Week 3: Opportunity Cost and Productivity: Two Concepts Every Archive Should Consider

“Archivists are not savers of records for their own sake; rather they save so that archival records can be made available and used.”[1] However, according to “More Product, Less Process” by Mark Green and Dennis Meissner, a 2003-2004 study revealed that at least 60% of repositories had at least a third of their collection unprocessed.[2] Roughly 33% of data in these reported archives is therefore, unavailable to the public. Since the publishing date of this article is 2005, one can only imagine the issue has grown exponentially. If methodology for processing archives has yet to widely break from tradition, it must do so soon.

Green and Meissner offer the following logical guidelines: process faster, arrange materials in an “adequate” way to meet user needs with “sufficient” description, and take minimal steps to preserve collection materials. In the eyes of the authors of this article, archives suffer from a lack of productivity. More specifically, a drive towards quality at the price of productivity. Just as standardization and time management increased productivity in the economic sector, it will and must in the archival world.

I agree that archives need to adopt practices and more importantly, the mentality, of productivity. Metrics are important. As a graduate student, I am and continue to learn the importance of my time as I find less of it available. I have learned to roughly gauge my time and the amount of work I can do in a set time frame. Even before grad school, I had to learn the necessity of productivity. My inbox overflowed with time-sensitive e-mails during student teaching; parents demanded instantaneous responses, as did students, advisors, and professors. It seemed unreal and I realized I could no longer craft every email meticulously. I read somewhere to set a timer, to set a maximum time for an email response, then move on. You pull out the important information in an email and respond professionally and to the point. While I attest I never perfected this method and currently revert to my pre-professional days, the lesson was clear. Time is important and quality is decided by the volume of work. An archivist should put volume over quality if the basic purpose of an archive is met: people being able to find items and use them.  What may be most damning comes forth in Jennifer Schaffner’s “The Metadata is the Interface.” “We understand archival standards for description and cataloguing, but our users by and large don’t.”[3] Not only may the current traditions be too time consuming, but they seem to also work against the ease at which archival material can be accessed. We know we must change how we process archival holdings, but the open-ended question is: how do we standardize practices that increase productivity in a cost-effective and adequate manner across all archives?


[1] James O’Toole and Richard Cox, Understanding Archives & Manuscripts (Archival Fundamentals Series), Chicago:  Society of American Archivists, 2006, 124.

[2] Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner. “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing.” American Archivist 68, no. 2 (2005). http://www.archivists.org/prof-education/pre-readings/IMPLP/AA68.2.MeissnerGreene.pdf, 3.

[3] Jennifer Schaffner. “The Metadata Is the Interface: Better Description for Better Discovery of Archives and Special Collections, Synthesized from User Studies.” OCLC Programs and Research, 2009. http://library.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p267701coll27/id/444, 4.

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