Book Review: Extensible Processing. Case Studies and Conclusion

And we’ve come to the end. For me, the most fun part of this book is the case studies at the end. Here, everything that Dan had been talking about in previous chapters comes together and we see the concrete ways that extensible processing principles help solve big problems (huge problems, really — repositories in disarray huge, processing 2,500 feet in two years huge, giving access to huge volumes of records without violating HIPAA huge).

Instead of going through each case study, I thought I would pull out some winning strategies that helped archivists move mountains. But first the roll-call of devoted archivists taking smart approaches to their projects (I’ve tried to link to relevant materials online — really, though, read the case studies in Dan’s book).

So, what worked really well? What made it possible for these archivists to do so amazing remediation and program-building work?

  • Focus, deadlines, and scoping a project properly are the winning combination to finish a project. Giving a project a finite timeline forces participants to articulate our central values. Don’t let yourself become consumed by unimportant details.
  • Change your repository today to avoid the backlog of tomorrow — start with accessioning. A lot of what’s done as processing in these projects are activities that I would describe as retrospective accessioning (getting intellectual and physical control, understanding groupings of materials by creator/function, hunting for any agreements with donors that may impact access, use, or permission to dispose of materials), but with important information lost to time. Dan’s chapter on accessioning and Audra Eagle Yun’s case study on building an accessioning program make such a strong case that you’ll never know more about these materials than the moment they come through the door, so that’s the time to determine and meet a baseline level of control.
  • Re-use existing description — wherever you may find it — whenever possible. Creators know much more about their records than the rest of us ever will — Adriane’s case study made a great case for finding, recording, and re-using high-level description to help stay at a high-level understanding of the records. This means that you need to get comfortable with description as data, so that you can make it good and put it where it belongs. Maybe some posts on this blog can help you think though that!
  • If you’re in a position of responsibility over people, processes or systems, be smart about how you spend your time. Create a ranked list of the biggest things that you could do to improve access to the records you collect. Maybe that’s working with IT to make sure that the time-consuming, nagging process that your staff has to work around gets fixed. Maybe that means filling some training gaps. Maybe this means that you stop processing on a single collection and organize a survey of your entire holdings. Maybe it’s making sure you have a better database for tracking locations. If you ever find yourself saying, “I’m just too busy to think it through,” you’re already in the danger zone — you’re implicitly admitting that the way work is being done now is probably not the best way. Put two hours on your calendar to do some deep thinking, read these case studies, consult with your colleagues, and make sure that work is being done the way that works best for everyone.
  • Principles are sacred, procedures are not. You’re here to provide authentic, reliable evidence of the past through the records people leave behind which others can access during the course of research. Make sure that every procedure in your repository exists in service to that goal. Maybe this means that instead of doing item-level review for restrictions, you figure out that it makes more sense from an access and resources perspective to do review on demand. Maybe this means that you allocate staff that used to do arrangement to doing digitization.

Like we’ve said all week, this is a great book — practical, principled, helpful, approachable, and rooted in the language and values of archivists. Anyone seeking a way to improve her own practice will find valuable advice.

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