Book Review: Extensible Processing. But What About…

Chapter 9 addresses questions and concerns raised about extensible processing. Dan provides responses based on archival theory, practices, projects, and goals to a wide range of topics, details how extensible processing can actually help solve the issues raised, and calls for more critical analysis (and actual change) of other archival functions. There are gem quotes/talking points in every section (I resisted listing them all!) that show why objections aren’t reasons to not pursue extensible processing. He reiterates the strengths of extensible processing and its flexible nature to accommodate many situations. Dan offers data points to gather to make decisions about additional description work for selected materials, which may also help to address some of the issues raised.

As someone who has worked at two institutions building extensible processing programs, I have heard every single one of the arguments presented in this chapter against changing how we provide access to materials (sometimes all of them in the same meeting!) To me, lots of the arguments against extensible processing techniques really come down to two fundamental experiences or beliefs:

We care about creating access to select collections, want to do it in the same ways as before, and think we can’t really do anything about the backlog without a major influx of resources (which we won’t ever have.) OR We care about creating access to the most amount of collections possible, realize our methods have created a backlog, and are willing to try different approaches to eliminate the backlog.

Why do so many people still fall into the first category? We have it in our power to change our practices to create basic access to all our holdings. Why wouldn’t you get behind that idea?

Because you want control? Because you want your boxes to look pretty? Because you want your folders in a very specific order? Because you’re nervous about changing your daily tasks? Because you’re worried that a step/detail for one collection/series/folder/item won’t get done as it has before? Because you’re scared to make harder decisions and think more broadly?

Dan continually shows in this chapter (and the whole book) that extensible processing offers a way out. Even if you don’t happen to like the details, it gets you much closer to your goal of providing access to all your collections. A good extensible processing program will push for systemic decisions and changes in other areas. It also means being able to talk about our work differently. Consider that a common thread among the objections (regardless of the topic/specifics) is intimately tied to the archivists’ identify and professional status. Dan’s last two paragraphs are so well said:

Rather than damaging the profession, extensible processing practices have the potential to enhance the profession’s standing with researchers, donors, and resource allocators. Gains in intellectual control of collection materials, the rates at which newly donated material is made available, and the removal of barriers to access can all be used to demonstrate the value of extensible processing and of archivists themselves. Archivists should strive to stress these aspects of their work, rather than the traditional housekeeping of physical processing, boxing, and labeling.

If archivists are not refoldering, wedding, arranging, or describing the same way every time, what is left to do? Making difficult decisions and looking at the big picture, including when to stop and move on to the next collection. Looking at complex collections and recognizing the patterns and relationships between and within them. Making the high-level arrangement and appraisal decisions. Responding to users by basing processing priorities and decisions about levels of processing on information about what collections are used the most. Solving problems and being creative in finding ways to provide access to collections. All of these are incredibly valuable, and highly valued, skills for archivists who will lead the way in delivering archival material to users. [1]

I think this chapter is a must read for everyone at institutions with backlogs. It will provide those advocating for extensible processing with additional talking points and evidence. For those who may be resisting extensible processing techniques, chances are that the chapter has covered your concern and could lead to productive conversations and shared understandings with your colleagues.


[1] Santamaria, Daniel A. Extensible Processing for Archives and Special Collections: Reducing Processing Backlogs. Chicago: ALA Neal-Schuman, 2015, 139-140.

 

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