Book Review: Extensible Processing. Why Extensible Processing is Essential

This week, our core group of editors will review Extensible Processing for Archives and Special Collections: Reducing Processing Backlogs by Daniel A. Santamaria.


Many successful archival repositories have, for a very long time, operated in ways to make sure that their practices scale to their collections sizes, staffing resources, and user needs. But it seems that it’s only been in the last ten years, since the publication of Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner’s “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing” and the associated cascade of conference presentations, case studies, and affiliated articles, that processing procedures as a whole have moved toward something that we can talk about, think critically about, and ultimately re-examine the purpose of.

This book provides the first comprehensive framework that I’ve seen about how to run a repository based on extensible processing principles — principles that are firmly rooted in deeply-held archival values and the logical extension of Greene and Meissner’s argument that every procedure in a library needs to be held to the scrutiny of materials’ availability for use. And, since this blog is largely about repository-wide projects (and shifting our thinking toward taking care of everything in our care instead of thinking about processing project after processing project), it seems like an excellent fit for our interests and audience.

Chapter one starts with a sobering analysis of the backlog problem. In short, backlogs are growing, staffing is flat, collecting continues, the records we collect as evidence of our creators’ lives and work are more voluminous than ever, and few of us are doing anything differently to help address the fact that patrons can’t see our collections. He pulls what I found to be a shocking statistic — according to an OCLC research survey of special collections libraries in late 2010, internet-accessible finding aids only exist for 44% of collections [1], despite the fact that it seemed like one couldn’t throw a rock at a conference between 2005-2010 without hitting someone having a discussion about Greene and Meissner’s article.

So, there’s obviously a problem. Despite MPLP’s very good advice that we need to be willing to look at our work differently if we want to overcome the problem of scale, it’s simply not happening in too many repositories. And here, I think, is where this book makes an important intervention in the archival literature.  Santamaria provides reasoned, step-by-step advice toward building a program where patrons are better served, donors’ expectations are met, and staff aren’t constantly trying to climb out from a hole of tasks yet to be performed with no relief in sight.

Given the choice, it’s a lot more professionally satisfying to work in a place that doesn’t accept the inevitability of backlogs. I worked for Dan at Princeton from the beginning of 2011 through 2013. If you’re wondering what it’s like to work at a place with a true philosophy of access first, and where one examines, each time, what processing means for that collection (and in the context of the other work that needs to be done) and why you’re doing it that way — well, it’s a lot of fun. I had come in at a particularly exciting time — because of the smart decisions that Dan and other archivists at Mudd had made in years previous, the backlog was dead. We were able to work on projects (like the Princeton Finding Aids site), that relied on creative engagement with our description, our materials, and our users. I believe that this kind of project was only possible because Dan had already built a culture of intellectual engagement with our work, where each member of the team understood our mission and the purposes of archival description.

For anyone overwhelmed by her repository, things can be different. But relief can only come if you’re willing to take a hard look at why you do what you do. More than that, you might have to spend more time managing and planning (and less time treading water, hoping that change will come externally). Chapter two provides six principles for an extensible processing program.

  1. Create a baseline level of access to all collections material
  2. Create standardized, structured description
  3. Manage archival materials in the aggregate
  4. “Do no harm”: limit physical handling and processing
  5. Iterate: conduct further processing in a systematic but flexible way
  6. Manage processing holistically

I believe that what separates professional archivists from interested enthusiasts is a commitment to managing our time in ways that our best for researchers and collections. This book makes a compelling case for a deliberate approach, which requires that archivists make prudent decisions and hard choices every day.

Throughout this book… emphasis is placed on decision-making, prioritization, and adherence to archival principles and standards — concepts that apply to archivists at many levels and in every kind of organization. [2]

I’m convinced that we all have the capability to approach our work this way — but that 44% number doesn’t lie. We need to treat the problem of backlogs like the crisis it is. I look forward to Meghan’s review tomorrow, which will cover chapters 3-5 and discuss concrete steps any archivist can take to effectively manage processing and kill the backlog.


[1]  Santamaria 2, quoting Dooley, Jackie and Katherine Luce. “Taking Our Pulse: The OCLC Research Survey of Special Collections and Archives.” OCLC Research, 2010. It’s interesting that according to the survey, 74% of collections would have online finding aids if analog copies were converted and made available online.

[2] Santamaria, Daniel A. Extensible Processing for Archives and Special Collections: Reducing Processing Backlogs. Chicago: ALA Neal-Schuman, 2015, X

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Extensible Processing. Why Extensible Processing is Essential

  1. An excellent post, Maureen, and kudos to Dan for doing such excellent work. As for that 44%, I’d like to think the percentage of finding aids that are online has risen significantly in the five years since we took the data, but I’m not particularly optimistic about it. That 30% that exist but aren’t Web-accessible is a tough nut to crack: few institutions are willing to put their imperfect old data online. I understand the reasons, but I also think that gauging researcher interest is hugely important in helping to set those priorities for extensible processing.

    Congratulations and thanks, as always, to you and your cohort for reporting to us all on Dan’s book!

    • I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the “imperfect old data” problem and I also wonder how much that (and the scarier backlog problem) has changed. It’s so hard to approach those deficits when you feel like you have to go from nothing to everything. Dan’s book makes such a great case for doing something — something! — and then going from there, and I hope that anyone feeling overwhelmed by a backlog will read his book and use his very helpful advice.

      I wonder, too, if folks sometimes feel isolated by their workload. Perhaps it might be helpful to do something like “Jump In”, but instead of electronic records surveys, participants would commit to taking the next nine months to make sure that there’s a DACS-compliant collection-level record for every collection in the repository.

      • I love that idea. If you float it to the Description Section, I’ll happily be your ally!

      • Thanks for your support! I seem to have more ideas than I have implementation capacity, but I definitely want to do this. Maybe after ArchivesSpace implementation, next summer.

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