The average person often views archive rooms as untouchable repositories: rooms that house old and important documents and books, in which only persons of academia may enter. While some archive rooms do restrict access, they are the exception to the general rule that any interested person may enter and conduct research in an archive room. Archive rooms, such as the Rare Books and Special Collections room at University of Richmond’s Boatwright Memorial Library, are a wonderful place to conduct research, for both academics and persons who are simply interested in expanding their minds. A multitude of books, documents, and letters are housed within archive rooms and provide first-hand accounts – and primary resources for academics – of military leaders, political activists, philosophers, Kings, Queens, among others. Beyond these many available documents, others are inaccessible simply because they have not been processed and placed into a proper collection. Typically, these inaccessible documents sit in boxes for years before they are processed, which includes preservation tasks, organizing the documents in a way that benefits researchers, and adding the documents to the library’s database system. Faced with the tasks of processing collections, performing preservation, and a seemingly never-ending incoming supply of documents, it is no wonder that so many are inaccessible. In an effort to prevent the continuously growing amount of documents that wait years to be processed and preserved, Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner, in their 2005 article More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing, call for a reassessment of current archival procedures.
According to Greene and Meissner (2005), item level processing is the cause of an increasing buildup of unprocessed documents: “many archivists insist on arranging modern collections down to the item level,” with many “articles and manuals dealing with arrangement” supporting item level processing (p. 213). Item level processing is the most intimate level of processing; it consists of each document within the collection having its own folder, individually placed in an acid free sleeve, removing all paper clips and staples, and reading over each document to unveil what may be hidden within. An example of item level processing is the Gresham Correspondence Collection, which I am currently working on. Each letter in the collection has been read over, documented, researched, clips removed, creases smoothed out, and placed in its own sleeve and folder. Keeping in mind that this is the first time I have processed an archival collection, it has taken me twenty-one hours to process, and I still have work ahead of me. While an experienced archivist would be able to process the collection at a faster rate, it would still take them many hours. This collection is small, only one box, but imagine collections that are much larger and consider how long it might take an experienced archivist to process at the item level. This intimate attention to detail and focus on ensuring that collections are thoroughly processed is causing major problems with archives worldwide.
Two major problems arise from item level processing: an increasing backlog of unprocessed documents that are susceptible to damage and an, unknown to researchers, disadvantage due to the many excluded documents from library databases. Greene and Meissner (2005) argue that these problems are the result of three main causes:
First, it persists in large part because we allow our pride in craft to get in the way of our real objective: making materials accessible to users. Sometimes the love of craftsmanship degenerates into mere fastidiousness, an obsession with cleanliness and order that serves none of the real business interests of user, repository, or archivist….Second, we have placed preservation far ahead of access in our priorities by establishing as ‘proper’ the removal of metal fasteners and complete refoldering. No clear mandate for this exists…it seems to be a self-imposed burden….Third, it persists because we have allowed techniques appropriate to a different age to survive unchallenged in an era dominated by collection materials that are profoundly different in both volume and character. (pp. 234-235).
While I am not an archivist, my time working with the Gresham Correspondence Collection has afforded me a brief insider’s look at the causes Greene and Meissner attribute to the backlog of processing documents. It struck me as odd that all paper clips, staples, and other types of fasteners had to be removed from documents. Doing this only takes time away from processing the documents and appears to add nothing beneficial other than a cleaner looking document. If a document was highly valuable, it might make sense to remove aesthetically displeasing items. Of course, the word “valuable” is tricky considering what might be valuable to one person is not to another; perhaps this is why all archival documents have fasteners removed.
Well-organized collections processed at the item level look much more pleasing than collection at the folder level, but it begs the question: do researchers really care? As long as collections are organized in a way that researchers can find information within a reasonable amount of time it seems redundant to organize documents to the most precise level possible. This leads directly to collections’ finding aids. According to Greene and Meissner (2005), finding aids – a document that describes a collection – are being used by processing archivist’s “to demonstrate their own knowledge…and writing ability”. Instead, archivist’s should “[let] researchers create significant essays out of or about the collection at hand” (p. 247). As an archivist’s job is to provide documents to current and future researchers instead of conducting such thorough research themselves, this suggestion makes sense.
Although Greene and Meissner’s article has been quite controversial in the archival community, its message has also resonated with many in the profession. Being the keepers of rare, historical, controversial, and valuable documents and books affords archivist’s the right to thoroughly take care of documents, even to the item level, but they must also question the level of care afforded to the thousands of documents awaiting their much needed attention. They must also consider their duty to the research community and the impact of so many documents’ inaccessibility. While many people are too nervous to walk into archive rooms due to their perceived notion of a delicate, untouchable area, many documents await attention in rooms and/or boxes that could be likened to a box of junk waiting to be tossed away.
Greene, M. A., & Meissner, D. (2005). More product, less process: Revamping traditional archival processing. The American Archivist, 68(2), 208-263. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40294290