Minimal Processing, Maximal Learning

Since my last blog post, I’ve moved on from the Joe Carithers Papers (now open to researchers!) and onward to the John W. Murphey Records. That’s a tentative name for approximately 40 boxes of drafts, ledgers, correspondence, records, and flooring samples donated to Special Collections by the Arizona Architectural Archives. The materials show the day-to-day operations of the John W. Murphey and Leo B. Keith Building Company here in Tucson, Arizona.

Besides offering insight into mid-20th century house construction, the Murphey Records are the subject of my first attempt at something archivists call MPLP: More Product, Less Process.

 

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A snapshot of the Murphey Records in-progress, as I ‘rough sort’ through the types of materials.

 

MPLP was proposed by Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner back in 2005 as a means of working through archival backlogs. Greene and Meissner suggested that archivists spend too much time organizing archival objects down to the last semiotic bit and describing the life out of every archival collection. As a result, archives are forced to make materials available at a glacial pace. The authors asserted that, far from being a credit to the profession, this obsession with perfection was detrimental to researchers, the public, and the viability of the archives in a world of budget crunches. Instead, we should ask how much processing a collection really needs in order to be useful to researchers and responsibly available to the public.

 

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A hefty ledger from the Catalina Foothills Estates, one of Murphey and Keith’s projects, dated 1935.

 

The Murphey Records are a great candidate for MPLP treatment. For instance, the records contain approximately 20 boxes of job files, all in their original folders and organized by job number. Traditionally, an archive would re-folder these materials and provide new labels, or maybe re-order them based on client names or project dates. Per MPLP, however, I’m leaving these folders as they are. Prior to digital finding aids, this might have made the records less accessible but researchers nowadays can easily CTRL+F their way through the finding aid and find the folder they need, even if they don’t know the job number.

 

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Replacing folders only as needed. Old folders (red) are seen alongside new ones (green).

 

As a wholly unscientific observation, I think a lot of archivists are detail-obsessed. We like to produce resources which are hyper-specific, visually clean, and impeccably researcher. We are also likely to be detail-paralyzed – perpetually quagmired in anxiety about making the wrong decision. MPLP asks us to balance our commitment to quality with the reality that no archival resource will ever be perfectly processed, and maybe we don’t want it to be. This can be difficult to accept, but I think it’s also a way of showing respect for the intelligence of researchers – who often come to the archives for the same reason we choose to work in them, to experience a collective of materials with complicated and contradictory interrelationships – not all of which can be described or explained by the archivist. Through my first MPLP experience, I’m learning to monitor the moments when I want to constrain or define the meaning of materials through excessive organization, and finding MPLP a useful call to share rather than master these records.

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