Tuesday, January 30, 2007

When too much is still not quite enough

Bear with me, dear reader, since I know I've ridden this hobby horse before: you simply cannot provide too much information on an archival finding aid!

Today's example was provided by a researcher from the National League for Nursing who was looking for information about a speech given by former OHSU School of Nursing Dean Carol Lindeman. We received several boxes of Dean Lindeman's papers (Carol A. Lindeman Collection, 2004-029) a few years ago, and although we did not have the staff time to devote to processing the collection then, we minimally processed the materials and created an inventory.

The need to create an inventory for an unprocessed collection presents a philosophical question: how much information is enough? What is the best information to pull out of the documents? You may not think this much of a conundrum, but plenty of ink has been spilled in the archival world about "folder-level" or even "box-level" versus "item-level" description. A now-famous paper, written by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner, asserts that minimal description is required to reduce backlogs and get collections into use.

Now, this sounds like a reasonable approach--laudable even--until you start seeing the "uses" that these minimally processed collections are asked to serve. Since we're a small shop here, with a fairly small backlog and a firm dedication to our researchers, a fairly detailed inventory was created for the Lindeman Collection. That inventory was then put on our web site, which is where it was discovered by our researcher at NLN.

Did our somewhat detailed (but nevertheless incomplete) inventory answer her question? No. Did it help me locate something within the collection which, once read, would answer her question? Sadly, again no. The answer may very well be in there--in fact, I'd be willing to bet on it--but without the additional time it would take to either a) read through the whole collection, or b) create a complete item-level finding aid (which activities would really be one in the same), the answer remains elusive.

I suppose that supporters of Greene and Meissner would point to the fact that the researcher determined the location of Lindeman's papers, and then contacted us to look for the information, as support for their theory that just a little description goes a long way. With that I would agree. But sometimes the road to the answer is even longer, and I think everyone would be happier if we could finally get to the end!

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