Friday, May 01, 2009

Give 'em what they want. Which is...?

Apologies to you, gentle reader, if you are coming to this blog for thoughts on the history of the health sciences today. I'm feeling, as Laurence Sterne would say, a bit hobby-horsical about professional matters (and yes, there are more professions than just the one called medicine, although I suspect some physicians I know would argue that point with me. Bring it on! But after this.)

We have an intern in Historical Collections & Archives this week, and interns always provide stimulus for one to think more deeply about what one is doing, and why. Many regular readers will remember past posts (some here) deriding the universal utility of what archivists Greene and Meissner called MPLP ("more product, less process"), a worldview that espouses less physical processing and detailed inventorying of collections in an effort to make more materials available to the users.

We've discussed the burden shift that comes with minimal processing (from processing staff to reference staff and/or patron) and the physical damage that can result to collections that remain unprocessed. When chatting about it with our intern though, another thought struck me: the irony that libraries and archives are both altering their processes to "give users what they want," but while libraries are looking to add more information about already well-known items (tables of contents, book reviews, tags), some archives are advocating for recording less information about collections than ever before. It's almost as if libraries and archives are coming closer together in their institutional outlooks--and two worlds this much at odds (think toned-down querelle des femmes) might actually cross paths on their roads to (supposedly) mutual destinations.

Users want more, not less. I think we all agree on that. What "more" means and how to provide it, ah, well, there's the rub. The view from here seems to show a varied landscape, where some institutions and some collections of what we might call monoculture (flatlands of one type of record, or one subject focus) could implement an MPLP-style workflow, but other, more diverse institutions and collections (hills and valleys and pockets of materials, subjects, formats) would need a more locally-appropriate approach. HIPAA, for example, sets up nothing but gullies and sand dunes that need to be navigated in advance of any researcher request.

One possible modification of the MPLP approach for a polyculture repository might be a filter setting. Think of it as being akin to a spam filter. Trusted depositors could pass right through the MPLP filter, getting minimal processing, because staff would know that the depositor's record structure, file naming, and subject focus could be trusted. Depositors with less experience in arrangement and description of their materials would need to be stopped at the filter and dealt with then and there, before entering the repository and possibly wreaking havoc within. It's possible that with the rise of civilian archiving and the strengthening of personal collector networks on the web, we can expect to see more and more depositors that we can trust enough to pass the spam test.

As in all things, time will tell. Until then, I'll get back off the hobby horse and move on. Next week: NPLP (no posts on the library profession)!

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