March 22, 2012

Is the Product of Less Process Sufficient for Audiovisual Collections?

Greene and Meissner’s “More Product, Less Process” is both an inspiration to me and one of the banes of my existence. As I’m sure many archivists feel, it’s refreshing to hear an approach to collection processing that is pragmatic and takes into account the realities of the time and personnel required for the work versus what is actually available. In my work I’m often dealing with developing recommendations around workflows, budgets, and other preservation planning needs that need to be reasonable to the individual institution and do-able within the nearer term. Having G&M as a supporting reference point is highly valuable. (That said, by the same token I’m sure that many budget-makers are equally happy to hear that their staff should be doing more with less, as it were.)

Issues of interpretation aside, the glaring problem I have with G&M is that their original article makes no mention of processing film, video, audio, and other complex media objects outside of a few questions in their originating survey. To me, this is a major hole in the logic of their otherwise sound proposition. If they had said, “Our analysis only applies to paper and (generally) photographic collections,” that would be one thing. But for it to be considered standard procedure for “late 20th century” collections is something by which I cannot abide.

To describe paper collections at the folder, box or other higher level and let researchers dig through them to discover items themselves is sensible for the most part. But does that strategy still work when the researcher comes across audiovisual materials that are inaccessible, unlabeled, in too poor of shape to play back, or otherwise facing issues that would prevent a researcher from determining anything about an object outside of apparent format or condition characteristics?

Film can be more fungible in this aspect because of its visual nature – assuming one has space and equipment to wind through or view without projection, and that the film is not too shrunken or solidified into a hockey puck, and that one doesn’t necessarily care about any associated audio track. But where does one start with an unmarked 3/4” U-matic that may not even be a video recording?

The examples could go on, but what I put forth here is that the concept of what the “product” is may not be the same across all situations; it may require adjustment in certain cases. What G&M focus on is the finding aid and moving collections towards access. When dealing with audiovisual materials, accessibility is more often dependent on reformatting or maintaining equipment for the various media types and formats at hand – something not necessarily done or available at collecting institutions.

In this regard, I would propose that the desired product from processing audiovisual materials is not a traditional finding aid, but an item level accounting of the assets – not necessarily at a full descriptive level, and potentially reliant on estimates, but something that at least touches on the technical data points (format, run time, recording standards, etc.) that , combined with a prioritization plan, would help an archive determine their needs for playback or reformatting that would support access.

If the product does not support the basic archival delivery need of access, then the minimalized process does not seem sufficient to even be worth the minimal effort.

Joshua Ranger

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  1. We faced this same issue on the CLIR Project I worked on at NHF. MPLP completely disregards item-driven institutions. The only way to save time in any bit of our work was on the cataloging/description level — by figuring out the most minimal record that would still be valid…
    I have mixed feelings about MPLP in archival paper settings, as well. I think it is wonderful for simple records management, but, it’s tricky for institutions to just blow through archival processing. I recently cringed opening a box full of disheveled ephemera. I know full well that one lightning round of MPLP is all that Collection will ever see. I hope folks strive to know what is given up in terms of intellectual control/celebration of our Collections in the interest of saving time.

    • Josh says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Katrina. I’m not sure if it’s heartening or unfortunate to hear that other people are running up against these concerns. You make a good point about how we should be aware of the concessions we’re making in order to save time — the same as the need to make informed choices with any preservation decision point, such as the selection of target formats. You also remind me of another issue I’m dealing with: using linear feet per processing hour as a metric. As with your box of ephemera, how would a stack of film cans, a box of miniDV, or a bag of newsfilm segments be accounted for without also factoring in volume?

  2. Totally agree on all points! An issue that even comes up with traditional, analog “paper” archives too. I wrote about this a while back.

    For archives that deal with born digital material or analog audio/visual material transferred to digital, MPLP does not work given the inherent item level processing these require.

    • Josh says:

      Thanks for the link, Farris, and thanks for enlightening me more on paper-ish archives. You make some really great arguments that have helped clarify some of my own thoughts. Admittedly, I do have to overplay the a/v bias for rhetoric’s sake at times, but after reading your post and talking to a few people at the AIC conference last week I’m seeing the general frustrations more clearly.

  3. Courtney says:

    Perhaps my expectations are at the low end of the spectrum but I think the message for AV with MPLP is really “something is better than nothing” – i.e. don’t ignore your AV, at least record what you can about it and let it be semi-discoverable. Item level cataloging and processing would be ideal but if there is a lack of expertise and/or resources, at least record and publish what you can about the collection so someone who has the expertise and resources can encounter it.

  4. For the American Archive’s inventory, we did a hybrid of the item level/MPLP approach: we established the physical media item as the guiding value of the work, but we did not require extensive contextual associations outside of basics like carriage, generation, title, etc. and we provided a certain amount of flexibility to manage the 120 or so managers who had to make decisions on the ground. Some stations (television stations were conducting the inventories under grants and instructions from us) provided more information on their own and many of them contributed item level records from existing databases, which were often richly contextual. Around 2.5 million items will be discoverable through this effort, and it took 107,000 man-hours in the field to get it done.

    The American Archive won’t go through this again, and while we have an amazing window into public media’s contributions through time, we had to deal with a number of issues that were introduced by our decision to incorporate a few MPLP values in our work. It became clear to me that MPLP’s laissez faire work ethic allows archivists to move problems down the road and still keep their heads high. Certain problems are not archivist’s problems, but the problems of users down the road (who wouldn’t have these problems if the archivists had not alerted them to the existence of the problematic media). The great is indeed the enemy of the good; but it seems to me that now the good is becoming the enemy of the fair. Do we want to produce fair work? (or, as Courtney says, “Something is better than nothing,” but we should have some standards for our “something”)

    To be understood, the database established for the inventory was not designed to be the information system for the American Archive. We had built in a secondary phase of work to clean up the data and write a few algorithms to help populate blank fields and interpret data existing in the “raw” output of gathered inventory records. Still, to borrow a phrase from the production world, you can’t rely on your clients (the users) to “fix it in post.” Some things CAN be fixed after the fact; others will never be satisfactorily associated with the audio-visual records if archivists fail to gather the core information in the field.

    While I had been aware of MPLP before I started this inventory, I was not aware that a certain strata of the archival community has taken on this as a mantra and internalized it as a working ethic of the modern archivist. This and other “best practices’ that are finding consensus among archive professionals are best seen as tools in your management portfolio: a way to approach a given job. They are not necessarily the right or only tool for a certain job. I am concerned that many of the new archivists are nervous about challenging MPLP or other consensus values of the modern archive professional. At times, such values can be a burden to project design and operations. It creates a kind of new box that somebody at sometime will have to start “thinking out of” to succeed.

    I took MPLS at face value, as a good, smart way to help limit the work in the field, and as one of several management tools for our inventory (remember, this was still an item level inventory). But I now know that an association with something as benign as a decision-making grid is actually much more than that. It is a bedrock of archivists struggling to meet the demands of the digital age. I guess we’re heading into a branch of disciplines, and will need to make choices based on our professional beliefs. Psychology has divided into several branches: Cognitive, Comparative, Personality, Social, Behavioral, Clinical, Forensinc, etc.? What will be the branches among archival professionals? Or does it need to branch out at all?

    I really appreciate Josh’s courage to poke at a mindset that may be a bit more than authoritative in the archival world today. What I try to bring from 30 years of experience is not an answer but a process that respects resourcefulness over stasis, and that brings the right portfolio of tools to a given job. MPLP is one of them. But it is a bad tool if it is associated with an evangelical fervor that transforms it from a tool to a mission all its own.

    I no longer work for the American Archive, but I had a great deal to do with their inventory project and the results of this work will be available widely, soon; so in that respect, it belongs to us all.

    I am also happy that we were able to work out a lot of they dynamics associated with the MPLP component of the job. But it added a management dimension that was unpleasant and hard to get through. In the end, we got it right. Archivists are by nature collaborative and collegial. As long as they believe in the primacy of the content, we usually get along just fine.

    • Josh says:

      Thanks, as always, for the insightful comment, Matt. Given the scope and challenges of the Inventory Project, I think your team did a great job running the gauntlet of developing a system for getting the work done. Funny that you speak of MPLP and evangelical ferver — I was just thinking about the difficulty of enacting a unified system in the face of no modern unified power source (i.e., Adams’ Virgin). Which, I think, relates to your point (and a point that Farris makes in his referenced blog post) that these are just tools in our portfolio, and we need to know when to use the right tool and when to stop using it, or when to combine it with another tool.

      This is a more difficult skill set to train people on because it requires an extra step of analysis and application, and it requires a degree of experiential learning in methods and collections. Also, as Farris points out, G&M set up those decisions points as arguments against the baseline (MPLP). As administrators and funding agencies look to the baseline of such standards as sufficient, arguments for increased time or funding become more and more difficult (and the argument against kicking the can down the road is incredibly difficult to get across). Outside of the need for some degree of item level knowledge, I’m starting to see that issue as an equal problem — having decision-making metrics that are ill-fitting to the media (or use case) parameters are making it that much more of a difficult slog to get the resources to even do the work.


  1. […] Joshua Ranger of AV Preserve also has the same concerns with audiovisual materials. Ranger states in his blog post, “Is the Product of Less Process Sufficient for Audiovisual Collections?:” […]

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