arrangement, and preservation work, or getting more collections into the hands of users faster. MPLP states that the latter should take priority, and in fact that archivists should change their standards for processing. According to Greene and Meissner, “a collection is processed whenever it can be used for research.”

However, there are counter-arguments to MPLP that archives will need to address before adopting the method. One of the major issues is digitization. Currently, records that are being digitized have to be scanned at the item level, which means that archivists need to know what each item is, and complete enough preservation on the items so that they can be scanned. Digitization may save on preservation costs in the long run, since it will reduce the number of times that records are handled and exposed to the elements. However, there is still an up-front “cost” to digitizing in terms of the level of description and preservation that needs to be completed before the records are scanned and metadata is added.

Another challenge with MPLP is how to determine at what level records should be processed. Greene and Meissner state that item-level processing can occur when records are in poor shape, or if they are very important; but who determines the cut-off between “fair” and “poor” condition, and how is the importance of a record assessed in order to determine if it should be preserved at the item level? There are some obvious answers — if the record will crumble when touched, it should probably be preserved. If the document in question is the Constitution or the Emancipation Proclamation, no archivist would argue that these records are not important enough to deserve detailed attention. The confusion comes in the “gray areas,” and especially when it comes to determining importance, what gets preserved and what doesn’t can often be a very subjective decision. Institutions should bring their employees together to discuss these matters and set up clear guidelines before adopting MPLP.

Despite these challenges, MPLP is an important principle that addresses one of the most pressing issues in the archives today, that of large and ever-growing backlogs. These backlogs should be seen as far more professionally embarrassing than whether or not all paperclips and staples were removed from records before being presented to a researcher. The focus of archives should be on meeting the needs of users today, and MPLP helps archives achieve this goal. Overall, it is a strong concept that more archives should give serious consideration to adopting in their own repositories.

Read Meissner and Greene’s 2005 article in the American Archivist, “More Product Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing” at http://archivists.metapress.com/content/c741823776k65863/.

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