43rd Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, May 16, "The Effects of MPLP on Archives: 10 Years Later" Panel Discussion Moderated by Andrea Knowlton

Andrea Knowlton, Assistant Conservator for Special Collections at UNC Chapel Hill and moderator for this panel discussion, began the session with a brief introduction about the origins of MPLP, short for “More Product, Less Process”, and its impact on archives collections over the past decade.  The concept of MPLP originated with a 2005 article in the American Archivist, entitled “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing.”  Authors Greene and Meissner sought to address the massive processing backlogs which were, and are, a common concern and source of inefficiency in archives collections.
In order to receive maximum benefits from this blog post, I strongly encourage you to review the article, which may be found at: http://www.archivists.org/prof-education/pre-readings/IMPLP/AA68.2.MeissnerGreene.pdf
As Andrea explained, this article encouraged a reduction of arrangement and description activities, as well as a reduction in the initial time and resources invested in preservation activities, such as refoldering, rehousing, and removing staples, in order to facilitate access to collections.  She described that this approach to processing was controversial in the archives field, but is now widely accepted and practiced.  As Andrea pointed out, though MPLP is a major topic in archives, its impact has not been widely discussed in conservation.  I personally can vouch for this; since volunteering to write this blog post, I have explained the concept of MPLP to several conservator friends, so if this is new to you, you are in good company!  As someone who is currently working with an archives collection, I was truly looking forward to this panel discussion.
Laura McCann, Conservation Librarian at NYU Libraries, “Partnering for Preservation and Access.”
After Andrea’s introduction, each of the panelists gave short presentations about the impact of MPLP on conservation in their institutions.  Laura McCann, Conservation Librarian at NYU Libraries, was the first speaker, and said that their experience with MPLP has been “a happy story.”  NYU Libraries have archival materials held in 3 separate repositories, and these archives had 3 separate management policies until recently.  Their policies have become consolidated and streamlined largely thanks to MPLP.  Laura described that MPLP allowed them to rethink their core values, to refocus on ways to be more user-centered, and to better understand their resources in order to plan and manage more responsibly and sustainably.  She pointed to three main areas in which MPLP has impacted their institution:
-Organizational changes: a new Archival Collections Management Department was formed, headed by Chela Weber, which included a new position for a Preservation Archivist, Fletcher Durant, who functions as a preventive conservator and liaison between conservation and archives.
-Workflow changes: there was a shift in the type of materials treated, with higher emphasis on materials that were being actively used for teaching, exhibitions, and loans.  This in turn has led to a better understanding of how conservation work increases access.
-Methods/Materials changes: efforts were made to house and store items in a more efficient manner.  Instead of creating custom housings, they decided to move toward modification of standard sized boxes because they found that this saves space.
Laura also mentioned that she had recently published an article on the impact of MPLP, and suggested this resource for those who were interested in learning more:
Laura McCann. “Preservation as Obstacle or Opportunity? Rethinking the Preservation-Access Model in the Age of MPLP.” Journal of Archival Organization 11, 1-2 (2013): 23-48.
Michael Smith, Collections Manager at Library and Archives Canada, “Acquisition, Preservation and Immediacy- A Different Approach to Balancing the Demands of Making Archival Material Quickly Accessible.”
The second panelist, Michael Smith, a Collections Manager at Library and Archives Canada, discussed two examples of the impact of MPLP in his talk.  The first example Michael described was a major project involving The Sir John Coape Sherbrooke Collection, which includes 37 notebooks, 79 maps, paintings, and other documents and artifacts.  They were faced with the challenge of making these items digitally available by a tight deadline, and this required a streamlined approach to processing, treatment, and digitization.  Treatment and description activities were carried out concurrently, with archivists working side by side with conservators during treatment.  The materials were tracked using temporary numbers during processing so that they could be processed efficiently, and once the materials were described, they were digitized, bar coded, and stored.  Michael emphasized that collaboration between archivists and conservators was an essential part of this project.
The second example Michael described was their First World War Records Digitization project.  The records in this collection included medical history documents, pay sheets, casualty forms, etc.  Processing this collection involved the removal of every imaginable type of fastener, and Michael included a great image of a large bin full of fasteners.  In total there were 3.5 kilometers of documents which needed to be digitized.  This differed greatly from their usual digitization workflow, in which, Michael described, items are usually digitized as requested by clients.  Prior to digitization, they carried out “material triage,” or minor repairs, and a Banctec, or high volume, scanner was used. While this scanner is not normally used for archives documents, they found it was needed for this project and could be slowed down and used safely.  This project also required both archivists and conservators to rethink and modify their previous workflow model for processing, treatment, and digitization, and consequently required archivists and conservators to work together as a team.
Michael concluded by summarizing lessons learned, including the importance of clear communication, adaptability, and teamwork.
Kim Norman, Preservation Manager/Conservator, Georgia Archives, “MPLP and Conservation at the Georgia Archives.”
Kim began her talk by questioning if MPLP is to archives what phase treatment is to conservation.  She went on to describe some conservators’ concern that phase treatment often results in simple, quick fixes, after which the objects are returned to storage and their greater needs are forgotten.  Kim emphasized that the size of unprocessed collections often makes full treatment of every individual item too overwhelming, and that treating in phases allows materials to be accessed sooner.
She then described examples from her institution of how their workflow has been adapted to better suit the goals of MPLP.  In the Georgia Archives, archivists are trained in some minor preservation and treatment techniques, such as making custom enclosures and sleeves.  She discussed how, while conservators might want to remove fasteners and complete minor repairs, archivists feel these steps are not usually high priorities, and the overarching goal is to ensure access quickly. She provided an example of a group of courthouse documents which were arranged and described but received only minor treatment, including humidification and flattening, so that they could be accessed in a timely manner.
Open Discussion
After the panelists’ presentations were completed, members of the audience were invited to ask questions and to comment on their experiences with the impact of MPLP.  The major discussion points are described below:
1) Laura was asked to speak more about the initiative for rehousing odd-shaped items.  She explained that this practice was started about 2 years ago, due to a combination of factors including a major renovation, new staff, and policy changes.  They are still dealing with rehousing items in the off-site storage, and are slowly calling back odd-sized boxes to replace them with standardized boxes, but items that are not housed at all are their first priority.
2) Laura was also asked to elaborate on the impact of the goals of being data driven and making collections quickly accessible.  She was asked if items that receive minimal attention and rehousing during preprocessing are coming back later to conservation.  Laura replied that all items have a small amount of preservation initially, after which they track use of the items and then enhance description and preservation as necessary.  She emphasized that if they notice an item is being used frequently, then it may be identified for further treatment later on.  Kim mentioned that in her institution items do not come back frequently and treatment is generally need-based.  She gave an example of a large group of fire-damaged courthouse documents that were treated because they needed to be immediately accessible.
3) A point about audio/visual materials in archives was raised, and it was mentioned that these materials pose a major processing challenge because they are being sent to high density storage with minimal processing with little expectation of reformatting or use, but are decaying quickly.
4) An audience member from a small National Park Service site commented that MPLP has created a feeling of going from maximum to minimum in terms of processing, and as a small institution they are faced with the challenge of finding a middle ground where they can address their inherent problems while also balancing their resources in a thoughtful and efficient manner.  Laura emphasized the value of collecting data and defining goals.  She suggested starting with fairly low, sustainable goals, and progressing from there.  Michael commented on the challenge of keeping up with a processing backlog while more material is constantly coming in.
5) As expected, the issue of fasteners reared its rusty head.  An audience member confessed that this issue keeps her up at night, and questioned if we should be disposing of these, because they are evidence of the history of archiving.  She suggested maintaining fasteners, or at least maintaining evidence of the original filing system.  Michael mentioned that they had considered melting down their giant box of fasteners and making something out of the metal.  Laura, on a more serious note, agreed that fasteners are great objects, and can tell a story, but often interfere with the larger goal of making materials accessible.
6) A private practice conservator who works with small institutions in the South brought up the great point that MPLP fundamentally assumes ideal climate control is already in place, especially in regard to leaving fasteners on documents. She asked for suggestions for how to advise local collections without adequate climate control as to how to implement MPLP.  Both Kim and Laura emphasized the importance of addressing the building envelope first while simultaneously considering how MPLP approaches should be adapted to best fit the needs of the individual institution.  Other audience members supported these suggestions.
7) The issue of mold was introduced, in terms of adding time or inefficiency to the processing workflow.  Michael discussed that mold remediation was included in their workflow from the beginning, and while it was definitely an extra step and caused slight delay, it fit in well with the rest of the workflow.  The option of using a vendor for mold remediation was discussed, although it was agreed that vendors were most cost effective when large amounts of materials were involved.  This segued into a discussion of Integrated Pest Management, and museumpests.net was suggested as a good resource for finding vendors.
8) The final topic of discussion was managing workflow schedules in terms of time, and managing the expectation that major processing/digitization projects need to be addressed as quickly as possible on top of other ongoing projects. The audience member who raised this point asked others to elaborate on who determines the work schedule, how they negotiate for more time, and how they deal with the pressure of these expectations.  Michael responded that, at his institution, they are generally not in the position to negotiate deadlines, but can generally negotiate in other areas, such as hiring extra staff or accepting high risk of damage, in order to better meet the deadline.  Kim commented that the needs of her institution are much more fluid and patron driven.  Laura also mentioned that the digitization initiatives at her institution are not as aggressive, but that having a preservation archivist working equally closely with archivists and conservators helps with scheduling major projects.  Other audience members reinforced Michael’s suggestion that, in cases where other parties have determined deadlines which are non-negotiable, other compromises should be suggested, such as stopping work on all other projects or hiring extra help.  It was also mentioned that this may be a good opportunity to point out how previous conservation work may have allowed digitization to be completed faster.
This blog post is a beast, but a necessary one.  As was emphasized by the panelists and audiences members, MPLP has had a major impact on conservation workflows in archives, and both the theme of this conference and the 10 year anniversary of MPLP made this a great time for this discussion.  I thought the point about assumed climate control was an especially good one, as was the final point regarding the pressures of digitization on top of the many other responsibilities conservators have outside of treatment work. This is directly related to Julie Biggs and Yasmeen Khan’s talk “Subject and Object: Exploring the Conservator’s Changing Relationship with Collection Material.”  While it was great to hear that the effects of MPLP have been overwhelmingly positive, I would have liked a more in-depth discussion of why MPLP was controversial in the archives field, as well as if we as conservators have noticed any of the negative effects that initially worried some archivists.