Monday, March 9, 2009

Tweezers and shovels : on the use of MPLP

Working on an archival project such as the Meyer Schapiro Papers definitely yields fascinating finds.

In the foreword to the publication Meyer Schapiro Abroad, art historian Thomas Crow notes:

The published writings of Meyer Schapiro, as a contribution to the history of art and human cultural endeavor, would suffice for far more than one distinguished career. But those readers who have found profound inspiration in his texts have invariably been left wishing that he had written at even greater length.

What processing the archive thus far has shown is that Schapiro was in fact a prolific writer, and one with an astounding range of interests in art historical periods, theories, and artists. Many works in the archive feature unpublished essays (or sometimes they are extended research notes that can serve as veritable manuscripts for publication).

Schapiro wrote about naïve art, modern architecture, the Eiffel Tower, geometrical design, man and machine, and countless artists that span from primitive, anonymous artists to the then current abstract expressionists. In all, Schapiro took painstaking notes, wrote extensively, and retained correspondence with famous artists and philosophers that, if not for almost-item level processing, would not have been highlighted and made visible.

This leads me to question several assertions made about the archival method known as More Product, Less Process.

Within the archival community, the methodology known as More Product, Less Process (MPLP) has emerged as a sine qua non to answering the perplexing challenge of making archival collections available for research, study, and dissemination. Indeed, MPLP is now working its way across the archival field, allowing archival managers and processing archivists the professional green light to rethink how archive collections are represented to the public and how that very public interfaces with the archival collections themselves.

While this methodology has certainly gained traction as a viable means to grapple with the amount of backlogged collections that need attention, the methodology nonetheless has, as I suggest, eclipsed the symbolic resonance of collections. What I specifically refer to as the symbolic resonance of archival collections is their unique character as particular collections that form part of a larger institutional or organizational whole.

As plotted out in the 2005 article "More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing" by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner in the journal American Archivist, the authors employed a detailed research study to determine how archivists process their collections. They did so in order to determine which actions are slowing down the archival enterprise that shows the public face of the archival profession: namely, accessibility by users to both physical and intellectual components that form an archival collection.

The MPLP approach (occasionally referred to as the Greene-Meissner approach) rethinks, or "revamps" as the authors suggest, traditional methods of archival processing. Before the article was published, traditional convention had it that an archival collection was once made public after a finding aid or collections guide was drafted, physical contents of the archive were arranged to mirror that very description, and that the condition of all materials housed in that particular collection were sound both in terms of their conservation and preservation needs.

This archival convention is the lure of the archive: that each individual item carries with it direct historical, cultural, or evidential significance. As Greene and Meissner succinctly point out, item level processing has undoubtedly caused a major back log at institutions that hold archival collections.

The existing archival culture seems deeply rooted in an implicit belief that every item in twentieth-century collections is so precious that each must be scrutinized for paper clips that might damage a word. Similarly, the culture seems to guard against appraisal decisions that might cast out one interesting document in a twenty-box series of junk.

Through their research study, Greene and Meissner focused on the following five areas: Arrangement, Description, Preservation, Policies and Metrics.

A year after the article was published, two case studies from the University of Montana and Yale University featured in the American Archivist provided a hands-on view of how MPLP can be utilized in archival settings to maximize archival collections that have collected dust over the past years.

Indeed, Greene and Meissner provide working archivists with measured, proficient, and efficient methods by which to control the volume of collections that need to be given due access by potential researchers. But there are several key assumptions that the authors make that should also be given due consideration and be challenged.

Outlining their recommendations for descriptive standards, Greene and Meissner posit the following: “The most important guideline [for levels of description] is always to prefer the acceptable minimum—within and across collections—and make each new situation argue for any additional investment of time and effort.”

The conundrum in the authors' argument is well reflected in the above sentence and one which should be questioned: if MPLP is a methodology used for alleviating backlogged collections, how can the method itself be used across collections within a given institution and when does this vector of using MPLP begin or end?

If the heart of an archival institution is their collections, how can a blanket assertion that using only one type of methodology be plausible, given that collections can be used to leverage support from the community, stakeholders, and funding agencies?

Indeed, given our economic times, promoting the use of archival collections is as important as highlighting the individual treasures that they also house. Rather than diving directly into using MPLP as the only approach to managing archival collections, archivists should be stepping back and strategically scrutinizing all collections and identifying which ones can yield public attention and funding.

This is the case with the Schapiro project, a collection that has already elicited interest by researchers and scholars for shedding light on Schapiro’s role in defining a particular type of art historical scholarship.

Greene and Meissner are quick to point out that archival repositories have “become so comfortable with arguing our uniqueness as a program and a repository that we have utterly failed to come to grips with a critical administrative reality [archival processing], a reality that eats 90 percent of our direct program expenditures.”

Backlog is an epidemic in many archival institutions, but MPLP as a methodology should be one tool in an archivist’s larger toolkit. Processing should follow a tiered approach that confronts backlog with a much more nuanced look into which collections can resonate and promote scholarship. Collection surveys to clarify, define, and enumerate on the strengths of archival repository holdings should be initiated prior to adopting MPLP across all collections.

The authors' argument that item level processing and description is a fossil of an archival past is complicated by their own admonition of the failure in forgetting about item level processing and description. The MPLP approach can become an acute problem for those dealing with digital files that are by their nature individual files themselves.

Speaking on the use of MPLP within collections that are either digital or would like to be converted from analog to digital, the authors argue the following:

If arrangement and description of the analog material depend on an initial assessment of the value (or intellectual quality) of the collection in the first place, then finely processed collections will by definition be good candidates for digitization and require less additional descriptive work.
A few sentences later, they also posit: "Retrospectively, the decision to digitize all or part of a collection by definition makes the collection a candidate for improved analog processing."

Throughout the article, the authors are quick to claim that MPLP is the methodology by which to measure how collections should be processed, granting only limited reflection on the cases of those collections that need special care.

As they state:

We are not arguing that some exceptional collections do not deserve more meticulous—even item-level—processing. Nor are we suggesting that it is inappropriate for external granting agencies to fund such intensive and costly work. But we do expect that any project that seeks funding for that sort of work must justify that need against the recommendations made in this study and, perhaps more importantly, that the grantor and the applicant must have a basis on which to calculate the real cost differentials imposed by that more intensive level of work.

But if MPLP should be the bar none of archival processing methodology by which all processing should be justified against, how are collections going to be understood as a whole for a particular institution and what are the conditions under which they will be used to attract the public?

While it can be argued that using MPLP will provide data to further identify which collections to finely process, we should question what all that data will yield if the archival compass points to MPLP as the ultimate destination: in terms of physical as well as intellectual output.

If the representation of archival collections is guided through MPLP, the next step would naturally lead to the question of what is next. And, indeed, continued work on MPLP without reflection on cultivating other collections at finer level leads to an interesting question of why MPLP and finer processing can’t work in tandem.

When the authors assert that “good processing is done with a shovel, not with tweezers,” one should ask: why not at the same time?

The cultural resonance of archival holdings is their diverse texture in underlining the importance of primary source material that an institution holds. We can't snub content for the sake of metrics.

Proper planning by conducting collections surveys, assessing institutional missions, and understanding user expectations can lead to leveraging collections to their fullest in order to promote an archival repository.

These actions celebrate content as much as metrics, a distinction we archivists should remember.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Allen Ginsberg and Howl

Allen Ginsberg, poet, activist, and spiritual seeker, attended Columbia alongside Jack Kerouac, who met each other through mutual friend Lucien Carr. Kerouac, at that point, had left Columbia earlier. William Burroughs came into the fray as well, joining the group of friends in New York City.

Columbia celebrates Ginsberg with the annual Columbia HOWL, a celebration of the Beat generation's birth at Columbia University and Ginsberg's continued legacy in the arts.

While at Columbia, Ginsberg took classes with Meyer Schapiro and continued correspondence with him after his school days at Columbia. Writing to Schapiro in the 1950s as a "Yeoman Storekeeper" from San Francisco, Ginsburg would say this about his artistic pursuits:

There has been a great deal of semi-organized (i.e. drunken excited readings) poetry activity out here which I bet will have national repercussions in maybe a year. Subterranean repr. if nothing else. Jack Kerouac's out here too, going up to Wash. State to sit in povery on Desolation Peak as a fire watcher all summer, Cascade mts. He's like a Mitya gone silent & calm.
If semi-organized means drunken excited readings, I wonder what an un-organized reading looked like? Hmm...that's for another day.

In the meantime, you could probably get a better sense of mind altering poetry readings if you use one of William S. Burroughs' Dream Machines, a flicker device that induces the viewer into another state of mind.

While you probably can't officially use the Dream Machine for that purpose here at the RBML, you can certainly view one. The library holds one in the collection and you can read more about it here at the Curator's Choice blog.