Is The Product Of Less Process Sufficient For Audiovisual Collections?

March 22, 2012

Greene and Meissner’s “More Product, Less Process” is both an inspiration to me and one of the banes of my existence. As I’m sure many archivists feel, it’s refreshing to hear an approach to collection processing that is pragmatic and takes into account the realities of the time and personnel required for the work versus what is actually available. In my work I’m often dealing with developing recommendations around workflows, budgets, and other preservation planning needs that need to be reasonable to the individual institution and do-able within the nearer term. Having G&M as a supporting reference point is highly valuable. (That said, by the same token I’m sure that many budget-makers are equally happy to hear that their staff should be doing more with less, as it were.)

Issues of interpretation aside, the glaring problem I have with G&M is that their original article makes no mention of processing film, video, audio, and other complex media objects outside of a few questions in their originating survey. To me, this is a major hole in the logic of their otherwise sound proposition. If they had said, “Our analysis only applies to paper and (generally) photographic collections,” that would be one thing. But for it to be considered standard procedure for “late 20th century” collections is something by which I cannot abide.

To describe paper collections at the folder, box or other higher level and let researchers dig through them to discover items themselves is sensible for the most part. But does that strategy still work when the researcher comes across audiovisual materials that are inaccessible, unlabeled, in too poor of shape to play back, or otherwise facing issues that would prevent a researcher from determining anything about an object outside of apparent format or condition characteristics?

Film can be more fungible in this aspect because of its visual nature – assuming one has space and equipment to wind through or view without projection, and that the film is not too shrunken or solidified into a hockey puck, and that one doesn’t necessarily care about any associated audio track. But where does one start with an unmarked 3/4” U-matic that may not even be a video recording?

The examples could go on, but what I put forth here is that the concept of what the “product” is may not be the same across all situations; it may require adjustment in certain cases. What G&M focus on is the finding aid and moving collections towards access. When dealing with audiovisual materials, accessibility is more often dependent on reformatting or maintaining equipment for the various media types and formats at hand – something not necessarily done or available at collecting institutions.

In this regard, I would propose that the desired product from processing audiovisual materials is not a traditional finding aid, but an item level accounting of the assets – not necessarily at a full descriptive level, and potentially reliant on estimates, but something that at least touches on the technical data points (format, run time, recording standards, etc.) that , combined with a prioritization plan, would help an archive determine their needs for playback or reformatting that would support access.

If the product does not support the basic archival delivery need of access, then the minimalized process does not seem sufficient to even be worth the minimal effort.

— Joshua Ranger