Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Greene-Meissner at RBMS Preconference

Having shot my mouth off, in person and online, about my opinion of the Greene-Meissner mantra of "less process, more product," I felt I had to attend the Wednesday afternoon session "Curators and Catalogers Revisit Decisions about Description: the Greene/Meissner Proposal," at last week's preconference.

Dennis Meissner spoke first, presenting the findings of his research with Mark Greene on streamlining archival processing. The recap was then followed by two additional presentations, one by Helena Zinkham from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, and the other by Tom Hyry, head of the Manuscript Unit at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Zinkham impressed me with her practical approach to handling the overwhelming amount of rare and fragile materials in her care. She outlined the Division's approach to processing collections, which is done to one of three levels: baseline, standard, and premium. The processing level chosen for a given collection reflects the materials' "fitness for purpose"--determined through a cost-benefit analysis of use, value, and viability (meaning condition, but also legal status and amount of resources required/available for processing). The rankings are simple: 1 is low, 2 is medium, and 3 is high. Collections with scores of 8 or 9 get premium processing; collections with 3s and 4s get baseline processing. Her parting advice included three recommendations:
  1. Accession with care. It may be the only time you touch that collection.
  2. Prioritize using criteria, not subjective judgments.
  3. Insist on good storage conditions. The best thing you can do for any materials is to keep them cool and dry; even with minimal processing, they'll last a long time.
In the final talk, Hyry struck a note familiar to my ears: the shift of responsibility from processing staff to public services staff when collections are minimally processed. He urged repositories to make accession data available to researchers, and to process collections with one question in mind: "Can this collection be serviced in the reading room?" His emphasis on access leads him to conclude that description is a critical component of even baseline processing; without adequate description of a collection's scope and content, researchers face a nearly insurmountable hurdle in obtaining the desired materials. He did spend a few minutes musing on the potential uses of Library 2.0 features such as tagging and commenting to allow the community of researchers to add value to minimally processed collections (Yale hasn't experimented with this yet; I'll be interested to see how that develops.) Finally, he reminded his listeners that archival processing is an iterative process; do what you can now, and you may find that you are able to return later to expand on prior efforts.

No comments: