Description as Surveying
In my previous library-related employment, I have been a reference contact in a corporate library, a metadata librarian for a large academic library, and a project archivist for a large state historical society. It was thinking about this last one, and a previous non-library job, that inspired this post.
Large backlogs are a problem for many archives and special collections. Crippled by time-consuming processing traditions and increasing collection sizes, many collections have high percentages of their materials uncontrolled and unavailable.
The seminal 2005 paper by Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner, "More Product, Less Process," laid it out plainly: "We have to get over practices that treat massive 20th-century collections as if each piece of paper is a priceless artifact, and that providing clean and tidy collections to our researchers is more important than providing more collections." For many, especially those who have argued for deep, intensive processing of high-value or high-use collections, this language may shock. What Greene and Meissner are pushing for is a minimal level of description for all all collections before any deeper description of specific collections is performed.
Several institutions have explored implementation of the Greene and Meissner recommendations. In a presentation entitled "How Do We Keep From Getting Further Behind," Elizabeth Nielsen of Oregon State University communicated some results from their activities. Their efforts sought to create collection-level description for all new collections accessioned in 2006. This meant an Encoded Archival Description (EAD) that omitted inventory and container list information, but still had robust workflows for controlling access points. The Oregon State work plan also took into account relative priority, an important point to consider. Most institutions that would seek to pursue uniform collection-level description would still need to operate in a world where some collections are more prominent or time-sensitive.
To pursue an metaphor: In doing a shallow yet broad survey, archives gain an understanding of the borders and landscape of their collection, while giving up some of the most intricate mapping and mining. By doing so, this allows archives to better serve their users in the simplest of their questions - "Do you have what I need?" - while allowing them to do the dirty work of digging and excavating. Or perhaps the operative metaphor, when one sees folders and folders of loose leaves, is that of the forest and the trees. Bring in the forester before the arborist.